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"The Chemistry of Anarchy"

from The face and the mask (1895)


  It has been said in the London papers that the dissolution of the Soho Anarchist League was caused by want of funds. This is very far from being the case. An Anarchist League has no need for funds, and so long as there is money enough to buy beer the League is sure of continued existence. The truth about the scattering of the Soho organization was told me by a young newspaper man who was chairman at the last meeting.

  The young man was not an Anarchist, though he had to pretend to be one in the interests of his paper, and so joined the Soho League, where he made some fiery speeches that were much applauded. At last Anarchist news became a drug in the market, and the editor of the paper young Marshall Simkins belonged to, told him that he would now have to turn his attention to Parliamentary work, as he would print no more Anarchist news in the sheet.

  One might think that young Simkins would have been glad to get rid of his Anarchist work, as he had no love for the cause. He was glad to get rid of it, but he found some difficulty in sending in his resignation. The moment he spoke of resigning, the members became suspicious of him. He had always been rather better dressed than the others, and, besides, he drank less beer. If a man wishes to be in good standing in the League he must not be fastidious as to dress, and he must be constructed to hold at least a gallon of beer at a sitting. Simkins was merely a "quart" man, and this would have told against him all along if it had not been for the extra gunpowder he put in his speeches. On several occasions seasoned Anarchists had gathered about him and begged him to give up his designs on the Parliament buildings.

  The older heads claimed that, desirable as was the obliteration of the Houses of Parliament, the time was not yet ripe for it. England, they pointed out, was the only place where Anarchists could live and talk unmolested, so, while they were quite anxious that Simkins should go and blow up Vienna, Berlin, or Paris, they were not willing for him to begin on London. Simkins was usually calmed down with much difficulty, and finally, after hissing "Cowards!" two or three times under his breath, he concluded with, "Oh, very well, then, you know better than I do — I am only a young recruit; but allow me at least to blow up Waterloo Bridge, or spring a bomb in Fleet Street just to show that we are up and doing."

  But this the Anarchists would not sanction. If he wanted to blow up bridges, he could try his hand on those across the Seine. They had given their word that there would be no explosions in London so long as England afforded them an asylum.

  "But look at Trafalgar Square," cried Simkins angrily; "we are not allowed to meet there."

  "Who wants to meet there?" said the chairman. "It is ever so much more comfortable in these rooms, and there is no beer in Trafalgar Square." "Yes, yes," put in several others; "the time is not yet ripe for it." Thus was Simkins calmed down, and beer allowed to flow again in tranquillity, while some foreign Anarchist, who was not allowed to set foot in his native country, would get up and harangue the crowd in broken English and tell them what great things would yet be done by dynamite.

  But when Simkins sent in his resignation a change came over their feelings towards him, and he saw at once that he was a marked man. The chairman, in a whisper, advised him to withdraw his resignation. So Simkins, who was a shrewd young fellow, understanding the temper of the assembly, arose and said:

  "I have no desire to resign, but you do nothing except talk, and I want to belong to an Anarchist Society that acts." He stayed away from the next meeting, and tried to drop them in that way, but a committee from the League called upon him at his lodgings, and his landlady thought that young Simkins had got into bad ways when he had such evil-looking men visiting him.

  Simkins was in a dilemma, and could not make up his mind what to do. The Anarchists apparently were not to be shaken off. He applied to his editor for advice on the situation, but that good man could think of no way out of the trouble.

  "You ought to have known better," he said, "than to mix up with such people."

  "But how was I to get the news?" asked Simkins, with some indignation. The editor shrugged his shoulders. That was not his part of the business; and if the Anarchists chose to make things uncomfortable for the young man, he could not help it.

  Simkins' fellow lodger, a student who was studying chemistry in London, noticed that the reporter was becoming gaunt with anxiety.

  "Simkins," said Sedlitz to him one morning, "you are haggard and careworn: what is the matter with you? Are you in love, or is it merely debt that is bothering you?"

  "Neither," replied Simkins.

  "Then cheer up," said Sedlitz. "If one or the other is not interfering with you, anything else is easily remedied."

  "I am not so sure of that," rejoined Simkins; and then he sat down and told his friend just what was troubling him.

  "Ah," said Sedlitz, "that accounts for it. There has been an unkempt ruffian marching up and down watching this house. They are on your track, Simkins, my boy, and when they discover that you are a reporter, and therefore necessarily a traitor, you will be nabbed some dark night."

  "Well, that's encouraging," said Simkins, with his head in his hands.

  "Are these Anarchists brave men, and would they risk their lives in any undertaking?" asked Sedlitz.

  "Oh, I don't know. They talk enough, but I don't know what they would do. They are quite capable, though, of tripping me up in a dark lane."

  "Look here," said Sedlitz, "suppose you let me try a plan. Let me give them a lecture on the Chemistry of Anarchy. It's a fascinating subject."

  "What good would that do?"

  "Oh, wait till you have heard the lecture. If I don't make the hair of some of them stand on end, they are braver men than I take them to be. We have a large room in Clement's Inn, where we students meet to try experiments and smoke tobacco. It is half club, and half a lecture room. Now, I propose to get those Anarchists in there, lock the doors, and tell them something about dynamite and other explosives. You give out that I am an Anarchist from America. Tell them that the doors will be locked to prevent police interference, and that there will be a barrel of beer. You can introduce me as a man from America, where they know as much about Anarchism in ten minutes as they do here in ten years. Tell them that I have spent my life in the study of explosives. I will have to make-up a little, but you know that I am a very good amateur actor, and I don't think there will be any trouble about that. At the last you must tell them that you have an appointment and will leave me to amuse them for a couple of hours."

   "But I don't see what good it is all going to do, though I am desperate," said Simkins, "and willing to try anything. I have thought some of firing a bomb off myself at an Anarchist meeting."

  When the Friday night of the meeting arrived the large hall in Clement's Inn was filled to the doors. Those assembled there saw a platform at one end of the apartment, and a door that led from it to a room at the back of the hall. A table was on the platform, and boxes, chemical apparatus, and other scientific-looking paraphernalia were on it. At the hour of eight young Simkins appeared before the table alone.

  "Fellow Anarchists," he said, "you are well aware that I am tired of the great amount of talk we indulge in, and the little action which follows it. I have been fortunate enough to secure the co-operation of an Anarchist from America, who will tell you something of the cause there. We have had the doors locked, and those who keep the keys are now down at the entrance of the Inn, so that if a fire should occur they can quickly come and let us out. There is no great danger of fire, however, but the interruption of the police must be guarded against very carefully. The windows, as you see, are shuttered and barred, and no ray of light can penetrate from this room outside. Until the lecture is over no one can leave the room, and by the same token no one can enter it, which is more the purpose.

  "My friend, Professor Josiah P. Slivers, has devoted his life to the Chemistry of Anarchy, which is the title of this lecture. He will tell you of some important discoveries, which are now to be made known for the first time. I regret to say the Professor is not in a very good state of health, because the line of life which he has adopted has its drawbacks. His left eye has been blown away by a premature explosion during his experiments. His right leg is also permanently disabled. His left arm, as you will notice, is in a sling, having been injured by a little disaster in his workshop since he came to London. He is a man, as you will see, devoted body and soul to the cause, so I hope you will listen to him attentively. I regret that I am unable to remain with you tonight, having other duties to perform which are imperative. I will therefore, if you will permit me, leave by the back entrance after I have introduced the Professor to you."

  At this moment the stumping of a wooden leg was heard, and those in the audience saw appear a man on crutches, with one arm in a sling and a bandage over an eye, although he beamed upon them benevolently with the other.

   "Fellow Anarchists," said Simkins, "allow me to introduce to you Professor Josiah P. Slivers, of the United States."

  The Professor bowed and the audience applauded. As soon as the applause began the Professor held up his unmaimed arm and said, "Gentlemen, I beg that you will not applaud."

  It seems the fashion in America to address all sorts and conditions of men as "Gentlemen". The Professor continued, "I have here some explosives so sensitive that the slightest vibration will cause them to go off, and I therefore ask you to listen in silence to what I have to say. I must particularly ask you also not to stamp on the floor."

  Before these remarks were concluded Simkins had slipped out by the back entrance, and somehow his desertion seemed to have a depressing effect upon the company, who looked upon the broken-up Professor with eyes of wonder and apprehension.

  The Professor drew towards him one of the boxes and opened the lid. He dipped his one useful hand into the box and, holding it aloft, allowed something which looked like wet sawdust to drip through his fingers. "That, gentlemen," he said, with an air of the utmost contempt, "is what is known to the world as dynamite. I have nothing at all to say against dynamite. It has, in its day, been a very powerful medium through which our opinions have been imparted to a listening world, but its day is past. It is what the lumbering stage-coach is to the locomotive, what the letter is to the telegram, what the sailing-vessel is to the steamship. It will be my pleasant duty tonight to exhibit to you an explosive so powerful and deadly that hereafter, having seen what it can accomplish, you will have nothing but derision for such simple and harmless compounds as dynamite and nitroglycerine."

  The Professor looked with kindly sympathy over his audience as he allowed the yellow mixture to percolate slowly through his fingers back into the box again. Ever and anon he took up a fresh handful and repeated the action.

  The Anarchists in the audience exchanged uneasy glances one with the other.

  "Yet," continued the Professor, "it will be useful for us to consider the substance for a few moments, if but for the purpose of comparison. Here," he said, diving his hand into another box and bringing up before their gaze a yellow brick, "is dynamite in a compressed form. There is enough here to wreck all this part of London, were it exploded. This simple brick would lay St. Paul's Cathedral in ruins, so, however antiquated dynamite may become, we must always look upon it with respect, just as we look upon reformers of centuries ago who perished for their opinions, even though their opinions were far behind what ours are now. I shall take the liberty of performing some experiments with this block of dynamite." Saying which the Professor, with his free arm, flung the block of dynamite far down the aisle, where it fell on the floor with a sickening thud. The audience sprang from their seats and tumbled back one over the other. A wild shriek went up into the air, but the Professor gazed placidly on the troubled mob below him with a superior smile on his face. "I beg you to seat yourselves," he said, "and for reasons which I have already explained, I trust that you will not applaud any of my remarks. You have just now portrayed one of the popular superstitions about dynamite, and you show by your actions how necessary a lecture of this sort is in order that you may comprehend thoroughly the substance with which you have to deal. That brick is perfectly harmless, because it is frozen. Dynamite in its frozen state will not explode — a fact well understood by miners and all those who have to work with it, and who, as a rule, generally prefer to blow themselves to pieces trying to thaw the substance before a fire. Will you kindly bring that brick back to me, before it thaws out in the heated atmosphere of this room?"

  One of the men stepped gingerly forward and picked up the brick, holding it far from his body, as he tip-toed up to the platform, where he laid it down carefully on the desk before the Professor.

  "Thank you," said the Professor, blandly.

  The man drew a long breath of relief as he went back to his seat.

  "That is frozen dynamite," continued the Professor, "and is, as I have said, practically harmless. Now, it will be my pleasure to perform two startling experiments with the unfrozen substance," and with that he picked up a handful of the wet sawdust and flung it on a small iron anvil that stood on the table. "You will enjoy these experiments," he said, "because it will show you with what ease dynamite may be handled. It is a popular error that concussion will cause dynamite to explode. There is enough dynamite here to blow up this hall and to send into oblivion every person in it, yet you will see whether or not concussion will explode it." The Professor seized a hammer and struck the substance on the anvil two or three sharp blows, while those in front of him scrambled wildly back over their comrades, with hair standing on end. The Professor ceased his pounding and gazed reproachfully at them; then something on the anvil appeared to catch his eye. He bent over it and looked critically on the surface of the iron. Drawing himself up to his full height again, he said:

  "I was about to reproach you for what might have appeared to any other man as evidence of fear, but I see my mistake. I came very near making a disastrous error. I notice upon the anvil a small spot of grease; if my hammer had happened to strike that spot you would all now be writhing in your death-agonies under the ruins of this building. Nevertheless, the lesson is not without its value. That spot of grease is free nitro-glycerine that has oozed out from the dynamite. Therein rests, perhaps, the only danger in handling dynamite. As I have shown you, you can smash up dynamite on an anvil without danger, but if a hammer happened to strike a spot of free nitroglycerine it would explode in a moment. I beg to apologize to you for my momentary neglect."

  A man rose up in the middle of the hall, and it was some little time before he could command voice enough to speak, for he was shaking as if from palsy. At last he said, after he had moistened his lips several times:

  "Professor, we are quite willing to take your word about the explosive. I think I speak for all my comrades here. We have no doubt at all about your learning, and would much prefer to hear from your own lips what you have to say on the subject, and not have you waste any more valuable time with experiments. I have not consulted with my comrades before speaking, but I think I voice the sense of the meeting." Cries of "You do, you do," came from all parts of the hall. The Professor once more beamed upon them benevolently.

  "Your confidence in me is indeed touching," he said, "but a chemical lecture without experiments is like a body without a soul. Experiment is the soul of research. In chemistry we must take nothing for granted. I have shown you how many popular errors have arisen regarding the substance with which we are dealing. It would have been impossible for these errors to have arisen if every man had experimented for himself; and although I thank you for the mark of confidence you have bestowed upon me, I cannot bring myself to deprive you of the pleasure which my experiments will afford you. There is another very common error to the effect that fire will explode dynamite. Such, gentlemen, is not the case."

  The Professor struck a match on his trousers' leg and lighted the substance on the anvil. It burnt with a pale bluish flame, and the Professor gazed around triumphantly at his fellow Anarchists.

  While the shuddering audience watched with intense fascination the pale blue flame the Professor suddenly stooped over and blew it out. Straightening himself once more he said, "Again I must apologize to you, for again I have forgotten the small spot of grease. If the flame had reached the spot of nitro-glycerine it would have exploded, as you all know. When a man has his thoughts concentrated on one subject he is apt to forget something else. I shall make no more experiments with dynamite. Here, John," he said to the trembling assistant, "take this box away, and move it carefully, for I see that the nitro-glycerine is oozing out. Put it as tenderly down in the next room as if it were a box of eggs."

  As the box disappeared there was a simultaneous long-drawn sigh of relief from the audience.

  "Now, gentlemen," said the Professor, "we come to the subject that ought to occupy the minds of all thoughtful men." He smoothed his hair complacently with the palm of his practicable hand, and smiled genially around him.

  "The substance that I am about to tell you of is my own invention, and compares with dynamite as prussic acid does with new milk as a beverage." The Professor dipped his fingers in his vest pocket and drew out what looked like a box of pills. Taking one pill out he placed it upon the anvil and as he tip-toed back he smiled on it with a smile of infinite tenderness. "Before I begin on this subject I want to warn you once more that if any man as much as stamps upon the floor, or moves about except on tip-toe this substance will explode and will lay London, from here to Charing Cross, in one mass of indistinguishable ruins. I have spent ten years of my life in completing this invention. And these pills, worth a million a box, will cure all ills to which the flesh is heir."

  "John," he said, turning to his attendant, "bring me a basin of water!" The basin of water was placed gingerly upon the table, and the Professor emptied all the pills into it, picking up also the one that was on the anvil and putting it with the others.

  "Now," he said, with a deep sigh, "we can breathe easier. A man can put one of these pills in a little vial of water, place the vial in his vest-pocket, go to Trafalgar Square, take the pill from the vial, throw it in the middle of the Square, and it will shatter everything within the four-mile radius, he himself having the glorious privilege of suffering instant martyrdom for the cause. People have told me that this is a drawback to my invention, but I am inclined to differ with them. The one who uses this must make up his mind to share the fate of those around him. I claim that this is the crowning glory of my invention. It puts to instant test our interest in the great cause. John, bring in very carefully that machine with the electric-wire attachment from the next room."

  The machine was placed upon the table. "This," said the Professor, holding up some invisible object between his thumb and forefinger, "is the finest cambric needle. I will take upon the point of it an invisible portion of the substance I speak of." Here he carefully picked out a pill from the basin, and as carefully placed it upon the table, where he detached an infinitesimal atom of it and held it up on the point of the needle. "This particle," he said, "is so small that it cannot be seen except with aid of a microscope. I will now place needle and all on the machine and touch it off with electric current"; and as his hand hovered over the push-button there were cries of "Stop! stop!" but the finger descended, and instantly there was a terrific explosion. The very foundation seemed shaken, and a dense cloud of smoke rolled over the heads of the audience. As the Professor became visible through the thinning smoke, he looked around his audience. Every man was under the benches, and groans came from all parts of the hall. "I hope," said the Professor, in anxious tones, "that no one has been hurt. I am afraid that I took up too much of the substance on the point of the needle, but it will enable you to imagine the effect of a larger quantity. Pray seat yourselves again. This is my last experiment."

  As the audience again seated itself, another mutual sigh ascended to the roof. The Professor drew the chairman's chair towards him and sat down, wiping his grimy brow.

  A man instantly arose and said, "I move a vote of thanks to Professor Slivers for the interesting ——"

  The Professor raised his hand. "One moment," he said, "I have not quite finished. I have a proposal to make to you. You see that cloud of smoke hovering over our heads? In twenty minutes that smoke will percolate down through the atmosphere. I have told you but half of the benefits of this terrific explosive. When that smoke mixes with the atmosphere of the room it becomes a deadly poison. We all can live here for the next nineteen minutes in perfect safety, then at the first breath we draw we expire instantly. It is a lovely death. There is no pain, no contortion of the countenance, but we will be found here in the morning stark and stiff in our seats. I propose, gentlemen, that we teach London the great lesson it so much needs. No cause is without its martyrs. Let us be the martyrs of the great religion of Anarchy. I have left in my room papers telling just how and why we died. At midnight these sheets will be distributed to all the newspapers of London, and tomorrow the world will ring with our heroic names. I will now put the motion. All in favour of this signify it by the usual upraising of the right hand."

  The Professor's own right hand was the only one that was raised.

  "Now all of a contrary opinion," said the Professor, and at once every hand in the audience went up.

  "The noes have it," said the Professor, but he did not seem to feel badly about it. "Gentlemen," he continued, "I see that you have guessed my second proposal, as I imagined you would, and though there will be no newspapers in London tomorrow to chronicle the fact, yet the newspapers of the rest of the world will tell of the destruction of this wicked city. I see by your looks that you are with me in this, my second proposal, which is the most striking thing ever planned, and is that we explode the whole of these pills in the basin. To make sure of this, I have sent to an agent in Manchester the full account of how it was done, and the resolutions brought forward at this meeting, and which doubtless you will accept.

  "Gentlemen, all in favour of the instant destruction of London signify it in the usual manner."

  "Mr. Professor," said the man who had spoken previously, "before you put that resolution I would like to move an amendment. This is a very serious proposal, and should not be lightly undertaken. I move as an amendment, therefore, that we adjourn this meeting to our rooms at Soho, and do the exploding there. I have some little business that must be settled before this grand project is put in motion."

  The Professor then said, "Gentlemen, the amendment takes precedence. It is moved that this meeting be adjourned, so that you may consider the project at your club rooms in Soho."

  "I second that amendment," said fifteen of the audience rising together to their feet.

  "In the absence of the regular chairman," said the Professor, "it is my duty to put the amendment. All in favour of the amendment signify it by raising the right hand."

  Every hand was raised. "The amendment, gentlemen, is carried. I shall be only too pleased to meet you tomorrow night at your club, and I will bring with me a larger quantity of my explosive. John, kindly go round and tell the man to unlock the doors."

  When Simkins and Slivers called round the next night at the regular meeting place of the Anarchists, they found no signs of a gathering, and never since the lecture has the Soho Anarchist League been known to hold a meeting. The Club has mysteriously dissolved.