by Thea von Harbou
Joh Fredersen stood in the dome-room of the New Tower of Babel, waiting for Slim. He was to bring him news of his son.
A ghostly darkness lay upon the New Tower of Babel. The light had gone completely out, gone out as though it had been killed — at the moment when the gigantic wheel of the Heart-machine of Metropolis came free from its structure with a roar as from the throats of a thousand wounded beasts, and, still whirling around, was hurled straight up at the ceiling, to strike it with a shattering crash, to bound back, booming the while like a gong as large as the heavens and to crash down upon the splintered ruins of the erstwhile masterpiece of steel, to remain lying there.
Joh Fredersen stood long on the same spot, not daring to move. It seemed to him that an eternity had passed since he sent Slim out for news of his son. And Slim wouldn’t and wouldn’t come back.
Joh Fredersen felt that his whole body was frozen to an icy coldness. His hands, hanging helplessly downwards, were clasped around the pocket-torch.
He waited… waited…
Joh Fredersen threw a glance at the clock. But the hands of the giantess stood at an impossible time. The New Tower of Babel had indeed lost itself. Whereas, every day, the throbbing of the streets which tunnelled their course below it, the roar of the traffic of fifty million, the magic madness of speed, had raged its way up to him, there now crouched a calm of penetrating terror.
Stumbling steps were hastening towards the door of the outer room.
Joh Fredersen turned the beam of his pocket-torch upon this door. It flew wide open. Slim stood upon the threshold. He staggered. He closed his eyes, dazzled. In the excessively glaring light of the powerful torch his face, right down to his neck, shone a greenish white.
Joh Fredersen wanted to ask a question. But not the least sound passed his lips. A terrible dryness burnt his throat. The lamp in his hand began to tremble and to dance. Up to the ceiling, down to the floor, along the walls, reeled the beam of light.
Slim ran up to Joh Fredersen. Slim’s wide, staring eyes bore an inextinguishable horror. “Y-your son,” he stammered, almost babbling, “your son, Mr. Fredersen–”
Joh Fredersen remained silent. He made no movement, but that he stooped a little — just a very little, forward.
“I have not found your son,” said Slim. He did not wait for Joh Fredersen to answer him. His tall body, with the impression it gave of asceticism and cruelty, the movements of which had, in Joh Fredersen’s service, gradually gained the disinterested accuracy of a machine, seemed quite out of joint, shaken out of control. His voice inquired shrilly, in the grip of a deep innermost frenzy: “Do you know, Mr. Fredersen, what is going on around you, in Metropolis?”
“What I will,” answered Joh Fredersen. The words sounded mechanical, and as though they had been read before they were spoken. “What does that mean, you have not found my son?”
“It means what it means,” answered Slim in his shrill voice. His eyes bore an awful hatred. He stood, leaning far forward, as if ready to pounce upon Joh Fredersen, and his hands became claws. “It means that Freder, your son, is not to be found — it means that he, perhaps, wanted to look on with his own eyes at what becomes of Metropolis by his father’s will and the hands of a few lunatics — it means, as the now half-witted servants told me, that your son left the safety of his home, setting out in company with a man who was wearing the uniform of a workman of Metropolis, and that it might well be difficult to seek your son in this city, in which, by your will, madness has broken out — the madness to destroy, Mr. Fredersen, the madness to ruin! — and which has not even light to lighten its madness!” Slim wanted to continue, but he did not do so.
Joh Fredersen’s right hand made a senseless, fumbling gesture through the air. The torch fell from his hand, continuing to burn on the floor. The mightiest man of Metropolis swung half around, as though he had been shot, and collapsed empty-eyed, back into the chair by the writing table.
Slim stooped forward to look Joh Fredersen in the face. Before these eyes he was struck silent.
Ten, twenty, thirty seconds long he did not dare to draw a breath. His horrified gaze followed the aimless movements of Joh Fredersen’s fingers, which were fumbling about as though seeking for some lever of rescue, which they could not find. Then, suddenly, the hand rose a little from the tabletop. The forefinger straightened as though admonishing to attention. Joh Fredersen murmured something. Then he laughed. It was a tired, sad little laugh, at the sound of which Slim thought he felt the hair of his head begin to bristle.
Joh Fredersen was talking to himself. What was he saying? Slim bent over him. He saw the forefinger of Joh Fredersen’s right hand gliding slowly across the shiny tabletop, as though he were following and spelling out the lines of a book.
Joh Fredersen’s soft voice said, “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he reap…”
Then Joh Fredersen’s forehead fell onto the smooth wood, and unceasingly, in a tone which, except for a dead woman, no one had ever heard from Joh Fredersen, his soft voice cried the name of his son.
But the cries remained unanswered.
Up the steps of the New Tower of Babel there crept a man. It seldom happened in the great Metropolis, Joh Fredersen’s time-saving city, that anyone used the stairs. They were reserved in case of all the lifts and the Pater-noster being overcrowded, of the cessation of all means of transit, of the outbreak of fire and similar accidents — improbable occurrences in this perfect settlement of human beings. But the improbable had happened. Piled up, one above the other, the lifts, which came hurtling down, blocked up their shafts, and the cells of the Pater-noster seemed to have been bent and charred by a hellish heat smouldering up from the depths.
Up the stairs of the New Tower of Babel did Josaphat drag himself. He had learned to swear in that quarter of an hour, even as Grot used to swear, and he made full use of his newly acquired art. He roared at the pain which racked his limbs. He spat out an excess of hatred and contempt at the agony in his knees. Wild and ingenious were the execrations which he hurled at every landing, every new bend in the staircase. But he conquered them all — one-hundred and six flights of stairs, each consisting of thirty steps. He reached the semicircle where the lifts had their opening. In the corners before the door to Joh Fredersen’s rooms there crouched knots of human beings, pressed together by the common pressure of a terrible fear.
They turned their heads to stare at the man who was crawling up the stairs, dragging himself up by aid of the walls.
His wild eyes swept over them. “What is it?” he asked breathlessly. “What are you all doing here?”
Agitated voices whispered. Nobody knew who was speaking. Words tumbled over each other.
“He drove us out into the town, where death is running as though amok. He sent us out to look for his son, Freder. We couldn’t find him… none of us. We daren’t go in to Joh Fredersen. Nobody dares take him the news that we haven’t been able to find his son.”
A voice swung out, high and sharp from out the knot, “Who can find one single damned soul in this hell?”
“He is talking to Slim.”
And in the tension of listening, which smothered every sound, the heads bent towards the door.
Behind the door a voice spoke, as were the wood rattling, “Where is my son?”
Josaphat made for the door, staggering. The panting cry of many men tried to stop him. Hands were stretched out towards him.
“Don’t — don’t!”
But he had already pushed open the door. He looked about him. Through the enormous windows the first glow of the youthful day was flowing, lying on the shining floor like pools of blood. By the wall near the door stood Slim. And just before him stood Joh Fredersen. His fists were pressed against the wall, right and left of the man, holding him fast as though they had been drilled through him, crucifying him.
“Where is my son?” said Joh Fredersen. He asked — and his voice cracked as if in suffocation, “Where is my child?”
Slim’s head flung back against the wall. From his ashen lips came the toneless words, “Tomorrow there will be many in Metropolis who will ask, ‘Joh Fredersen, where is my child?'”
Joh Fredersen’s fists relaxed. His whole body twisted around. Then the man who had been the Master over Metropolis saw that another man was standing in the room. He stared at him. The sweat trickled down his face in cold, slow, burdensome drops. The face twitched in a terrible impotence.
“Where is my son?” asked Joh Fredersen, babblingly. He stretched out his hand. The hand shot through the air, groping aimlessly. “Do you know where my son is?”
Josaphat did not answer. Yes, the answer shouted in his throat. But he could not form the words. There was a fist at his throat, strangling him. God — Almighty God in highest heaven — was it Joh Fredersen who was standing before him?
Joh Fredersen made an uncertain step towards him. He bent his head low to look at him the more closely. He nodded again.
“I know you,” he said tonelessly. “You are Josaphat, and you were my first secretary. I sent you away. I treated you cruelly. I did you wrong, and I ruined you. I beg your forgiveness. I am sorry that I was ever cruel to you or to anyone else. Forgive me. Forgive me, Josaphat, for ten hours I have not known where my son is. For ten hours, Josaphat, I have been sending all the men I could get hold of down into that damned city to look for my son, and I know it is senseless, and I know it is quite pointless; the day is breaking, and I am talking and talking, and I know that I am a fool, but perhaps, perhaps you know where my son is.”
“Captured,” said Josaphat, and it was as though he ripped the word from his gullet, and feared to bleed to death therefrom. “Captured…”
A stupid smile hovered over Joh Fredersen’s face. “What does that mean — captured?”
“The mob has captured him, Joh Fredersen!”
“Yes! Freder, your son!”
A senseless, pitiable, animal sound broke from Joh Fredersen’s mouth. His mouth stood open, distorted — his hands rose as in childish defence, to ward off a blow which had already fallen. His voice said, quite high and piteously, “My son?”
“They took him prisoner,” Josaphat tore the words out, “because they sought a victim for their despair and for the fury of their immeasurable, inconceivable agony. When they saw the black water running towards them from the shafts of the underground railway, and when they realized that, as the result of the stopping of the pumps, the whole workmen’s town had been flooded out, 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…”
“They have taken captive the girl on whom they put the blame of all this horror. Freder wanted to save her, for he loves the girl. They have taken him captive and are forcing him to look on and see how his beloved dies. They have built the bonfire before the cathedral. They are dancing round the bonfire. They are yelling, ‘We have captured the son of Joh Fredersen and his beloved,’ and I know — I know — he’ll never get away from them alive!”
For the space of some seconds, there was so deep and perfect a silence that the golden glow of the morning, breaking forth, strong and radiant, had the effect of a powerful roar. Then Joh Fredersen turned around, breaking into a run. He flung himself at the door. So forceful and irresistible was this movement that it seemed as if the closed door itself were not able to withstand it.
Past the knots of human being ran Joh Fredersen — across to the staircase and down the steps. His course was as a pauseless series of leaps. He did not notice the height. With hands stretched forward he ran, in bounds, his hair rearing up like a flame above his brow. His mouth was wide open, and between his parted lips there hovered — a soundless scream — the unscreamed name, “Freder!”
An infinity of stairs… clefts… rents in walls… smashed stone blocks… twisted iron… destruction… ruin…
The day was streaming down, red, upon the street.
Howls in the air. And the gleam of flame. And smoke…
Voices… shouts — and no exultant shouting… shouts of fear, of horror, of terribly strained tension…
At last the cathedral square…
The bonfire. The mob… men, woman, immeasurable masses… but they were not gazing at the bonfire, on the smoking fieriness of which smouldered a creature of metal and glass, with the head and body of a woman.
All eyes were turned upwards, towards the heights of the cathedral, the roof of which sparkled in the morning sunshine.
Joh Fredersen stopped, as though a blow had been struck at his knees.
“W-what…?” he stammered. He raised his eyes; he raised his hands quite slowly to the level of his head… his hands rested upon his hair.
Soundlessly, as though mown down, he fell upon his knees.
Upon the heights of the cathedral roof, entwined about each other, clawed to each other, wrestled Freder and Rotwang, gleaming in the sunlight.
They fought, breast pressed to breast, knee to knee. One did not need very sharp eyes to see that Rotwang was by far the stronger. The slender form of the boy, in white silken tatters, bent under the throttling grip of the great inventor, farther and farther backwards. In a fearfully wonderful arch the slender, white form was extended, head back, knees bent forward. And the blackness which was Rotwang stood out, massy, mountain-like, above the silken whiteness, forcing it downwards. In the narrow gallery of the spire Freder crumpled up like a sack and lay in the corner, stirring no more. Above him, straightened up, yet bent forward — Rotwang, staring at him, then turning.
Along the narrow roof ridge towards him — no, towards the dullish bundle of white silk — staggered Maria. In the light of the morning, risen glorious and imperious, her voice fluttered out like the mourning of a poor bird: “Freder — Freder!”
Whispers broke out in the cathedral square. Heads turned and hands pointed.
“Look — Joh Fredersen! Look over there — Joh Fredersen!”
A woman’s voice yelled out, “Now you see for yourself, don’t you, Joh Fredersen, what it’s like when someone’s only child is murdered?”
Josaphat leaped before the man who was on his knees, hearing nothing of what was going on around him. “What’s the matter?” he shouted. “What’s the matter with you all? Your children have been saved! In the House of the Sons! Maria and Joh Fredersen’s son — they saved your children!”
Joh Fredersen heard nothing. He did not hear the scream, which, like a bellowed prayer to God, suddenly leaped from the one mouth of the multitude.
He did not hear the shuffling with which the multitude near him, far around him, threw itself on its knees. He did not hear the weeping of the women, the panting of the men, nor prayer, nor thanks, nor groans, nor praises.
Only his eyes remained alive. His eyes which seemed to be lidless, clung to the roof of the cathedral.
Maria had reached the white bundle, which lay, crumpled up in the corner, between the spire and the roof. She slid along to it on her knees, stretching her hands out towards it, blinded with misery: “Freder… Freder…”
With a savage snarl, like the snarl of a beast of prey, Rotwang clutched at her. She struggled amid screams. He held her lips closed. With an expression of despairing incomprehension he stared into the girl’s tear-wet face.
“Hel… my Hel… why do you struggle against me?” He held her in his ironlike arms as prey which now nothing and no one could tear away from him. Close to the spire a ladder led upwards to the cathedral coping. With the bestial snarl of one unjustly pursued, he climbed up the ladder, dragging the girl with him in his arms.
This was the sight which met Freder’s eyes when he opened them and tore himself free from the half-unconscious state he was in. He pushed himself up and flung himself across to the ladder. He climbed up the ladder almost at a run, with the blindly certain speed born of fear for his beloved. He reached Rotwang, who let Maria fall.
She fell, but in falling she saved herself, pulling herself up and reaching the golden sickle of the moon on which rested the star-crowned Virgin. She stretched out her hand to clutch at Freder. But at the same moment, Rotwang threw himself down upon the man who was standing below him, and clasped tightly together, they rolled along down the roof of the cathedral, rebounding violently against the narrow railing of the gallery.
The yell of fear from the multitude came shrieking up from the depths. Neither Rotwang nor Freder heard it. With a terrible oath Rotwang gathered himself up. He saw above him, sharp against the blue of the sky, the gargoyle of a waterspout. It grinned in his face. The long tongue leered mockingly at him. He drew himself up and struck, with clenched fist, at the grinning gargoyle.
The gargoyle broke.
In the weight of the blow he lost his balance — and fell — and saved himself, hanging with one hand to the Gothic ornamentation of the cathedral.
And, looking upwards, into the infinite blue of the morning sky, he saw Hel’s countenance, which he had loved, and it was like the countenance of the beautiful Angel of Death, smiling at him, its lips inclining towards his brow.
Great black wings spread themselves out, strong enough to carry a lost world up to heaven.
“Hel…” said the man. “My Hel… at last…”
And his fingers lost their hold, voluntarily…
Joh Fredersen did not see the fall, neither did he hear the cry of the multitude as it stared back. He saw but one thing: the white-gleaming figure of the man, who, upright and uninjured, was walking along the roof of the cathedral with the even step of one fearing nothing, carrying the girl in his arms.
Then Joh Fredersen bent down, so low that his forehead touched the stones of the cathedral square. And those near enough to him heard the weeping which welled up from his heart, as water from a rock.
As his hands loosened from his head, all who stood around him saw that Joh Fredersen’s hair had turned snow-white.