Metropolis, Chapter 17: Rising Flood

by Thea von Harbou

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Maria felt something licking at her feet, like the tongue of a great, gentle dog. She bent down to fumble for the animal’s head, and felt that it was water into which she was groping.

From where did the water come? It came silently. It did not splash. Neither did it throw up waves. It just rose — unhurriedly, yet persistently. It was not colder than the air round about. It lapped about Maria’s ankles.

She snatched her feet back. She sat, crouched down, trembling, listening for the water which could not be heard. From where did it come?

It was said that a river wound its way deep under the city. Joh Fredersen had walled up its course when he built the subterranean city, the wonder of the world, for the workmen of Metropolis. It was also said that the stream fed a mighty water-basin and that there were pumpworks there, which were powerful enough, inside of less than ten hours either completely to empty or to fill the water-basin — in which there was room for a medium-sized city. One thing was certain — that, in the subterranean workmen’s city, the throbbing of these pumps was constantly to be heard, as a soft, incessant pulse-beat, if one laid one’s head against a wall — and that, if this pulse-beat should ever become silent, no other interpretation would be conceivable than that the pumps had stopped, and that then the river was rising.

But they had never — never stopped.

And now? From where was the silent water coming? Was it still rising?

She bent forward. She did not have to stretch her hand down very low to touch the cool brow of the water.

Now she felt, too, that it was flowing. It was making its way with great certainty of aim in one direction. It was making its way towards the subterranean city. Old books tell of saintly women, whose smile at the moment of preparing themselves to gain the martyr’s crown, was of such sweetness that the torturers fell at their feet and hardened heathens praised the name of God.

But Maria’s smile was, perhaps, of a still sweeter kind. For, when setting about her race with the silent water, she thought, not of the crown of eternal bliss, but only of death and of the man she loved.

Yes, now the water seemed horribly cool, as her slender feet dipped down into it, and it murmured as she ran along through it. It soaked itself into the hem of her dress, clinging tight and making progress more and more difficult. But that was not the worst. The worst was that the water also began to have a voice.

The water quoth, “Do you know, beautiful Maria, that I am fleeter than the fleetest foot? I am stroking your sweet ankles. I shall soon clutch at your knees. No one has ever embraced your tender hips. But I shall do so, and before your steps number a thousand more. And I do not know, beautiful Maria, if you will reach your destination before you can refuse me your breast.

“Beautiful Maria, Doomsday has come! It is bringing the thousand-year-old dead to life. Know that I have flooded them out of their niches and that the dead are floating along behind you! Do not look round, Maria, do not look round! For two skeletons are quarrelling about the skull which floats between them — swirling around and grinning. And a third, to whom the skull really belongs, is rearing up within me and falling upon them both.

“Beautiful Maria, how sweet are your hips. Is the man whom you love never to find that out? Beautiful Maria, listen to what I say to you: only a little to one side of this way, a flight of stairs leads steeply upward, leading to freedom. Your knees are trembling… how sweet that is! Do you think to overcome your weakness by clasping your hands? You call upon God, but believe me, God does not hear you! Since I came upon the earth as the great flood, to destroy all in existence but Noah’s ark, God has been deaf to the scream of His creatures. Or did you think I had forgotten how the mothers screamed then? Have you more responsibility on your conscience than God on His? Turn back, beautiful Maria, turn back!

“Now you are making me angry, Maria — now I shall kill you! Why are you letting those hot, salty drops fall down into me? I am clasping you around your breast, but it no longer stirs me. I want your throat and your gasping mouth! I want your hair and your weeping eyes!

“Do you believe you have escaped me? No, beautiful Maria! No — now I shall fetch you with a thousand others — with all the thousand which you wanted to save…”

She dragged her dripping body up from the water. She crawled upwards over stone slabs; she found the door. She pushed it open and slammed it behind her, peering to see if the water were already lapping over the threshold.

Not yet… not yet. But how much longer?

She could not see a soul as far as her eye could reach. The streets, the squares, lay as if dead — bathed in the whiteness of the moonlight. But she was mistaken — or was the light growing weaker and yellower from second to second?

An impact, which threw her against the nearest wall, ran through the earth. The iron door through which she had come flew from its bolts and gaped open. Black and silent, the water slipped over the threshold.

Maria collected herself. She screamed with her whole lungs, “The water’s coming in!

She ran across the square. She called for the guard, which, being on constant duty, had to give the alarm signal in danger of any kind.

The guard was not there.

A wild upheaval of the earth dragged the girl’s feet from under her body and hurled her to the ground. She raised herself to her knees and stretched up her hands in order, herself, to set the siren howling. But the sound which broke from the metal throat was only a whimper, like the whimpering of a dog, and the light grew more and more pale and yellow.

Like a dark, crawling beast, in no hurry, the water wound its way across the smooth street.

But the water did not stand alone in the street. Suddenly, in the midst of a puzzling and very frightening solitude, a little half-naked child was standing there: her eyes, which were still being protected by some dream from the all-too real, were staring at the beast, at the dark, crawling beast, which was licking at its bare little feet.

With a scream, in which distress and deliverance were equally mingled, Maria flew to the child and picked it up in her arms.

“Is there nobody here but you, child?” she asked, with a sudden sob. “Where is your father?

“Gone…”

“Where is your mother?

“Gone…”

Maria could understand nothing. Since her flight from Rotwang’s house, she had been hurled from horror to horror, without grasping a single thing. She still took the grating of the earth, the jerking impacts, the roar of the awful, tearing thunder of the water which gushed up from the shattered depths, to be the effects of the unchained elements. Yet she could not believe that there existed mothers who would not throw themselves as a barrier before their children when the earth opened her womb to bring forth horror into the world.

Only — the water which crawled up nearer and nearer, the impacts which racked the earth, the light which became paler and paler, gave her no time to think. With the child in her arms, she ran from house to house, calling to the others, which had hidden themselves.

Then they came, stumbling and crying, coming in troops, ghastly spectres, like children of stone, passionlessly begotten and grudgingly born. They were like little corpses in mean little shrouds, aroused to wakefulness on Doomsday by the voice of the angel, rising from out rent-open graves. They clustered themselves around Maria, screaming because the water, the cool water, was licking at their feet.

Maria shouted — hardly able to shout any more. There was in her voice the sharp cry of the mother-bird which sees winged death above its brood. She waded about among the child-bodies, ten at her hands, at her dress, the others following closely, pushed along, torn along with the stream. Soon the street was a wave of children’s heads above which the pale, raised-up hands flitted like sea-gulls. And Maria’s cry was drowned by the wailing of the children and by the laughter of the pursuing water.

The light in the neon-lamps became reddish, flickering rhythmically and throwing ghostly shadows. The street sloped. There was the mustering-ground. But the huge elevators hung dead on their cables. Ropes, twisted from ropes — metal ropes, thick as a man’s thigh, hung in the air, torn asunder. Blackish oil was welling in a leisurely channel from an exploded pipe. And over everything lay a dry vapor as if from heated iron and glowing stones.

Deep in the darkness of distant alleys the gloom took on a brownish hue. A fire was smouldering there.

“Go up!” whispered Maria’s dry lips. But she was notable to say the words. Winding stairs led upwards. The staircase was narrow — nobody used the staircase which ran by the certain, infallible elevators. Maria crowded the children up the steps. But up there, there reigned a darkness of impenetrable gloom and density. None of the children ventured to ascend alone.

Maria scrambled up. She counted the steps. Like the rushing of a thousand wings came the sound of the children’s feet behind her in the narrow spiral. She did not know how long she had been climbing up. Innumerable hands were clutching her damp dress. She dragged her burdens upward, praying, moaning the while — praying only for strength for another hour.

Don’t cry, little brothers!” she stammered. “My little sisters, please don’t cry.”

Children were screaming, down in the depths — and the hundred windings of the stairway gave echo’s trumpet to each cry. “Mother! Mother!”

And once more: “The water’s coming!”

Stop and lie down, halfway up the stairs? No!

“Little sisters! Little brothers — do come along!

Higher — winding ever and always higher upward; then, at last, a wide landing. Grayish light from above. A walled-in room; not yet the upper world, but its forecourt. A short, straight flight of stairs upon which lay a shaft of light. The opening, a trapdoor which seemed to be pressed inwards. Between the door and the square of the wall, a cleft as narrow as a cat’s body.

Maria saw that. She did not know what it meant. She had the uncertain feeling of something not being as it ought to be. But she did not want to think about it. With an almost violent movement she tore her hands, her gown, free from the children’s tugging fingers, and dashed, hurled forward far more by her desperate will than by her benumbed feet, through the empty room and up the steep stairway.

She stretched out her hands and tried to raise the pressed-in door. It did not budge. Once more. No result. Head, arms, shoulders pushing, hips and knees pressing, as if to burst their sinews. No result. The door did not yield by a hair’s breadth. If a child had tried to push the cathedral from its place, it could not have acted more foolishly nor ineffectually.

For, upon the door, which alone led the way out of the depths, there towered, as high as houses, the corpses of the dead engines, which, when madness first broke out over Metropolis, had been the terrible playthings of the mob.

Train upon train, with carriages thundering along, all lights burning and on full power, had rushed along the rails, lashed by the bawling of the mob, had fallen upon each other, had become mixed and piled up together, had burnt down and were now lying, half-melted, still smouldering, a mass of ruins. And one single lamp, remaining undamaged, threw the shaft of its sharp, corrosive light over the chaos, from the steel breast of the hindmost engine.

But Maria knew nothing of all this. She did not need to know. Sufficient for her that the door, which was the only means of deliverance for her and the children she wanted to save, remained inexorable, immovable, and finally, with bleeding hands and shoulders, with battered head, and feet crippled with numbness, she was obliged to resign herself to the incomprehensible, to the murderous.

She raised her face to the ray of light which fell upon her. The words of a little, childish prayer, now no longer intelligible, ran through her head. She dropped her head and sat down on the stairs.

The children stood in silence, crowded closely together, under the curse of something which, though they could not understand it, was very close above them.

“Little brothers, little sisters,” said Maria’s voice, very affectionately, “can you all understand what I am saying?”

“Yes,” floated up from the children.

“The door is closed. We must wait a little. Someone is sure to come and open it for us. Will you be patient and not be frightened?”

“Yes,” came an answer, as a sigh.

“Sit down as well as you can.”

The children obeyed.

“I am going to tell you a story,” said Maria.

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