Metropolis, Chapter 20: The Bonfire

by Thea von Harbou

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Freder! Grot! Freder!

Josaphat shouted so that his voice cracked, and raced with the bounds of a harried wolf, through passages, across steps of the great pumpworks. His shouts were not heard. In the machine rooms were wounded machines in agony, wanting to obey and not being able. The door was closed. Josaphat hammered against it with his fists, with his feet. It was Grot who opened it to him, revolver in hand.

“What in the name of seething hell…?”

“Get out of the way! Where’s Freder?

Here! What’s the matter?

“Freder, they’ve taken Maria captive–”

“What?”

“They’ve taken Maria captive, and they’re killing her!”

Freder reeled. Josaphat dragged him towards the door. Like a log, Grot stood in his way, his lips mumbling, his eyes glaring. “The woman who killed my machine!

Shut up, you fool — get out of the way!”

“Grot!” A sound born half of madness.

“Yes, Mr. Freder!”

“You stop with the machines!

“Yes, Mr. Freder!”

“Come on, Josaphat!”

The sound of running, running, retreating, ghostlike.

Grot turned round. He saw the paralyzed machines. He lifted his arm and struck the machine with the full of his fist, as one strikes a stubborn horse between the eyes.

“The woman,” he shouted with a howl, “who saved my little children!”

And he flung himself upon the machine with grinding teeth.

Tell me!” said Freder, almost softly. It was as if he did not want to waste an atom of strength. His face was a white stone in which his two eyes flamed like jewels. He jumped to the wheel of the little car in which Josaphat had come. For the pumpworks lay at the extreme end of the great Metropolis.

It was still night.

The car started.

“We must go terribly out of our way,” said Josaphat, fixing the flashlight. “Many bridges between the houseblocks are blown up.”

“Tell me,” said Freder. His teeth met, chattering, as if he were cold.

“I don’t know who found it out. Probably the women, who were thinking of their children and wanted to get home. You can’t get anything out of the raving multitude. But anyway, when they saw the black water running towards them from the shafts of the underground railway, and when they realized that the pumpworks, the safeguard of their city, had been destroyed by the stopping of the machines, then they went mad with despair. They say that some mothers, blind and deaf to all remonstrance, tried, as if possessed, to dive down through the flooded shafts, and just the terrible absoluteness of the futility of any attempt at rescue has turned them into beasts, and they lust for revenge.”

“Revenge… on whom?

“On the girl who seduced them.”

“On the girl…? Go on…”

“Freder, the engine can’t keep up that speed.”

“Go on…”

“I do not know how it happened that the girl ran into their hands. I was on my way to you when I saw a woman running across the cathedral square, with her hair flying, the roaring rabble behind her. There has been the very hell of a night, anyway. The Gothics are parading through the town scourging themselves, and they have put the monk Desertus on the cross. They are preaching Doomsday had come, and it seems that they have converted a good many already, for September is crouching before the smoking ruins of Yoshiwara. A troop of torch-dancers joined itself to the flagellants and, with frothing curses upon the Mother of Abominations, the great whore of Babylon, they burned Yoshiwara down to the ground.”

“The girl, Josaphat–”

“She did not reach the cathedral, Freder, where she wanted to take refuge. They overtook her on the steps because she fell on the steps — her gown hung down in ribbons from her body. A woman, whose white eyes were glowing with insanity shrieked out, as one inspired with the gift of prophecy:

“‘Look! Look! The saints have climbed down from their pedestals and will not let the witch into the cathedral.'”

“And–?”

“Before the cathedral they are erecting a bonfire on which to burn the witch.”

Freder said nothing. He bent down lower. The car groaned and leapt.

Josaphat buried his hand in Freder’s arm.

“Stop — for God’s sake!

The car stopped.

“We must go to the left — don’t you see? The bridge has gone!”

“The next bridge–”

“Is impassable!

“Listen…”

“What is there to hear?

“Don’t you hear anything?”

“No…”

“You must hear it!”

“But what, Freder?”

“Shrieks… distant shrieks…”

“I can’t hear anything…”

“But you must be able to hear it!”

“Won’t you drive on, Freder?”

“And don’t you see that the air over there is getting bright red?

“From the torches, Freder.”

“They don’t burn so brightly.”

“Freder, we’re losing time here!”

Freder did not answer. He was staring at the tatters of the iron bridge which were dangling down into the ravine of the street. He must cross over, yes, he must cross over, to get to the cathedral by a shortcut.

The frame-support of a ripped-open tower had fallen over from this side of the street to the other, gleaming metallically in the uncertain light of the fading night.

“Get out,” said Freder.

“Why?”

Get out, I tell you!”

“I want to know why!

“Because I’m going across there.”

“Across where?

“Across the frame-support.”

“Going to drive across?”

“Yes.”

“It’s suicide, Freder!”

“I didn’t ask you to accompany me. Get out!

“I won’t permit it — it’s blazing lunacy!

“The fire over there is blazing, man!” The words seemed not to come from Freder’s mouth. Every wound of the dying city seemed to be roaring out of him.

“Drive on!” said Josaphat through clenched teeth. The car gave a jump. It climbed. The narrow irons received the sucking, skidding wheels, with an evil, maliciously hypocritical sound.

Blood was trickling from Freder’s lips.

“Don’t — don’t put the brake on — for God’s sake, don’t put the brake on!” shouted the man beside him making a clutch of madness at Freder’s hand. The car, already half-slipping, shot forward again. A split in the framework — over, onwards. Behind them the dead framework crashed into space amid shrieks!

They reached the other side with an impetus which was no longer to be checked. The wheels rushed into blackness and nothing. The car overturned; Freder fell and got up again. The other remained lying.

“Josaphat!”

“Run! It’s nothing! I swear to God it’s nothing,” a distorted smile upon the white face. “Think of Maria — and run!

And Freder raced off.

Josaphat turned his head. He saw the blackness of the street flashing bright red. He heard the screams of the thousands. He thought dully, with a thrust of his fist in the air, Shouldn’t I like to be Grot, now, to be able to swear properly.

Then his head fell back into the filth of the street, and every consciousness faded but that of pain.

But Freder ran as he had never run. It was not his feet which carried him. It was his wild heart — it was his thoughts.

Streets and stairs and streets and at last the cathedral square. Black in the background, the cathedral, ungodded, unlighted, the place before the broad steps swarming with human beings — and amid them, surrounded by gasps of madly despairing laughter, the howling of songs of fury, the smouldering of torches and brands, high up on the pyre.

“Maria!”

Freder fell on his knees as though his sinews were sawn through.

“Maria!”

The girl whom he took to be Maria raised her head. She sought him. Her glance found him. She smiled — laughed.

Dance with me, my dearest!” flew her voice, sharp as a flashing knife, through uproar.

Freder got up. The mob recognized him. The mob lurched towards him, shrieking and yelling.

Jooooo-oh! Joh Fredersen’s son! Joh Fredersen’s son–”

They made to seize him. He dodged them wildly. He threw himself with his back against the parapet of the street.

“Why do you want to kill her, you devils? She has saved your children!

Roars of laughter answered him. Women sobbed with laughter, biting into their own hands.

“Yes — yes — she has saved our children! She saved our children with the song of the dead machines! She saved our children with the ice-cold water! High let her live — high and three-time high!”

“Go to the House of the Sons! Your children are there!

“Our children are not in the House of the Sons! There lives the brood, hatched out by money. Sons of your kind, you dog in white-silken skin!”

Listen, for God’s sake — do listen to me!”

“We don’t want to hear anything!”

“Maria — beloved! Beloved!”

Don’t bawl so, son of Joh Fredersen! Or we’ll stop your mouth!

Kill me, if you must kill — but let her live!

“Each in his turn, son of Joh Fredersen! First you shall see how your beloved dies a beautiful, hot, magnificent death!

A woman — Grot’s woman — tore a strip off her skirt and bound Freder’s hands. He was bound fast to the parapet with cords. He struggled like a wild beast, shouting so that the veins of this throat were in danger of bursting. Bound, impotent, he threw back his head and saw the sky over Metropolis, pure, tender, greenish-blue, for morning would soon follow after this night.

God!” he shouted, trying to throw himself on his knees, in his bonds. “God! Where art thou?”

A wild, red gleam caught his eyes. The pyre flamed up in long flames. The men, the women, seized hands and tore around the bonfire, faster, faster, and faster, in rings growing ever wider and wider, laughing, screaming with stamping feet, “Witch! Witch!”

Freder’s bonds broke. He fell over on his face among the feet of the dancers.

And the last he saw of the girl, while her gown and hair stood blazing around her as a mantle of fire, was the loving smile and the wonder of her eyes — and her mouth of deadly sin, which lured among the flames: “Dance with me, my dearest! Dance with me!”

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