The Dynamiter, by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Superfluous Mansion (Concluded)

Somerset ran straight upstairs; the door of the drawing-room, contrary to all custom, was unlocked; and bursting in, the young man found Zero seated on a sofa in an attitude of singular dejection. Close beside him stood an untasted grog, the mark of strong preoccupation. The room besides was in confusion: boxes had been tumbled to and fro; the floor was strewn with keys and other implements; and in the midst of this disorder lay a lady’s glove.

‘I have come,’ cried Somerset, ‘to make an end of this. Either you will instantly abandon all your schemes, or (cost what it may) I will denounce you to the police.’

‘Ah!’ replied Zero, slowly shaking his head. ‘You are too late, dear fellow! I am already at the end of all my hopes, and fallen to be a laughing-stock and mockery. My reading,’ he added, with a gentle despondency of manner, ‘has not been much among romances; yet I recall from one a phrase that depicts my present state with critical exactitude; and you behold me sitting here “like a burst drum.”’

‘What has befallen you?’ cried Somerset.

‘My last batch,’ returned the plotter wearily, ‘like all the others, is a hollow mockery and a fraud. In vain do I combine the elements; in vain adjust the springs; and I have now arrived at such a pitch of disconsideration that (except yourself, dear fellow) I do not know a soul that I can face. My subordinates themselves have turned upon me. What language have I heard to-day, what illiberality of sentiment, what pungency of expression! She came once; I could have pardoned that, for she was moved; but she returned, returned to announce to me this crushing blow; and, Somerset, she was very inhumane. Yes, dear fellow, I have drunk a bitter cup; the speech of females is remarkable for . . . well, well! Denounce me, if you will; you but denounce the dead. I am extinct. It is strange how, at this supreme crisis of my life, I should be haunted by quotations from works of an inexact and even fanciful description; but here,’ he added, ‘is another: “Othello’s occupation’s gone.” Yes, dear Somerset, it is gone; I am no more a dynamiter; and how, I ask you, after having tasted of these joys, am I to condescend to a less glorious life?’

‘I cannot describe how you relieve me,’ returned Somerset, sitting down on one of several boxes that had been drawn out into the middle of the floor. ‘I had conceived a sort of maudlin toleration for your character; I have a great distaste, besides, for anything in the nature of a duty; and upon both grounds, your news delights me. But I seem to perceive,’ he added, ‘a certain sound of ticking in this box.’

‘Yes,’ replied Zero, with the same slow weariness of manner, ‘I have set several of them going.’

‘My God!’ cried Somerset, bounding to his feet.


‘Machines!’ returned the plotter bitterly. ‘Machines indeed! I blush to be their author. Alas!’ he said, burying his face in his hands, ‘that I should live to say it!’

‘Madman!’ cried Somerset, shaking him by the arm. ‘What am I to understand? Have you, indeed, set these diabolical contrivances in motion? and do we stay here to be blown up?’

‘“Hoist with his own petard?”’ returned the plotter musingly. ‘One more quotation: strange! But indeed my brain is struck with numbness. Yes, dear boy, I have, as you say, put my contrivance in motion. The one on which you are sitting, I have timed for half an hour. Yon other —’

‘Half an hour! —’ echoed Somerset, dancing with trepidation. ‘Merciful Heavens, in half an hour?’

‘Dear fellow, why so much excitement?’ inquired Zero. ‘My dynamite is not more dangerous than toffy; had I an only child, I would give it him to play with. You see this brick?’ he continued, lifting a cake of the infernal compound from the laboratory-table. ‘At a touch it should explode, and that with such unconquerable energy as should bestrew the square with ruins. Well now, behold! I dash it on the floor.’

Somerset sprang forward, and with the strength of the very ecstasy of terror, wrested the brick from his possession. ‘Heavens!’ he cried, wiping his brow; and then with more care than ever mother handled her first-born withal, gingerly transported the explosive to the far end of the apartment: the plotter, his arms once more fallen to his side, dispiritedly watching him.

‘It was entirely harmless,’ he sighed. ‘They describe it as burning like tobacco.’

‘In the name of fortune,’ cried Somerset, ‘what have I done to you, or what have you done to yourself, that you should persist in this insane behaviour? If not for your own sake, then for mine, let us depart from this doomed house, where I profess I have not the heart to leave you; and then, if you will take my advice, and if your determination be sincere, you will instantly quit this city, where no further occupation can detain you.’

‘Such, dear fellow, was my own design,’ replied the plotter. ‘I have, as you observe, no further business here; and once I have packed a little bag, I shall ask you to share a frugal meal, to go with me as far as to the station, and see the last of a broken-hearted man. And yet,’ he added, looking on the boxes with a lingering regret, ‘I should have liked to make quite certain. I cannot but suspect my underlings of some mismanagement; it may be fond, but yet I cherish that idea: it may be the weakness of a man of science, but yet,’ he cried, rising into some energy, ‘I will never, I cannot if I try, believe that my poor dynamite has had fair usage!’

‘Five minutes!’ said Somerset, glancing with horror at the timepiece. ‘If you do not instantly buckle to your bag, I leave you.’

‘A few necessaries,’ returned Zero, ‘only a few necessaries, dear Somerset, and you behold me ready.’

He passed into the bedroom, and after an interval which seemed to draw out into eternity for his unfortunate companion, he returned, bearing in his hand an open Gladstone bag. His movements were still horribly deliberate, and his eyes lingered gloatingly on his dear boxes, as he moved to and fro about the drawing-room, gathering a few small trifles. Last of all, he lifted one of the squares of dynamite.

‘Put that down!’ cried Somerset. ‘If what you say be true, you have no call to load yourself with that ungodly contraband.’

‘Merely a curiosity, dear boy,’ he said persuasively, and slipped the brick into his bag; ‘merely a memento of the past — ah, happy past, bright past! You will not take a touch of spirits? no? I find you very abstemious. Well,’ he added, ‘if you have really no curiosity to await the event —’

‘I!’ cried Somerset. ‘My blood boils to get away.’

‘Well, then,’ said Zero, ‘I am ready; I would I could say, willing; but thus to leave the scene of my sublime endeavours —’

Without further parley, Somerset seized him by the arm, and dragged him downstairs; the hall-door shut with a clang on the deserted mansion; and still towing his laggardly companion, the young man sped across the square in the Oxford Street direction. They had not yet passed the corner of the garden, when they were arrested by a dull thud of an extraordinary amplitude of sound, accompanied and followed by a shattering fracas. Somerset turned in time to see the mansion rend in twain, vomit forth flames and smoke, and instantly collapse into its cellars. At the same moment, he was thrown violently to the ground. His first glance was towards Zero. The plotter had but reeled against the garden rail; he stood there, the Gladstone bag clasped tight upon his heart, his whole face radiant with relief and gratitude; and the young man heard him murmur to himself: ‘Nunc dimittis, nunc dimittis!’

The consternation of the populace was indescribable; the whole of Golden Square was alive with men, women, and children, running wildly to and fro, and like rabbits in a warren, dashing in and out of the house doors. And under favour of this confusion, Somerset dragged away the lingering plotter.

‘It was grand,’ he continued to murmur: ‘it was indescribably grand. Ah, green Erin, green Erin, what a day of glory! and oh, my calumniated dynamite, how triumphantly hast thou prevailed!’

Suddenly a shade crossed his face; and pausing in the middle of the footway, he consulted the dial of his watch.

‘Good God!’ he cried, ‘how mortifying! seven minutes too early! The dynamite surpassed my hopes; but the clockwork, fickle clockwork, has once more betrayed me. Alas, can there be no success unmixed with failure? and must even this red-letter day be chequered by a shadow?’

‘Incomparable ass!’ said Somerset, ‘what have you done? Blown up the house of an unoffending old lady, and the whole earthly property of the only person who is fool enough to befriend you!’

‘You do not understand these matters,’ replied Zero, with an air of great dignity. ‘This will shake England to the heart. Gladstone, the truculent old man, will quail before the pointing finger of revenge. And now that my dynamite is proved effective —’

‘Heavens, you remind me!’ ejaculated Somerset. ‘That brick in your bag must be instantly disposed of. But how? If we could throw it in the river —’

‘A torpedo,’ cried Zero, brightening, ‘a torpedo in the Thames! Superb, dear fellow! I recognise in you the marks of an accomplished anarch.’

‘True!’ returned Somerset. ‘It cannot so be done; and there is no help but you must carry it away with you. Come on, then, and let me at once consign you to a train.’

‘Nay, nay, dear boy,’ protested Zero. ‘There is now no call for me to leave. My character is now reinstated; my fame brightens; this is the best thing I have done yet; and I see from here the ovations that await the author of the Golden Square Atrocity.’

‘My young friend,’ returned the other, ‘I give you your choice. I will either see you safe on board a train or safe in gaol.’

‘Somerset, this is unlike you!’ said the chymist. ‘You surprise me, Somerset.’

‘I shall considerably more surprise you at the next police office,’ returned Somerset, with something bordering on rage. ‘For on one point my mind is settled: either I see you packed off to America, brick and all, or else you dine in prison.’

‘You have perhaps neglected one point,’ returned the unoffended Zero: ‘for, speaking as a philosopher, I fail to see what means you can employ to force me. The will, my dear fellow —’

‘Now, see here,’ interrupted Somerset. ‘You are ignorant of anything but science, which I can never regard as being truly knowledge; I, sir, have studied life; and allow me to inform you that I have but to raise my hand and voice — here in this street — and the mob —’

‘Good God in heaven, Somerset,’ cried Zero, turning deadly white and stopping in his walk, ‘great God in heaven, what words are these? Oh, not in jest, not even in jest, should they be used! The brutal mob, the savage passions . . . . Somerset, for God’s sake, a public-house!’

Somerset considered him with freshly awakened curiosity. ‘This is very interesting,’ said he. ‘You recoil from such a death?’

‘Who would not?’ asked the plotter.

‘And to be blown up by dynamite,’ inquired the young man, ‘doubtless strikes you as a form of euthanasia?’

‘Pardon me,’ returned Zero: ‘I own, and since I have braved it daily in my professional career, I own it even with pride: it is a death unusually distasteful to the mind of man.’

‘One more question,’ said Somerset: ‘you object to Lynch Law? why?’

‘It is assassination,’ said the plotter calmly, but with eyebrows a little lifted, as in wonder at the question.

‘Shake hands with me,’ cried Somerset. ‘Thank God, I have now no ill-feeling left; and though you cannot conceive how I burn to see you on the gallows, I can quite contentedly assist at your departure.’

‘I do not very clearly take your meaning,’ said Zero, ‘but I am sure you mean kindly. As to my departure, there is another point to be considered. I have neglected to supply myself with funds; my little all has perished in what history will love to relate under the name of the Golden Square Atrocity; and without what is coarsely if vigorously called stamps, you must be well aware it is impossible for me to pass the ocean.’

‘For me,’ said Somerset, ‘you have now ceased to be a man. You have no more claim upon me than a door scraper; but the touching confusion of your mind disarms me from extremities. Until to-day, I always thought stupidity was funny; I now know otherwise; and when I look upon your idiot face, laughter rises within me like a deadly sickness, and the tears spring up into my eyes as bitter as blood. What should this portend? I begin to doubt; I am losing faith in scepticism. Is it possible,’ he cried, in a kind of horror of himself —‘is it conceivable that I believe in right and wrong? Already I have found myself, with incredulous surprise, to be the victim of a prejudice of personal honour. And must this change proceed? Have you robbed me of my youth? Must I fall, at my time of life, into the Common Banker? But why should I address that head of wood? Let this suffice. I dare not let you stay among women and children; I lack the courage to denounce you, if by any means I may avoid it; you have no money: well then, take mine, and go; and if ever I behold your face after to-day, that day will be your last.’

‘Under the circumstances,’ replied Zero, ‘I scarce see my way to refuse your offer. Your expressions may pain, they cannot surprise me; I am aware our point of view requires a little training, a little moral hygiene, if I may so express it; and one of the points that has always charmed me in your character is this delightful frankness. As for the small advance, it shall be remitted you from Philadelphia.’

‘It shall not,’ said Somerset.

‘Dear fellow, you do not understand,’ returned the plotter. ‘I shall now be received with fresh confidence by my superiors; and my experiments will be no longer hampered by pitiful conditions of the purse.’

‘What I am now about, sir, is a crime,’ replied Somerset; ‘and were you to roll in wealth like Vanderbilt, I should scorn to be reimbursed of money I had so scandalously misapplied. Take it, and keep it. By George, sir, three days of you have transformed me to an ancient Roman.’

With these words, Somerset hailed a passing hansom; and the pair were driven rapidly to the railway terminus. There, an oath having been exacted, the money changed hands.

‘And now,’ said Somerset, ‘I have bought back my honour with every penny I possess. And I thank God, though there is nothing before me but starvation, I am free from all entanglement with Mr. Zero Pumpernickel Jones.’

‘To starve?’ cried Zero. ‘Dear fellow, I cannot endure the thought.’

‘Take your ticket!’ returned Somerset.

‘I think you display temper,’ said Zero.

‘Take your ticket,’ reiterated the young man.

‘Well,’ said the plotter, as he returned, ticket in hand, ‘your attitude is so strange and painful, that I scarce know if I should ask you to shake hands.’

‘As a man, no,’ replied Somerset; ‘but I have no objection to shake hands with you, as I might with a pump-well that ran poison or bell-fire.’

‘This is a very cold parting,’ sighed the dynamiter; and still followed by Somerset, he began to descend the platform. This was now bustling with passengers; the train for Liverpool was just about to start, another had but recently arrived; and the double tide made movement difficult. As the pair reached the neighbourhood of the bookstall, however, they came into an open space; and here the attention of the plotter was attracted by a Standard broadside bearing the words: ‘Second Edition: Explosion in Golden Square.’ His eye lighted; groping in his pocket for the necessary coin, he sprang forward — his bag knocked sharply on the corner of the stall — and instantly, with a formidable report, the dynamite exploded. When the smoke cleared away the stall was seen much shattered, and the stall keeper running forth in terror from the ruins; but of the Irish patriot or the Gladstone bag no adequate remains were to be found.

In the first scramble of the alarm, Somerset made good his escape, and came out upon the Euston Road, his head spinning, his body sick with hunger, and his pockets destitute of coin. Yet as he continued to walk the pavements, he wondered to find in his heart a sort of peaceful exultation, a great content, a sense, as it were, of divine presence and the kindliness of fate; and he was able to tell himself that even if the worst befell, he could now starve with a certain comfort since Zero was expunged.

Late in the afternoon, he found himself at the door of Mr. Godall’s shop; and being quite unmanned by his long fast, and scarce considering what he did, he opened the glass door and entered.

‘Ha!’ said Mr. Godall, ‘Mr. Somerset! Well, have you met with an adventure? Have you the promised story? Sit down, if you please; suffer me to choose you a cigar of my own special brand; and reward me with a narrative in your best style.’

‘I must not take a cigar,’ said Somerset.

‘Indeed!’ said Mr. Godall. ‘But now I come to look at you more closely, I perceive that you are changed. My poor boy, I hope there is nothing wrong?’

Somerset burst into tears.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00