Copyright 2018 by Gary L. Pullman
H. G. Wells's masterful short story, “The Cone,” tells a simple, straightforward tale of vengeance and horror. During his stay with Horrocks, who manages the Jeddah Company Blast Furnaces, the artist Raut, who is making a study of the ironworks, has an affair with Horrocks's wife, talk of which the manager overhears, including his wife's confession of her love for Raut.
During the lovers' conversation, Horrocks's wife insults and denigrates her husband as unimaginative and insensitive and praises Raut for the love and beauty he has brought into her dull, drab life. Like Raut, she has an aesthetic appreciation of life, whereas, she tells Raut, her husband “thinks of nothing but the works and the prices of fuel,” having “no imagination, no poetry.” Horrocks also overhears his wife's mockery of him, before he enters the room and offers to take Raut for a tour of the ironworks so the artist can get a better view of its aesthetic effects.
As the men tour the ironworks, Horrocks points out its “effects,” as he leads the artist along, gripping his arm so firmly that it hurts Raut. On their way through the industrial landscape, Horrocks explains how cones have been added to block the throats of the furnaces so fire doesn't “flare out” of them like “pillars of cloud by day . . . and pillars of fire by night.” Despite the cones, however, occasionally a furnace does belch “a burst of fire and smoke.”
A sign warns, “Beware of the Trains.” As a train approaches, Horrocks shoves Raut into its path, pulling him back at the last moment, so that the artist narrowly escapes death. As they resume the tour, Raut wonders whether Horrocks is aware of his affair with his wife and whether, as a result, he had “just been within an ace of being murdered.”
Continuing the tour, Horrocks points out additional effects, such as the canal. “You've never seen it? Fancy that! You've spent too many of your evenings philandering,” Horrocks tells Raut.
They take an elevator to a “narrow rail” overhanging a furnace seventy feet below. “That's the cone I've been telling you of,” shouts Horrocks, “and, below that, sixty feet of molten metal, with the air of the blast frothing through it like gas in soda-water.” He adds that the cone's “top side” is 300 degrees, which is hot enough to “boil the blood out of you in no time.” Raut tries to escape, struggling with Horrocks, who detains him, and Raut plunges into “empty air.” Although his lower body makes contact with the “hot cone,” Raut manages to cling to the chain from which the furnace's cone is suspended, the tremendous heat singeing his hands and causing “intense pain” to assail “him at the knees.” Raut tries to ascend the chain, but Horrocks flings coal at him, shouting, “Fizzle you fool! Fizzle, you hunter of women! You hot-blooded hound! Boil! boil! boil!”
Only after Raut, still clinging to the chain, has been immolated does Horrocks's anger pass and “a deadly sickness [comes] upon him.” as he smells “the heavy odour of burning flesh . . . . his sanity” returning.
From “below was the sound of voices and running steps. The clangour of rolling in the shed ceased abruptly.”
* * *
The plot of Wells's story is itself a thing of beauty. Tight, unified, and artistically executed, with every detail leading to the final effect, it's a tale of terror worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.
Beyond the plot itself, Wells's story is a masterpiece of literary excellence because of its style. A tale of vengeance against an artist, the story is rendered as if Raut himself might have painted it, as a series of images, some impressionistic, others surreal. Wells's protagonist doesn't only speak of the aesthetic effects of his workplace, but the omniscient narrator's artistic descriptions of these effects is like detailed verbal paintings, as these few samples indicate:
The night was hot and overcast, the sky red, rimmed with the lingering sunset of mid-summer. . . . The trees and shrubs of the garden stood stiff and dark; beyond in the roadway a gas-lamp burnt, bright orange against the hazy blue of the evening. Farther were the three lights of the railway signal against the lowering sky.
* * *
Horrocks pointed to the canal close before them now: a weird-looking place it seemed, in the blood-red reflections of the furnaces. The hot water that cooled the tuyeres [“a nozzle through which air is forced into a smelter, furnace, or forge”] came into it, some fifty yards up—a tumultuous, almost boiling affluent, and the steam rose up from the water in silent white wisps and streaks, wrapping damply about them, an incessant succession of ghosts coming up from the black and red eddies, a white uprising that made the head swim.
* * *
They went . . . through the rolling-mills [“a factory or machine for rolling steel or other metal into sheets”], where amidst an incessant din the deliberate steam-hammer beat the juice out of the succulent iron, and black, half-naked Titans rushed the plastic bars, like hot sealing-wax, between the wheels. . . . They went and peeped through the little glass hole behind the tuyeres, and saw the tumbled fire writhing in the pit of the blast-furnace. It left the eye blinded for a while. Then, with green and blue patches dancing across the dark, they went to the lift . . . .
These descriptions support Horrocks's view of the ironworks as itself an artistic setting as well as a technological marvel. Unlike Raut and his own wife, Horrocks is able to see the beauty of technology and industry. It is ironic that such beauty, as Horrocks perceives it and the narrator describes it, should be the background to the artist's demise at the hands of Horrocks and the technology of the ironworks itself.
But Wells achieves yet more through the figures of speeches, allusions, and point of view his omniscient narrator employs in describing what, to Horrocks, is a work of art and what is to his victim, “Gehenna,” “a place of burning, torment, or misery.” From Horrocks's point of view, the ironworks is described as a work of art; the furnace is personified as Horrocks's “pet” (“I packed him myself, and he's boiled away cheerfully with iron in his guts for five long years. I have a particular fancy for him”); and the water of the steaming canal is described with an allusion to “sin” and “death,” just as the “flames” that once erupted from the “throats” of the furnaces looked like God, as He revealed Himself to Moses and the Israelites, as “pillars of cloud by day . . . and pillars of fire by night” (Exodus 13:21-22) as they journeyed through the wilderness.
Wells's descriptions are dynamic, not static; they move and act, as if the ironworks is itself a conscious entity, a willing instrument of its manager's revenge. The movement prevents the plot from slowing, keeps up the pace of the action, and is perfectly suited to the tour of his workplace that Horrocks conducts. The descriptions heighten and underscore the unity between Horrocks and his beloved ironworks, emphasizing the relationship that exists between him, as a man, and the industry and technology of the works he manages.
Horrocks's appreciation of the beauty of the ironworks also suggests that both the artist Raut and Horrocks's wife underestimate his sensitivity, intelligence, and imagination. It is not that he lacks the ability to appreciate beauty, but that the type of beauty he appreciates differs from that of Raut and Horrocks's wife. They are detached from the material world, thinking in terms of “effects” and of romantic passion; a man of the earth, a “Titan,” Horrocks is immersed in the physical world of labor and sweat, of industry and technology. To him, the ironworks is a place of beauty, whereas, to Raut, it is a “Gehenna,” a blot upon the beauty of the countryside, and, to Horrocks's wife, it is a stifling, suffocating place devoid of beauty and love. The story suggests that it is the illicit lovers who are unable to appreciate beauty—at least the beauty that Horrocks is able to see.
The characters live in different worlds, which results in a conflict of aesthetics, passion, and love that ends in horrible death for Raut, a realization of the darkness within him for Horrocks, and the end of an affair that Horrocks's wife said opened “a world of love” to her. The story suggests that life, like the setting in which it is experienced, may be a place of beauty which suggests the presence of God, as the ironworks does for Horrocks, or a “Gehenna” of torment and anguish suggestive of hell for those who cannot fathom the beauty and majesty of the place. The story also suggests the significance and power of aesthetics, for it is both the appreciation of the ironworks's beauty, on Horrocks's part, and the failure to appreciate the beauty of such a place, on Raut's and Horrocks's wife's part, that leads to adultery, betrayal, vengeance, and murder and to the horrific death of the artist at the hand of the ironmaster:
His human likeness departed from him. When the momentary red had passed, Horrocks saw a charred, blackened figure, its head streaked with blood, still clutching and fumbling with the chain, and writhing in agony—a cindery animal, an inhuman, monstrous creature that began a sobbing intermittent shriek.
Abruptly, at the sight, the ironmaster's anger passed. A deadly sickness came upon him. The heavy odour of flesh came drifting up to his nostrils. His sanity returned to him.
“God have mercy upon me!” he cried. “O God! what have I done?”
He knew the thing below him, save that it moved and felt, was already a dead man—that the blood of the poor wretch must be boiling in his veins. An intense realisation of that agony came to his mind, and overcame every other feeling. For a moment he stood irresolute, and then, turning to the truck, he hastily tilted its contents upon the struggling thing that had once been a man. The mass fell with a thud, and went radiating over the cone. With the thud the shriek ended, and a boiling confusion of smoke, dust, and flame came rushing up towards him. As it passed, he saw the cone clear again.