With apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, and all his hellish sub-clauses of death.
It had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Sweat was its Avatar and its seal – the stifling horror of sweat. There were sharp barks, and sudden disorientation, and profuse sweating at the pores, with dissolution. The constricting pressure on the upper arm and the torment on the face of the victim were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were the incidents of an hour and a half.
But the manager Fabio was dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence twenty-three hale and light-hearted men, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his walled enclosures. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. With such precautions the manager might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve, or to think. The manager had provided all the appliances of pleasure and success. There were videogames, there were plastic cones, there was structure, there was seclusion. All these (and the Armband) were within.
The tastes of the manager were peculiar. He had a fine eye for strategy and detail. He disregarded the decora of mere fashion. His plans were bold and fiery, and his conceptions glowed with pragmatic lustre. There are some who would have thought him mad. His followers felt that he was not. It was necessary to hear and see him to be sure that he was not.
But to and fro among the twenty-three men there stalked a multitude of dreams. And these – the dreams – writhed in and about, taking shape from the seclusion and causing the wild chants of the crowd to seem as the echo of their steps. And, anon, there sounds the shrill whistle that stands in the centre of the field. And then, for a moment, all is still, and all is silent save the voice of the whistle. The dreams are stiff-frozen as they stand. But the echoes of the whistle die away – they have endured but an instant – and a light, half-subdued jeer floats after them as they depart.
And thus it happened, perhaps, that more of thought crept, with more of time, into the meditations of the thoughtful among those who jeered. There were many individuals in the crowd who had found leisure to become aware of the presence of an Armbanded figure. And the rumour of this presence having spread itself whisperingly around, there arose at length from the whole company a buzz, or murmur, expressive of disconcert and surprise – then, finally, of terror, of horror, and of disgust.
The whole company seemed now deeply to feel that in the bearing of the stranger neither wit nor propriety existed. The figure was tall and broad, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the Armband. His vesture was dabbled in sweat – and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with passion and pride.
When the eyes of the manager Fabio fell upon this beefy image (which with a slow and solemn movement, as if more fully to sustain its role, stalked to and fro among the players), he was seen to be convulsed, in the first moment, with a strong shudder either of terror or distaste; but, in the next, his brow reddened with rage.
‘Who dares?’ he demanded hoarsely of the players who stood near him – ‘who dares insult us with this blasphemous mockery? Seize him and un-Armband him – that we may know whom we have to hang at sunrise from the battlements, or else drop for the Slovenia game!’
At first, as he spoke, there was a slight rushing movement of this group in the direction of the intruder, who, at the moment, was also near at hand, and now, with deliberate and stately step, made closer approach to the manager. But from a certain nameless awe with which the mad assumptions of the Armband had inspired the whole party, there were found none who put forth hand to seize him; so that, unimpeded, he passed within a yard of the manager’s person; and, while the vast assembly, as if with one impulse, shrank from the centres of the room to the walls, he made his way uninterruptedly.
And now was acknowledged the presence of the Armband. It had come like a thief in the night. And the life of the stoppage-time clock went out. And the lenses on the tripods flared. And Darkness and Decay and the Armband held illimitable dominion over all.