Metropolis, Chapter 6: Maohee

by Thea von Harbou

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The proprietor of Yoshiwara used to earn money in a variety of ways. One of them, and quite positively the most harmless, was to make bets that no man — be he never so widely travelled — was capable of guessing to what weird mixture of races he owed his face. So far he had won all such bets, and used to sweep in the money which they brought him with hands, the cruel beauty of which would not have shamed an ancestor of the Spanish Borgias, the nails of which, however, showed an inobliterable shimmer of blue; on the other hand, the politeness of his smile on such profitable occasions originated unmistakably in that graceful insular world, which, from the eastern border of Asia, smiles gently and watchfully across at mighty America.

There were prominent properties combined within him which made him appear to be a general representative of Great Britain and Ireland, for he was as red-haired, chaff-loving and with as good a head for drink as if his name had been McFosh, avaricious and superstitious as a Scotsman and — in certain circumstances, which made it requisite, of that highly bred obliviousness, which is a matter of will and a foundation stone of the British Empire. He spoke practicality all living languages as though his mother had taught him to pray in them and his father to curse. His greed appeared to hail from the Levant, his contentment from China. And, above all this, two quiet, observant eyes watched with German patience and perseverance.

As to the rest, he was called, for reasons unknown, September.

The visitants to Yoshiwara had met September in a variety of emotions — from the block-headed dozing away of the well-contented bushman to the dance-ecstatic of the Ukrainer.

But to come upon his features in an expression of absolute bewilderment was reserved for Slim, when, on the morning after his having lost sight of his young master, he set throbbing the massive gong which demanded entrance to Yoshiwara.

It was most unusual that the generally very obliging door of Yoshiwara was not opened before the fourth gong-signal; and that this was performed by September himself and with this expression of countenance deepened the impression of an only tolerably overcome catastrophe. Slim bowed. September looked at him. A mask of brass seemed to fall over his face. But a chance glance at the driver of the taxi, in which Slim had come, tore it off again.

“Would to God your tin-kettle had gone up in the air before you could have brought that lunatic here yesterday evening,” he said. “He drove away my guests before they even thought of paying. The girls are huddling down in the corners like lumps of wet floor-cloth — that is, those who are not in hysterics. Unless I call in the police, I might just as well close the house; for it doesn’t look as though that chap will have recovered his five senses by this evening.”

“Of whom are you speaking, September?” asked Slim.

September looked at him. At this moment, the tiniest hamlet in North Siberia would have flatly refused to have been proclaimed the birthplace of so idiotic-looking an individual.

“If it is the man for whom I have come here to look,” continued Slim, “then I shall rid you of him in a more agreeable and swifter manner than the police.”

“And for what man are you looking, sir?”

Slim hesitated. He cleared his throat slightly. “You know the white silk which is woven for comparatively few in Metropolis.”

In the long line of ancestors, the mainfold sediment of whom had been crystalized into September, a fur-trader from Tarnopolis must also have been represented, and he now smiled out from the corners of his great-grandson’s wily eyes.

“Come in, sir!” the proprietor of Yoshiwara invited Slim, with true Singalese gentleness.

Slim entered. September closed the door behind him.

In the moment when the matutinal roar of the great Metropolis no longer bellowed up from the streets, another roar from inside the building became perceptible — the roar of a human voice, hotter than the voice of a beast of prey, mad-drunk with triumph.

“Who is that?” asked Slim, involuntarily dropping his own voice.

He!” answered September, and how he could stow the smooth and pointed vengefulness of whole Corsica into the monosyllable remained his own secret.

Slim’s glance became uncertain, but he said nothing. He followed September over soft and glossy straw mats, along walls of oiled paper, narrowly framed in bamboo.

Behind one of these walls the weeping of a woman was to be heard — monotonous, hopeless, heartbreaking, like a long spell of rainy days which envelop the summit of Fuji Yama.

“That’s Yuki,” murmured September, with a fierce glance at the paper prison of this pitiful weeping. “She’s been crying since midnight, as if she wanted to be the source of a new salt sea. This evening she will have a swollen potato on her face instead of a nose. Who pays for it? I do!”

“Why is the little snowflake crying?” asked Slim, half-thoughtlessly, for the roaring of the human voice, coming from the depths of the house occupied all the ears and attention he possessed.

“Oh, she isn’t the only one,” answered September, with the tolerant mien of one who owns a prosperous harbor tavern in Shanghai. “But she is at least tame. Plum Blossom has been snapping about her like a young puma, and Miss Rainbow has thrown the Saki bowl at the mirror and is trying to cut her artery with the chips — and all on account of this white silk youngster.”

The agitated expression on Slim’s face deepened. He shook his head.

“How did he manage to get such a hold over them,” he said, and it was not meant to be a question. September shrugged his shoulders.

Maohee…” he said in a sing-song tone, as though beginning one of those Greenland fairy tales, which, the quicker they sent one to sleep are the more highly appreciated.

“What is that — Maohee?” asked Slim, irritably. September drew his head down between his shoulders. The Irish and the British blood-corpuscles in his veins seemed to be falling out, violently: but the impenetrable Japanese smile covered this up with its mantle before it could grow dangerous.

“You don’t know what Maohee is. Not a soul in the great Metropolis knows. No… nobody. But here in Yoshiwara they all know.”

I wish to know, too, September,” said Slim.

Generations of Roman lackeys bowed within September as he said, “Certainly, sir!” But they did not get the better of the wink of the heavy-drinking, lying grandfathers in Copenhagen. “Maohee, that is. Isn’t it odd, that, of all the ten thousand who have been guests here in Yoshiwara and who had experienced in detail what Maohee stands for, outside they know nothing more about it? Don’t walk so fast, sir. The yelling gentleman down there won’t run away from us — and if I am to explain to you what Maohee means…”

Drugs, I expect, September?”

“My dear sir, the lion is also a cat. Maohee is a drug: but what is a cat beside a lion? Maohee is from the other side of the Earth. It is the divine — the only thing — because it is the only thing which makes us feel the intoxication of the others.”

“The intoxication — of the others?” repeated Slim, stopping still.

September smiled the smile of Hotei the god of Happiness, who likes little children. He laid the hand of the Borgia, with the suspiciously blue shimmering nails on Slim’s arm.

“The intoxication of the others — Sir, do you know what that means? Not of one other — no, of the multitude which rolls itself into a lump, the rolled up intoxication of the multitude gives Maohee its friends.”

“Has Maohee many friends, September?”

The proprietor of Yoshiwara grinned, apocalyptically.

“Sir, in this house there is a round room. You shall see it. It has not its like. It is built like a winding seashell, like a mammoth shell, in the windings of which thunders the surf of seven oceans; in these windings people crouch, so densely crowded that their faces appear as one face. No one knows the other, yet they are all friends. They all fever. They are all pale with expectation. They have all clasped hands. The trembling of those who sit right down at the bottom of the shell runs right through the windings of the mammoth shell, right up to those, who, from the gleaming top of the spiral, send out their own trembling towards it.”

September gulped for breath. Sweat stood like a fine chain of beads on his brow. An international smile of insanity parted his prating mouth.

“Go on, September!” said Slim.

“On? On? Suddenly the rim of the shell begins to turn… gently… ah, how gently, to music — such as would bring a tenfold murderer-bandit to sobs and his judges to pardon him on the scaffold — to music on hearing which deadly enemies kiss, beggars believe themselves to be kings, the hungry forget their hunger — to such music the shell revolves around its stationary heart, until it seems to free itself from the ground and, hovering, to revolve about itself. The people scream — not loudly, no, no! — they scream like the birds that bathe in the sea. The twisted hands are clenched to fists. The bodies rock in one rhythm. Then comes the first stammer of Maohee… The stammer swells, becomes waves of spray, becomes a spring tide. The revolving shell roars: Maohee… Maohee! It is as though a little flame must rest on everyone’s hair parting, like St. Elmo’s fire… Maohee… Maohee! They call on their god. They call on him whom the finger of the god touches today. No one knows from where he will come today. He is there. They know he is amongst them. He must break out from the rows of them. He must. He must, for they call him: Maohee… Maohee! And suddenly–!”

The hand of the Borgia flew up and hung in the air like a brown claw.

“And suddenly a man is standing in the middle of the shell, in the gleaming circle, on the milk-white disc. But it is no man. It is the embodied conception of the intoxication of them all. He is not conscious of himself. A slight froth stands on his mouth. His eyes are stark and bursting and are yet like rushing meteors which leave waving tracks of fire behind them on the route from heaven to earth. He stands and lives his intoxication. He is what his intoxication is. From the thousands of eyes which have cast anchor into his soul, the power of intoxication streams into him. There is no delight in God’s creation which does not reveal itself, surmounted by the medium of these intoxicated souls. What he says becomes visible, what he hears becomes audible to all. What he feels — power, desire, madness — is felt by them all. On the shimmering area, around which the shell revolves, to music beyond all description, one in ecstasy lives the thousandfold ecstasy which embodies itself in him, for thousands of others.”

September stopped and smiled at Slim. “That, sir, is Maohee.”

“It must indeed be a powerful drug,” said Slim with a feeling of dryness in his throat, “which inspires the proprietor of Yoshiwara to such a hymn. Do you think that that yelling individual down there would join in this song of praise?”

“Ask him yourself, sir,” said September.

He opened the door and let Slim enter. Just over the threshold Slim stopped, because at first he saw nothing. A gloom, more melancholy that the deepest darkness, spread over a room, the dimensions of which he could not estimate. The floor under his feet inclined in a barely perceptible slope. Where it stopped there appeared to be gloomy emptiness. Right and left, spiral walls, billowing outwards, swept away to each side.

That was all Slim saw. But from the empty depths before him came a white shimmer, no stronger than if coming from a field of snow. On this shimmer there floated a voice, that of a murderer and of one being murdered.

Light, September!” said Slim with a gulp. An unbearable feeling of thirst gnawed at his throat.

The room slowly grew brighter, as though the light were coming unwillingly. Slim saw, he was standing in one of the windings of the round room, which was shaped like a shell. He was standing between the heights and the depths, separated by a low banister from the emptiness from which came the snow-like light and the murderer’s voice and the voice of his victim. He stepped to the banister, and leaned far over it. A milk-white disc, lighted from beneath and luminous. At the edge of the disc, like a dark, rambling pattern on a plate-rim, women, crouching, kneeling there, in their gorgeous attire, as though drunken. Some had dropped their foreheads to the ground, their hands clutched above their ebony hair. Some crouched, huddled together in clumps, head pressed to head, symbols of fear. Some were swaying rhythmically from side to side as if calling on gods. Some were weeping. Some were as if dead.

But they all seemed to be the handmaids of the man on the snow-light illuminated disk.

The man wore the white silk woven for comparatively few in Metropolis. He wore the soft shoes in which the beloved sons of mighty fathers seemed to caress the earth. But the silk hung in tatters about the body of the man, and the shoes looked as though the feet within them bled.

“Is that the man for whom you are looking, sir?” asked a Levantine cousin from out September, leaning confidently towards Slim’s ear.

Slim did not answer. He was looking at the man.

“At least,” continued September, “it is the youngster who came here yesterday by the same car as you today. And the devil take him for it! He has turned my revolving shell into the forecourt of Hell! He has been roasting souls! I have known Maohee-drugged beings to have fancied themselves Kings, Gods, Fire, and Storm — and to have forced others to feel themselves Kings, Gods, Fire, and Storm. I have known those in the ecstasy of desire to have forced women down to them from the highest part of the shell’s wall, that they, diving, like seagulls, with outspread hands, have swooped to his feet, without injuring a limb, while others have fallen to their death. That man there was no God, no Storm, no Fire, and his drunkenness most certainly inspired him with no desire. It seems to me that he had come up from Hell and is roaring in the intoxication of damnation. He did not know that the ecstasy for men who are damned is also damnation. The fool! The prayer he is praying will not redeem him. He believes himself to be a machine and is praying to himself. He has forced the others to pray to him. He has ground them down. He has pounded them to a powder. There are many dragging themselves around Metropolis today who cannot comprehend why their limbs are as if broken.”

Be quiet, September!” said Slim hoarsely. His hand flew to his throat, which felt like a glowing cork, like smouldering charcoal.

September fell silent, shrugging his shoulders. Words seethed up from the depths like lava.

“I am the Three-in-one — Lucifer — Belial — Satan! I am the everlasting Death! I am the everlasting Noway! Come unto me! In my hell there are many mansions! I shall assign them to you! I am the great king of all the damned! I am a machine! I am the tower above you all! I am a hammer, a flywheel, a fiery oven! I am a murderer, and of what I murder I make no use. I want victims, and victims do not appease me! Pray to me and know: I do not hear you! Shout at me: Pater-noster! Know: I am deaf!

Slim turned around; he saw September’s face as a chalky mask at his shoulder. Maybe that, among September’s ancestresses there was one who hailed from an isle in the South sea, where gods mean little — spirits everything.

“That’s no more a man,” he whispered with ashen lips. “A man would have died of it long ago. Do you see his arms, sir? Do you think a man can imitate the pushing of a machine for hours and hours at a time without its killing him? He is as dead as stone. If you were to call to him, he’d — collapse and break to pieces like a plaster statue.”

It did not seem as though September’s words had penetrated into Slim’s consciousness. His face wore an expression of loathing and suffering, and he spoke as one who speaks with pain.

“I hope, September, that tonight you have had your last opportunity of watching the effects of Maohee on your guests.”

September smiled his Japanese smile. He did not answer.

Slim stepped up to the banister at the edge of the curve of the shell in which he stood. He bent down towards the milky disc. He cried a high sharp tone which had the effect of a whistle:

“Eleven thousand eight hundred and eleven!”

The man on the shimmering disc swung around as though he had received a blow in the side. The hellish rhythm of his arms ceased, running itself out in vibration. The man fell to earth like a log and did not move again.

Slim ran down the passage, reached the end, and pushed asunder the circle of women, who, stiffened with shock, seemed to be thrown into deeper horror more by the end of that which they had brought to pass than by the beginning. He knelt down beside the man, looked him in the face, and pushed the tattered silk away from his heart. He did not give his hand time to test his pulse. He lifted the man up and carried him out in his arms. The sighing of the women soughed behind him like a dense, mist-colored curtain.

September stepped across his path. He swept aside as he caught Slim’s glance at him. He ran along by him, like an active dog, breathing rapidly; but he said nothing.

Slim reached the door of Yoshiwara. September himself opened it for him. Slim stepped into the street. The driver pulled open the door of the taxi; he looked in amazement at the man who hung in Slim’s arms, in tatters of white silk with which the wind was playing, and who was more awful to look on than a corpse.

The proprietor of Yoshiwara bowed repeatedly while Slim was climbing into the car. But Slim did not give him another glance. September’s face, which was as gray as steel, was reminiscent of the blades of those ancient swords, forged of Indian steel, in Shiras or Ispahan and on which, hidden by ornamentation, stand mocking and deadly words.

The car glided away: September looked after it. He smiled the peaceable smile of Eastern Asia.

For he knew perfectly well what Slim did not know, and what, apart from him, nobody in Metropolis knew, that with the first drop of water or wine which moistened the lips of a human being, there disappeared even the very faintest memory of all which appertained to the wonders of the drug, Maohee.

The car stopped before the next medical depot. Male nurses came and carried away the bundle of humanity, shivering in tatters of white silk, to the doctor on duty. Slim looked about him. He beckoned to a policeman who was stationed near the door.

“Take down a report,” he said. His tongue would hardly obey him, so parched was it with thirst.

The policeman entered the house after him.

“Wait!” said Slim, more with the movement of his head than in words. He saw a glass jug of water standing on the table and the coolness of the water had studded the jug with a thousand pearls.

Slim drank like an animal which finds drink on coming from the desert. He put down the jug and shivered. A short shudder passed through him.

He turned around and saw the man he had brought with him lying on a bed over which a young doctor was bending.

The lips of the sick man were moistened with wine. His eyes stood wide open, staring up at the ceiling, tears upon tears running gently and incessantly from the corners of his eyes, down over his temples. It was as though they had nothing to do with the man — as though they were trickling from a broken vessel and could not stop trickling until the vessel had run quite empty.

Slim looked the doctor in the face; the latter shrugged his shoulders. Slim bent over the prostrate man. “Georgi,” he said in a low voice, “can you hear me?” The sick man nodded; it was the shadow of a nod. “Do you know who I am?” A second nod.

“Are you in a condition to answer two or three questions?” Another nod.

“How did you get the white silk clothes?” For a long time he received no answer apart from the gentle falling of the tear drops. Then came the voice, softer than a whisper.

“He changed with me…”

Who did?”

“Freder… Joh Fredersen’s son…”

“And then, Georgi?”

“He told me I was to wait for him…”

“Wait where, Georgi?”

A long silence. And then, barely audible: “Ninetieth street. House seven. Seventh floor.”

Slim did not question him further. He knew who lived there. He looked at the doctor; the latter’s face wore a completely impenetrable expression.

Slim drew a breath as though he were sighing. He said, more deploringly than inquiringly, “Why did you not rather go there, Georgi?” He turned to go but stopped still as Georgi’s voice came wavering after him.

“The city… all the lights… more than enough money. It is written… forgive us our trespasses… lead us not into temptation…”

His voice died away. His head fell to one side. He breathed as though his soul wept, for his eyes could do so no longer. The doctor cleared his throat cautiously. Slim raised his head as though somebody had called him, then dropped it again.

“I shall come back again,” he said softly. “He is to remain under your care.”

Georgi was asleep.

Slim left the room, followed by the policeman.

“What do you want?” Slim asked with an absentminded look at him.

“The report, sir.”

What report?”

“I was to take down a report, sir.”

Slim looked at the policeman very attentively, almost meditatively. He raised his hand and rubbed it across his forehead.

“A mistake,” he said. “That was a mistake.”

The policeman saluted and retired, a little puzzled, for he knew Slim.

He remained standing on the same spot. Again and again he rubbed his forehead with the same helpless gesture.

Then he shook his head, stepped into the car and said, “Ninetieth block.”

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