The Diamond Maker, by H. G. Wells
Bacillus and Other Incidents
Some business had detained me in Chancery Lane until nine in the
evening, and thereafter, having some inkling of a headache, I was
disinclined either for entertainment or further work. So much of the
sky as the high cliffs of that narrow cañon of traffic left visible
spoke of a serene night, and I determined to make my way down to
the Embankment, and rest my eyes and cool my head by watching the
variegated lights upon the river. Beyond comparison the night is the
best time for this place; a merciful darkness hides the dirt of the
waters, and the lights of this transition age, red, glaring orange,
gas-yellow, and electric white, are set in shadowy outlines of every
possible shade between grey and deep purple. Through the arches of
Waterloo Bridge a hundred points of light mark the sweep of the
Embankment, and above its parapet rise the towers of Westminster, warm
grey against the starlight. The black river goes by with only a rare
ripple breaking its silence, and disturbing the reflections of the
lights that swim upon its surface.
"A warm night," said a voice at my side.
I turned my head, and saw the profile of a man who was leaning over
the parapet beside me. It was a refined face, not unhandsome, though
pinched and pale enough, and the coat collar turned up and pinned
round the throat marked his status in life as sharply as a uniform. I
felt I was committed to the price of a bed and breakfast if I answered
I looked at him curiously. Would he have anything to tell me worth the
money, or was he the common incapable—incapable even of telling his
own story? There was a quality of intelligence in his forehead and
eyes, and a certain tremulousness in his nether lip that decided me.
"Very warm," said I; "but not too warm for us here."
"No," he said, still looking across the water, "it is pleasant enough
here … just now."
"It is good," he continued after a pause, "to find anything so restful
as this in London. After one has been fretting about business all day,
about getting on, meeting obligations, and parrying dangers, I do not
know what one would do if it were not for such pacific corners." He
spoke with long pauses between the sentences. "You must know a little
of the irksome labour of the world, or you would not be here. But
I doubt if you can be so brain-weary and footsore as I am … Bah!
Sometimes I doubt if the game is worth the candle. I feel inclined to
throw the whole thing over—name, wealth, and position—and take to
some modest trade. But I know if I abandoned my ambition—hardly as
she uses me—I should have nothing but remorse left for the rest of my
He became silent. I looked at him in astonishment. If ever I saw a man
hopelessly hard-up it was the man in front of me. He was ragged and he
was dirty, unshaven and unkempt; he looked as though he had been left
in a dust-bin for a week. And he was talking to me of the irksome
worries of a large business. I almost laughed outright. Either he was
mad or playing a sorry jest on his own poverty.
"If high aims and high positions," said I, "have their drawbacks of
hard work and anxiety, they have their compensations. Influence,
the power of doing good, of assisting those weaker and poorer than
ourselves; and there is even a certain gratification in display…."
My banter under the circumstances was in very vile taste. I spoke on
the spur of the contrast of his appearance and speech. I was sorry
even while I was speaking.
He turned a haggard but very composed face upon me. Said he: "I forget
myself. Of course you would not understand."
He measured me for a moment. "No doubt it is very absurd. You will not
believe me even when I tell you, so that it is fairly safe to tell
you. And it will be a comfort to tell someone. I really have a big
business in hand, a very big business. But there are troubles just
now. The fact is … I make diamonds."
"I suppose," said I, "you are out of work just at present?"
"I am sick of being disbelieved," he said impatiently, and suddenly
unbuttoning his wretched coat he pulled out a little canvas bag that
was hanging by a cord round his neck. From this he produced a brown
pebble. "I wonder if you know enough to know what that is?" He handed
it to me.
Now, a year or so ago, I had occupied my leisure in taking a London
science degree, so that I have a smattering of physics and mineralogy.
The thing was not unlike an uncut diamond of the darker sort, though
far too large, being almost as big as the top of my thumb. I took it,
and saw it had the form of a regular octahedron, with the curved faces
peculiar to the most precious of minerals. I took out my penknife and
tried to scratch it—vainly. Leaning forward towards the gas-lamp, I
tried the thing on my watch-glass, and scored a white line across that
with the greatest ease.
I looked at my interlocutor with rising curiosity. "It certainly is
rather like a diamond. But, if so, it is a Behemoth of diamonds. Where
did you get it?"
"I tell you I made it," he said. "Give it back to me."
He replaced it hastily and buttoned his jacket. "I will sell it you
for one hundred pounds," he suddenly whispered eagerly. With that my
suspicions returned. The thing might, after all, be merely a lump
of that almost equally hard substance, corundum, with an accidental
resemblance in shape to the diamond. Or if it was a diamond, how came
he by it, and why should he offer it at a hundred pounds?
We looked into one another's eyes. He seemed eager, but honestly
eager. At that moment I believed it was a diamond he was trying to
sell. Yet I am a poor man, a hundred pounds would leave a visible gap
in my fortunes and no sane man would buy a diamond by gaslight from a
ragged tramp on his personal warranty only. Still, a diamond that size
conjured up a vision of many thousands of pounds. Then, thought I,
such a stone could scarcely exist without being mentioned in every
book on gems, and again I called to mind the stories of contraband and
light-fingered Kaffirs at the Cape. I put the question of purchase on
"How did you get it?" said I.
"I made it."
I had heard something of Moissan, but I knew his artificial diamonds
were very small. I shook my head.
"You seem to know something of this kind of thing. I will tell you
a little about myself. Perhaps then you may think better of the
purchase." He turned round with his back to the river, and put his
hands in his pockets. He sighed. "I know you will not believe me."
"Diamonds," he began—and as he spoke his voice lost its faint flavour
of the tramp and assumed something of the easy tone of an educated
man—"are to be made by throwing carbon out of combination in a
suitable flux and under a suitable pressure; the carbon crystallises
out, not as black-lead or charcoal-powder, but as small diamonds. So
much has been known to chemists for years, but no one yet has hit upon
exactly the right flux in which to melt up the carbon, or exactly the
right pressure for the best results. Consequently the diamonds made by
chemists are small and dark, and worthless as jewels. Now I, you know,
have given up my life to this problem—given my life to it.
"I began to work at the conditions of diamond making when I was
seventeen, and now I am thirty-two. It seemed to me that it might take
all the thought and energies of a man for ten years, or twenty years,
but, even if it did, the game was still worth the candle. Suppose one
to have at last just hit the right trick, before the secret got out
and diamonds became as common as coal, one might realise millions.
He paused and looked for my sympathy. His eyes shone hungrily. "To
think," said he, "that I am on the verge of it all, and here!
"I had," he proceeded, "about a thousand pounds when I was twenty-one,
and this, I thought, eked out by a little teaching, would keep my
researches going. A year or two was spent in study, at Berlin chiefly,
and then I continued on my own account. The trouble was the secrecy.
You see, if once I had let out what I was doing, other men might have
been spurred on by my belief in the practicability of the idea; and I
do not pretend to be such a genius as to have been sure of coming in
first, in the case of a race for the discovery. And you see it was
important that if I really meant to make a pile, people should not
know it was an artificial process and capable of turning out diamonds
by the ton. So I had to work all alone. At first I had a little
laboratory, but as my resources began to run out I had to conduct my
experiments in a wretched unfurnished room in Kentish Town, where I
slept at last on a straw mattress on the floor among all my apparatus.
The money simply flowed away. I grudged myself everything except
scientific appliances. I tried to keep things going by a little
teaching, but I am not a very good teacher, and I have no university
degree, nor very much education except in chemistry, and I found I had
to give a lot of time and labour for precious little money. But I got
nearer and nearer the thing. Three years ago I settled the problem of
the composition of the flux, and got near the pressure by putting
this flux of mine and a certain carbon composition into a closed-up
gun-barrel, filling up with water, sealing tightly, and heating."
"Rather risky," said I.
"Yes. It burst, and smashed all my windows and a lot of my apparatus;
but I got a kind of diamond powder nevertheless. Following out the
problem of getting a big pressure upon the molten mixture from
which the things were to crystallise, I hit upon some researches of
Daubrée's at the Paris Laboratorie des Poudres et Salpêtres. He
exploded dynamite in a tightly screwed steel cylinder, too strong to
burst, and I found he could crush rocks into a muck not unlike the
South African bed in which diamonds are found. It was a tremendous
strain on my resources, but I got a steel cylinder made for my purpose
after his pattern. I put in all my stuff and my explosives, built up
a fire in my furnace, put the whole concern in, and—went out for a
I could not help laughing at his matter-of-fact manner. "Did you not
think it would blow up the house? Were there other people in the
"It was in the interest of science," he said, ultimately. "There was a
costermonger family on the floor below, a begging-letter writer in the
room behind mine, and two flower-women were upstairs. Perhaps it was a
bit thoughtless. But possibly some of them were out.
"When I came back the thing was just where I left it, among the
white-hot coals. The explosive hadn't burst the case. And then I had
a problem to face. You know time is an important element in
crystallisation. If you hurry the process the crystals are small—it
is only by prolonged standing that they grow to any size. I resolved
to let this apparatus cool for two years, letting the temperature go
down slowly during that time. And I was now quite out of money; and
with a big fire and the rent of my room, as well as my hunger to
satisfy, I had scarcely a penny in the world.
"I can hardly tell you all the shifts I was put to while I was making
the diamonds. I have sold newspapers, held horses, opened cab-doors.
For many weeks I addressed envelopes. I had a place as assistant to
a man who owned a barrow, and used to call down one side of the road
while he called down the other. Once for a week I had absolutely
nothing to do, and I begged. What a week that was! One day the fire
was going out and I had eaten nothing all day, and a little chap
taking his girl out, gave me sixpence—to show-off. Thank heaven for
vanity! How the fish-shops smelt! But I went and spent it all on
coals, and had the furnace bright red again, and then—Well, hunger
makes a fool of a man.
"At last, three weeks ago, I let the fire out. I took my cylinder and
unscrewed it while it was still so hot that it punished my hands, and
I scraped out the crumbling lava-like mass with a chisel, and hammered
it into a powder upon an iron plate. And I found three big diamonds
and five small ones. As I sat on the floor hammering, my door opened,
and my neighbour, the begging-letter writer, came in. He was
drunk—as he usually is. ''Nerchist,' said he. 'You're drunk,' said I.
''Structive scoundrel,' said he. 'Go to your father,' said I, meaning
the Father of Lies. 'Never you mind,' said he, and gave me a cunning
wink, and hiccuped, and leaning up against the door, with his other
eye against the door-post, began to babble of how he had been prying
in my room, and how he had gone to the police that morning, and how
they had taken down everything he had to say—''siffiwas a ge'm,' said
he. Then I suddenly realised I was in a hole. Either I should have
to tell these police my little secret, and get the whole thing blown
upon, or be lagged as an Anarchist. So I went up to my neighbour
and took him by the collar, and rolled him about a bit, and then I
gathered up my diamonds and cleared out. The evening newspapers called
my den the Kentish-Town Bomb Factory. And now I cannot part with the
things for love or money.
"If I go in to respectable jewellers they ask me to wait, and go and
whisper to a clerk to fetch a policeman, and then I say I cannot wait.
And I found out a receiver of stolen goods, and he simply stuck to
the one I gave him and told me to prosecute if I wanted it back. I am
going about now with several hundred thousand pounds-worth of diamonds
round my neck, and without either food or shelter. You are the first
person I have taken into my confidence. But I like your face and I am
He looked into my eyes.
"It would be madness," said I, "for me to buy a diamond under the
circumstances. Besides, I do not carry hundreds of pounds about in my
pocket. Yet I more than half believe your story. I will, if you like,
do this: come to my office to-morrow…."
"You think I am a thief!" said he keenly. "You will tell the police. I
am not coming into a trap."
"Somehow I am assured you are no thief. Here is my card. Take that,
anyhow. You need not come to any appointment. Come when you will."
He took the card, and an earnest of my good-will.
"Think better of it and come," said I.
He shook his head doubtfully. "I will pay back your half-crown with
interest some day—such interest as will amaze you," said he. "Anyhow,
you will keep the secret?… Don't follow me."
He crossed the road and went into the darkness towards the little
steps under the archway leading into Essex Street, and I let him go.
And that was the last I ever saw of him.
Afterwards I had two letters from him asking me to send
bank-notes—not cheques—to certain addresses. I weighed the matter
over, and took what I conceived to be the wisest course. Once he
called upon me when I was out. My urchin described him as a very thin,
dirty, and ragged man, with a dreadful cough. He left no message. That
was the finish of him so far as my story goes. I wonder sometimes what
has become of him. Was he an ingenious monomaniac, or a fraudulent
dealer in pebbles, or has he really made diamonds as he asserted? The
latter is just sufficiently credible to make me think at times that
I have missed the most brilliant opportunity of my life. He may of
course be dead, and his diamonds carelessly thrown aside—one, I
repeat, was almost as big as my thumb. Or he may be still wandering
about trying to sell the things. It is just possible he may yet emerge
upon society, and, passing athwart my heavens in the serene altitude
sacred to the wealthy and the well-advertised, reproach me silently
for my want of enterprise. I sometimes think I might at least have
risked five pounds.