THE BLUE GERM
WORKS BY THE SAME AUTHOR
LORD RICHARD IN THE PANTRY CUPID GOES NORTH THE SPORTING INSTINCT
IN MESOPOTAMIA. (With Illustrations in Colour by the Author.)
LONDON: HODDER AND STOUGHTON
THE BLUE GERM
BY MARTIN SWAYNE
HODDER AND STOUGHTON LONDON NEW YORK TORONTO MCMXVIII
Printed in Great Britain By Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, BRUNSWICK ST., STAMFORD ST., S.E. 1, AND BUNGAY, SUFFOLK.
J. E. H. W.
CHAP. PAGE I. BLACK MAGIC 1 II. SARAKOFF'S MANIFESTO 5 III. THE BUTTERFLIES 14 IV. THE SIX TUBES 21 V. THE GREAT AQUEDUCT 29 VI. THE ATTITUDE OF MR. THORNDUCK 32 VII. LEONORA 40 VIII. THE BLUE DISEASE 58 IX. THE MAN FROM BIRMINGHAM 67 X. THE ILLNESS OF MR. ANNOT 79 XI. THE RESURRECTION 90 XII. MR. CLUTTERBUCK'S OPINION 101 XIII. THE DEAD IMMORTAL 110 XIV. FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF IMMORTALITY 123 XV. THE TERRIBLE FEAR 132 XVI. THE VISIT OF THE HOME SECRETARY 144 XVII. CLUTTERBUCK'S ODD BEHAVIOUR 156 XVIII. IMMORTAL LOVE 161 XIX. THE MEETING AT THE QUEEN'S HALL 177 XX. THE WAY BACK 188 XXI. JASON 196 XXII. THE FIRST MURDERS 206 XXIII. AT DOWNING STREET 216 XXIV. NIGHT OF AN IMMORTAL 224 XXV. OUR FLIGHT 229 XXVI. ON THE SPANIARD'S WALK 236 XXVII. LEONORA'S VOICE 245 XXVIII. THE KILLING OF DESIRE 252 XXIX. THE REVOLT OF THE YOUNG 260 XXX. THE GREAT SLEEP 273
I had just finished breakfast, and deeply perplexed had risen from the table in order to get a box of matches to light a cigarette, when my black cat got between my feet and tripped me up.
I fell forwards, making a clutch at the table-cloth. My forehead struck the corner of the fender and the last thing I remembered was a crash of falling crockery. Then all became darkness. My parlour-maid found me lying face downwards on the hearth-rug ten minutes later. My cat was sitting near my head, blinking contentedly at the fire. A little blood was oozing from a wound above my left eye.
They carried me up to my bedroom and sent for my colleague, Wilfred Hammer, who lived next door. For three days I lay insensible, and Hammer came in continually, whenever he could spare the time from his patients, and brooded over me. On the fourth day I began to move about in my bed, restless and muttering, and Hammer told me afterwards that I seemed to be talking of a black cat. On the night of the fourth day I suddenly opened my eyes. My perplexity had left me. An idea, clear as crystal, was now in my mind.
From that moment my confinement to bed was a source of impatience to me. Hammer, large, fair, square-headed, and imperturbable, insisted on complete rest, and I chafed under the restraint. I had only one desire—to get up, slip down to St. Dane's Hospital in my car, mount the bare stone steps that led up to the laboratory and begin work at once.
"Let me up, Hammer," I implored.
"My dear fellow, you're semi-delirious."
"I must get up," I muttered.
He laughed slowly.
"Not for another week or two, Harden. How is the black cat?"
"That cat is a wizard."
I lay watching him between half-closed eyelids.
"He gave me the idea."
"He gave you a nasty concussion," said Hammer.
"It was probably the only way to the idea," I answered. "I tell you the cat is a wizard. He did it on purpose. He's a black magician."
Hammer laughed again, and went towards the door.
"Then the idea must be black magic," he said.
I smiled painfully, for my head was throbbing. But I was happier then than I had ever been, for I had solved the problem that had haunted my brain for ten years.
"There's no such thing as black magic," I said.
Three weeks later I beheld the miracle. It was wrought on the last day of December, in the laboratory of the hospital, high above the gloom and squalor of the city. The miracle occurred within a brilliant little circle of light, and I saw it with my eye glued to a microscope. It passed off swiftly and quietly, and though I expected it, I was filled with a great wonder and amazement.
To a lay mind the amazement with which I beheld the miracle will require explanation. I had witnessed the transformation of one germ into another; a thing which is similar to a man seeing a flock of sheep on a hill-side change suddenly into a herd of cattle. For many minutes I continued to move the slide in an aimless way with trembling fingers. My temperament is earthy; it had once occurred to me quite seriously that if I saw a miracle I would probably go mad under the strain. Now that I had seen one, after the first flash of realization my mind was listless and dull, and all feeling of surprise had died away. The black rods floated with slow motion in the minute currents of fluid I had introduced. The faint roar of London came up from far below; the clock ticked steadily and the microscope lamp shone with silent radiance. And I, Richard Harden, sat dangling my short legs on the high stool, thinking and thinking....
That night I wrote to Professor Sarakoff. A month later I was on my way to Russia.
The recollection of my meeting with Sarakoff remains vividly in my mind. I was shown into a large bare room, heated by an immense stove like an iron pagoda. The floor was of light yellow polished wood; the walls were white-washed, and covered with pencil marks. A big table covered with papers and books stood at one end. At the other, through an open doorway, there was a glimpse of a laboratory. Sarakoff stood in the centre of the room, his hands deep in his pockets, his pipe sending up clouds of smoke, his tall muscular frame tilted back. His eyes were fixed on an extraordinary object that crawled slowly over the polished floor. It was a gigantic tortoise—a specimen of Testudo elephantopus—a huge cumbersome brute. Its ancient, scaly head was thrust out and its eyes gleamed with a kind of sharp intelligence. The surface of its vast and massive shell was covered over with scribbles in white chalk—notes made by Sarakoff who was in the habit of jotting down figures and formulae on anything near at hand.
As there was only one chair in the room, Sarakoff eventually thrust me into it, while he sat down on the great beast—whom he called Belshazzar—and told me over and over again how glad he was to see me. And this warmth of his was pleasant to me.
"Are you experimenting on Belshazzar?" I asked at length.
He nodded, and smiled enigmatically.
"He is two hundred years old," he said. "I want to get at his secret."
That was the first positive proof I got of the line of research Sarakoff was intent upon, although, reading between the lines of his many publications, I had guessed something of it.
In every way, Sarakoff was a complete contrast to me. Tall, lean, black-bearded and deep-voiced, careless of public opinion and prodigal in ideas, he was just my antithesis. He was possessed of immense energy. His tousled black hair, moustaches and beard seemed to bristle with it; it shone in his pale blue eyes. He was full of sudden violence, flinging test-tubes across the laboratory, shouting strange songs, striding about snapping his fingers. There was no repose in him. At first I was a little afraid of him, but the feeling wore off. He spoke English fluently, because when a boy he had been at school in London.
I will not enter upon a detailed account of our conversation that first morning in Russia, when the snow lay thick on the roofs of the city, and the ferns of frost sparkled on the window-panes of the laboratory. Briefly, we found ourselves at one over many problems of human research, and I congratulated myself on the fact that in communicating the account of the miracle at St. Dane's Hospital to Sarakoff alone, I had done wisely. He was wonderfully enthusiastic.
"That discovery of yours has furnished the key to the great riddle I had set myself," he exclaimed, striding to and fro. "We will astonish the world, my friend. It is only a question of time."
"But what is the riddle you speak of?" I asked.
"I will tell you soon. Have patience!" he cried. He came towards me impulsively and shook my hand. "We shall find it beyond a doubt, and we will call it the Sarakoff-Harden Bacillus! What do you think of that?"
I was somewhat mystified. He sat down again on the back of the tortoise, smoking in his ferocious manner and smiling and nodding to himself. I though it best to let him disclose his plans in his own way, and kept back the many eager questions that rose to my lips.
"It seems to me," said Sarakoff suddenly, "that England would be the best place to try the experiment. There's a telegraph everywhere, reporters in every village, and enough newspapers to carpet every square inch of the land. In a word, it's a first-class place to watch the results of an experiment."
"On a large scale?"
"On a gigantic scale—an experiment, ultimately, on the world."
I was puzzled and was anxious to draw him into fuller details.
"It would begin in England?" I asked carelessly.
"But it would spread. You remember how the last big outbreak of influenza, which started in this country, spread like wildfire until the waves, passing east and west, met on the other side of the globe? That was a big experiment."
"Of nature," I added.
He did not reply.
"An experiment of nature, you mean?" I urged. At the time of the last big outburst of influenza which began in Russia, Sarakoff must have been a student. Did he know anything about the origin of the mysterious and fatal visitation?
"Yes, of nature," he replied at last, but not in a tone that satisfied me. His manner intrigued me so much that I felt inclined to pursue the subject, but at that moment we were interrupted in a singular way.
The door burst open, and into the room rushed a motley crowd of men. Most of them were young students, but here and there I saw older men, and at the head of the mob was a white-bearded individual, wearing an astrachan cap, who brandished a copy of some Russian periodical in his hand.
Belshazzar drew in his head with a hiss that I could hear even above the clamour of this intrusion.
A furious colloquy began, which I could not understand, since it was in Russian. Sarakoff stood facing the angry crowd coolly enough, but that he was inwardly roused to a dangerous degree, I could tell from his gestures. The copy of the periodical was much in evidence. Fists were shaken freely. The aged, white-bearded leader worked himself up into a frenzy and finally jumped on the periodical, stamping it under his feet until he was out of breath.
Then this excited band trooped out of the room and left us in peace.
"What is it?" I asked when their steps had died away.
Sarakoff shrugged his shoulders and then laughed. He picked up the battered periodical and pointed to an article in it.
"I published a manifesto this morning—that is all," he remarked airily.
"What sort of manifesto?"
"On the origin of death." He sat down on Belshazzar's broad back and twisted his moustaches. "You see, Harden, I believe that in a few more years death will only exist as an uncertain element, appearing rarely, as an unnatural and exceptional incident. Life will be limitless; and the length of years attained by Belshazzar will seem as nothing."
It is curious how the spirit of a new discovery broods over the world like a capricious being, animating one investigator here, another there; partially revealing itself in this continent, disclosing another of its secrets in that, until all the fragments when fitted together make up the whole wonder. It seems that my discovery, coupled with the results of his own unpublished researches, had led Sarakoff to make that odd manifesto. Our combined work, although carried out independently, had given the firm groundwork of an amazing theory which Sarakoff had been maturing in his excited brain for many long years.
Sarakoff translated the manifesto to me. It was a trifle bombastic, and its composition appeared to me vague. No wonder it had roused hostility among his colleagues, I thought, as Sarakoff walked about, declaiming with outstretched arm. Put as briefly as possible, Sarakoff held all disease as due to germs of one sort or another; and decay of bodily tissue he regarded in the same light. In such a theory I stood beside him.
He continued to translate from the soiled and torn periodical, waving his arm majestically.
"We have only to eliminate all germs from the world to banish disease and decay—and death. Such an end can be attained in one way alone; a way which is known only to me, thanks to a magnificent series of profound investigations. I announce, therefore, that the disappearance of death from this planet can be anticipated with the utmost confidence. Let us make preparations. Let us consider our laws. Let us examine our resources. Let us, in short, begin the reconstruction of society."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, and sat staring at him.
He twirled his moustaches and observed me with shining eyes.
"What do you think of it?"
I shrugged my shoulders helplessly.
"Surely it is far fetched?"
"Not a bit of it. Now listen to me carefully. I'll give you, step by step, the whole matter." He walked up and down for some minutes and then suddenly stopped beside me and thumped me on the back. "There's not a flaw in it!" he cried. "It's magnificent. My dear fellow, death is only a failure in human perfection. There's nothing mysterious in it. Religion has made a ridiculous fuss about it. There's nothing more mysterious in it than there is in a badly-oiled engine wearing out. Now listen. I'm going to begin...."
I listened, fascinated.
Two years passed by after my return to London without special incident, save that my black cat died. My work as a consulting physician occupied most of my time. In the greater world beyond my consulting-room door life went on undisturbed by any thought of the approaching upheaval, full of the old tragedies of ambition and love and sickness. But sometimes as I examined my patients and listened to their tales of suffering and pain, a curious contraction of the heart would come upon me at the thought that perhaps some day, not so very far remote, all the endless cycle of disease and misery would cease, and a new dawn of hope burst with blinding radiance upon weary humanity. And then a mood of unbelief would darken my mind and I would view the creation of the bacillus as an idle and vain dream, an illusion never to be realized....
One evening as I sat alone before my study fire, my servant entered and announced there was a visitor to see me.
"Show him in here," I said, thinking he was probably a late patient who had come on urgent business.
A moment later Professor Sarakoff himself was shown in.
I rose with a cry of welcome and clasped his hand.
"My dear fellow, why didn't you let me know you were coming?" I cried.
He smiled upon me with a mysterious brightness.
"Harden," he said in a low voice, as if afraid of being heard, "I came on a sudden impulse. I wanted to show you something. Wait a moment."
He went out into the hall and returned bearing a square box in his hands. He laid it on the table and then carefully closed the door.
"It is the first big result of my experiments," he whispered. He opened the box and drew out a glass case covered over with white muslin.
He stepped back from the table and looked at me triumphantly.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Lift up the muslin."
I did so. On the wooden floor of the glass case were a great number of dark objects. At first I thought they were some kind of grub, and then on closer inspection I saw what they were.
"Butterflies!" I exclaimed.
He held up a warning finger and tiptoed to the door. He opened it suddenly and seemed relieved to find no one outside.
"Hush!" he said, closing the door again. "Yes, they are butterflies." He came back to the table and gave one of the glass panels a tap with his finger. The butterflies stirred and some spread their wings. They were a brilliant greenish purple shot with pale blue. "Yes, they are butterflies."
I peered at them.
"The specimen is unknown in England as far as I know."
"Quite so. They are peculiar to Russia."
"But what are you doing with them?" I asked.
He continued to smile.
"Do you notice anything remarkable about these butterflies?"
"No," I said after prolonged observation, "I can't say I do ... save that they are not denizens of this country."
"I think we might christen them," he said. "Let us call them Lepidoptera Sarakoffii." He tapped the glass again and watched the insects move. "But they are very remarkable," he continued. "Do they appear healthy to you?"
"You agree, then, that they are in good condition?"
"They seem to be in excellent condition."
"No signs of decay—or disease?"
"And yet," he said thoughtfully, "they should be, according to natural law, a mass of decayed tissue."
"Ah!" I looked at him with dawning comprehension. "You mean——?"
"I mean that they should have died long ago."
"How long do they live normally?"
"About twenty to thirty hours. At the outside their life is not more than thirty-six hours. These are somewhat older."
I gazed at the little creatures crawling aimlessly about. Aimless, did I say? There they were, filling up the floor of the glass case, moving with difficulty, getting in each other's way, sprawling and colliding, apparently without aim or purpose. At that spectacle my thoughts might well have taken a leap into the future and seen, instead of a crowded mass of butterflies, a crowded mass of humanity. I asked Sarakoff a question.
"How old are they?" I expected to hear they had existed perhaps a day or two beyond their normal limit.
"They are almost exactly a year old," was the reply. I stared, marvelling. A year old! I bent down, gazing at the turbulent restless mass of gaudy colour. A year old—and still vital and healthy!
"You mean these insects have lived a whole year?" I exclaimed, still unconvinced.
"But that is a miracle!"
"It is, proportionately, equal to a man living twenty-five thousand years instead of the normal seventy."
"You don't suggest——?"
He replaced the muslin covering and took out his pipe and tobacco pouch. Absurd, outrageous ideas crowded to my mind. Was it, then, possible that our dream was to become reality?
"I don't suppose they'll live much longer," I stammered.
He was silent until he had lit his pipe.
"If you met a man who had lived twenty-five thousand years, would you be inclined to tell me he would not live much longer, simply on general considerations?"
I could not find a satisfactory answer.
As a matter of fact the question scarcely conveyed anything to me. One can realize only by reference to familiar standards. The idea of a man who has lived one hundred and fifty years is to me a more realistic curiosity than the idea of a man twenty-five thousand years old. But I caught a glimpse, as it were, of strange figures, moving about in a colourless background, with calm gestures, slow speeches, silences perhaps a year in length. The familiar outline of London crumbled suddenly away, the blotches of shadow and the coloured shafts of light striking between the gaps in the crowds, the violet-lit tubes, the traffic, faded into the conception of twenty-five thousand years. All this many-angled, many-coloured modern spectacle that was a few thousand years removed from cave dwellings, was rolled flat and level, merging into this grey formless carpet of time.
Next morning Sarakoff returned to Russia, bearing with him the wonderful butterflies, and for many months I heard nothing from him. But before he went he told me that he would return soon.
"I have only one step further to take and the ideal germ will be created, Harden. Then we poor mortals will realize the dream that has haunted us since the beginning of time. We will attain immortality, and the fear of death, round which everything is built, will vanish. We will become gods!"
"Or devils, Sarakoff," I murmured.
THE SIX TUBES
One night, just as I entered my house, the telephone bell in the hall rang sharply. I picked up the receiver impatiently, for I was tired with the long day's work.
"Is that Dr. Harden?"
"Can you come down to Charing Cross Station at once? The station-master is speaking."
"No. We wish you to identify a person who has arrived by the boat-train. The police are detaining him as a suspect. He gave your name as a reference. He is a Russian."
"All right. I'll come at once."
I hung up the receiver and told the servant to whistle for a taxi-cab. Ten minutes later I was picking my way through the crowds on the platform to the station-master's office. I entered, and found a strange scene being enacted. On one side of a table stood Sarakoff, very flushed, with shining eyes, clasping a black bag tightly to his breast. On the other side stood a group of four men, the station-master, a police officer, a plain clothes man and an elderly gentleman in white spats. The last was pointing an accusing finger at Sarakoff.
"Open that bag and we'll believe you!" he shouted.
Sarakoff glared at him defiantly.
I recognized his accuser at once. It was Lord Alberan, the famous Tory obstructionist.
"Anarchist!" Lord Alberan's voice rang out sharply. He took out a handkerchief and mopped his face.
"Arrest him!" he said to the constable with an air of satisfaction. "I knew he was an anarchist the moment I set eyes on him at Dover. There is an infernal machine in that bag. The man reeks of vodka. He is mad."
"Idiot," exclaimed Sarakoff, with great vehemence. "I drink nothing but water."
"He wishes to destroy London," said Lord Alberan coldly. "There is enough dynamite in that bag to blow the whole of Trafalgar Square into fragments. Arrest him instantly."
I stepped forward from the shadows by the door. Sarakoff uttered a cry of pleasure.
"Ah, Harden, I knew you would come. Get me out of this stupid situation!"
"What is the matter?" I asked, glancing at the station-master. He explained briefly that Lord Alberan and Sarakoff had travelled up in the same compartment from Dover, and that Sarakoff's strange restlessness and excited movements had roused Lord Alberan's suspicions. As a consequence Sarakoff had been detained for examination.
"If he would open his bag we should be satisfied," added the station-master. I looked at my friend significantly.
"Why not open it?" I asked. "It would be simplest."
My words had the effect of quieting the excited professor. He put the bag on the table, and placed his hands on the top of it.
"Very well," he said slowly, "I will open it, since my friend Dr. Harden has requested me to do so."
"Stand back!" cried Lord Alberan, flinging out his arms. "We may be so much dust flying over London in a moment."
Sarakoff took out a key and unlocked the bag. There was silence for a moment, only broken by hurrying footsteps on the platform without. Then Lord Alberan stepped cautiously forward.
He saw the worn canvas lining of the bag. He took a step nearer and saw a wooden rack, fitted in the interior, containing six glass tubes whose mouths were stopped with plugs of cotton wool.
"You see, there is nothing important there," said Sarakoff with a smile. "These objects are of purely scientific interest." He took out one of the tubes and held it up to the light. It was half full of a semi-transparent jelly-like mass, faintly blue in colour. The detective, the policeman and the station official clustered round, their faces turned up to the light and their eyes fixed on the tube. The Russian looked at them narrowly, and reading nothing but dull wonderment in their expressions, began to speak again.
"Yes—the Bacillus Pyocyaneus," he said, with a faint mocking smile and a side glance at me. "It is occasionally met with in man and is easily detected by the blue bye-product it gives off while growing." He twisted the tube slowly round. "It is quite an interesting culture," he continued idly. "Do you observe the uniform distribution of the growth and the absence of any sign of liquefaction in the medium?"
Lord Alberan cleared his throat.
"I—er—I think we owe you an apology," he said. "My suspicions were unfounded. However, I did my duty to my country by having you examined. You must admit your conduct was suspicious—highly suspicious, sir!"
Sarakoff replaced the tube and locked the bag. Lord Alberan marched to the door and held it open.
"We need not detain you, sir," said the detective. The policeman squared his shoulders and hitched up his belt. The station official looked nervous.
Dr. Sarakoff, with a gesture of indifference, picked up the bag and, taking me by the arm, passed out on to the brilliantly-lit platform. "Pyocyaneus," he muttered in my ear; "pyocyaneus, indeed! Confound the fellow. He might have got me into no end of trouble if he had known the truth, Harden."
"But what is it?" I asked. "What have you got in the bag?"
He stopped under a sizzling arc-lamp outside the station.
"The bag," he said touching the worn leather lovingly, "contains six tubes of the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus. Yes, I have added your name to it. I will make your name immortal—by coupling it with mine."
"But what is the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus?" I cried.
He struck an attitude under the viperish glare of the lamp and smiled. He certainly did look like an anarchist at the moment. He loomed over me, huge, satanic, inscrutable.
A thrill, almost of fear, passed over me. I glanced round in some apprehension. Under an archway near by I saw Lord Alberan looking fixedly at us. The expression of suspicion had returned to his face.
"You mean——?" He nodded. I gulped a little. "You really have——?" He continued to nod. "Then we can try the great experiment?" I whispered, dry throated.
"At once!" The detective passed us, brushing against my shoulder. I caught Sarakoff by the arm.
"Look here—we must get away," I muttered. I felt like a criminal. Sarakoff clasped the bag firmly under his free arm. We began to walk hurriedly away. Our manner was furtive. Once I looked back and saw Alberan talking, with excited gestures, to the detective. They were both looking in our direction. The impulse to run possessed me. "Quick," I exclaimed, "there's a taxi. Jump in. Drive to Harley Street—like the devil."
Inside the cab I lay back, my mind in a whirl.
"We begin the experiment to-morrow," said Sarakoff at last. "Have you made plans as I told you?"
"Yes—yes. Of course. Only I never believed it possible." I controlled myself and sat up. "I fixed on Birmingham. It seemed best—but I never dreamed——"
"Good!" he exclaimed. "Birmingham, then!"
"Their water supply comes from Wales."
We spoke no more till I turned the key of my study door behind me. It was in this way that the germ, which made so vast and strange an impression on the course of the world's history, first reached England. It had lain under the very nose of Lord Alberan, who opposed everything new automatically. Yet it, the newest of all things, escaped his vigilance.
We decided to put our plans into action without delay, and next morning we set off, carrying with us the precious tubes of the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus. Throughout the long journey we scarcely spoke to each other. Each of us was absorbed in his picture of the future effects of the germ.
There was one strange fact that Sarakoff had told me the night before, and that I had verified. The bacillus was ultra-microscopical—that is, it could not be seen, even with the highest power, under the microscope. Its presence was only to be detected by the blue stain it gave off during its growth.
THE GREAT AQUEDUCT
The Birmingham reservoirs are a chain of lakes artificially produced by damming up the River Elan, a tributary of the Wye. The great aqueduct which carries the water from the Elan, eighty miles across country, travelling through hills and bridging valleys, runs past Ludlow and Cleobury Mortimer, through the Wyre Forest to Kidderminster, and on to Birmingham itself through Frankley, where there is a large storage reservoir from which the water is distributed.
The scenery was bleak and desolate. Before us the sun was sinking in a flood of crimson light. We walked briskly, the long legs of the Russian carrying him swiftly over the uneven ground while I trotted beside him. Before the last rays of the sun had died away we saw the black outline of the Caban Loch dam before us, and caught the sheen of water beyond. On the north lay the river Elan and on the south the steep side of a mountain towered up against the luminous sky. The road runs along the left bank of the river bounded by a series of bold and abrupt crags that rise to a height of some eight hundred feet above the level of the water. Just below the Caban Dam is a house occupied by an inspector in charge of the gauge apparatus that is used to measure the outflow of water from the huge natural reservoirs. The lights from his house twinkled through the growing darkness as we drew near, and we skirted it by a short detour and pressed on.
"How long does water take to get from here to Birmingham?" asked Sarakoff as we climbed up to the edge of the first lake.
"It travels about a couple of miles an hour," I replied. "So that means about a day and a half."
We spoke in low voices, for we were afraid of detection. The presence of two visitors at that hour might well have attracted attention.
"A day and a half! Then the bacillus has a long journey to take." He stopped at the margin of the water and stared across the shadowy lake. "Yes, it has a long journey to take, for it will go round the whole world."
The last glow in the sky tinted the calm sheet of water a deep blood colour. Sarakoff opened his bag and took out a couple of tubes.
He pulled the cotton-wool plugs out of the tubes, and with a long wire, loosened the gelatinous contents. Then, inverting the tubes he flung them into the lake close to the beginning of the huge aqueduct.
I stared as the tubes vanished from sight, feeling that it was too late to regret what had now been done, for nothing could collect those millions of bacilli, that had been set free in the water. Already some of them had perhaps entered the dark cavernous mouth of the first culvert to start on their slow journey to Birmingham. The light faded from the sky and darkness spread swiftly over the lake. Sarakoff emptied the remaining tubes calmly and then turned his footsteps in the direction of Rhayader. I waited a moment longer in the deep silence of that lonely spot; and then with a shiver followed my friend. The bacillus had been let loose on the world.
THE ATTITUDE OF MR. THORNDUCK
We reached London next day in the afternoon. I felt exhausted and could scarcely answer Sarakoff, who had talked continuously during the journey.
But his theory had interested me. The Russian had revealed much of his character, under the stress of excitement. He spoke of the coming of Immortality in the light of a physical boon to mankind. He seemed to see in his mind's eye a great picture of comfort and physical enjoyment and of a humanity released from the grim spectres of disease and death, and ceaselessly pursuing pleasure.
"I love life," he remarked. "I love fame and success. I love comfort, ease, laughter, and companionship. The whole of Nature is beautiful to me, and a beautiful woman is Nature's best reward. Now that the dawn of Immortality is at hand, Harden, we must set about reorganizing the world so that it may yield the maximum of pleasure."
"But surely there will be some limit to pleasure?" I objected.
"Why? Can't you see that is just what there will not be?" he cried excitedly. "We are going to do away with the confining limits. Your imagination is too cramped! You sit there, huddled up in a corner, as if we had let loose a dreadful plague on Birmingham!"
"It may prove to be so," I muttered. I do not think I had any clear idea as to the future, but there is a natural machinery in the mind that doubts golden ages and universal panaceas. Call it superstition if you will, but man's instinct tells him he cannot have uninterrupted pleasure without paying for it. I said as much to the Russian.
He gave vent to a roar of laughter.
"You have all the caution and timidity of your race," he said. "You are fearful even in your hour of deliverance. My friend, it is impossible to conceive, even faintly, of the change that will come over us towards the meaning of life. Can't you see that, as soon as the idea of Immortality gets hold of people, they will devote all their energies to making their earth a paradise? Why, it is obvious. They will then know that there is no other paradise."
He took out his watch and made a calculation. His face became flushed.
"The bacillus has travelled forty-two miles towards Birmingham," he said, just as our train drew in to the London terminus.
I was busy with patients until dinner-time and did not see anything of Sarakoff. While working, my exhaustion and anxiety wore off, and were replaced by a mild exhilaration. One of my patients was a professor of engineering at a northern university; a brilliant young man, who, but for physical disease, had the promise of a great career before him. He had been sent to me, after having made a round of the consultants, to see if I could give him any hope as to the future. I went into his case carefully, and then addressed him a question.
"What is your own view of your case, Mr. Thornduck?"
He looked surprised. His face relaxed, and he smiled. I suppose he detected a message of hope in my expression.
"I have been told by half-a-dozen doctors that I have not long to live, Dr. Harden," he replied. "But it is very difficult for me to grasp that view. I find that I behave as if nothing were the matter. I still go on working. I still see goals far ahead. Death is just a word—frequently uttered, it is true—but meaningless. What am I to do?"
"Go on working."
"And am I to expect only a short lease of life?"
I rose from my writing-table and walked to the hearth. A surge of power came over me as I thought of the bacillus which was so silently and steadily advancing on Birmingham.
"Do you believe in miracles?" I asked.
"That is an odd question." He reflected for a time. "No, I don't think so. All one is taught now-a-days is in a contrary direction, isn't it?"
"Yes, but our knowledge only covers a very small field—perhaps an artificially isolated one, too."
"Then you think only a miracle will save my life?"
I nodded and gazed at him.
"You seem amused," he remarked quietly.
"I am not amused, Mr. Thornduck. I am very happy."
"Does my case interest you?"
"Extremely. As a case, you are typical. Your malady is invariably fatal. It is only one of the many maladies that we know to be fatal, while we remain ignorant of all else. Under ordinary circumstances, you would have before you about three years of reasonable health and sanity."
"Well, after that you would be somewhat helpless. You would begin to employ that large section of modern civilization that deals with the somewhat helpless."
I began to warm to my theme, and clasped my hands behind my back.
"Yes, you would pass into that class that disproves all theories of a kindly Deity, and you would become an undergraduate in the vast and lamentable University of Suffering, through whose limitless corridors we medical men walk with weary footsteps. Ah, if only an intelligent group of scientists had had the construction of the human body to plan! Think what poor stuff it is! Think how easy it would have been to make it more enduring! The cell—what a useless fragile delicacy! And we are made of millions of these useless fragile delicacies."
To my surprise he laughed with great amusement. He stood there, young, pleasant, and smiling. I stared at him with a curious uneasiness. For the moment I had forgotten what it had been my intention to say. The dawn of Immortality passed out of my mind, and I found myself gazing, as it were, on something strangely mysterious.
"Your religion helps you?" I hazarded.
"Religion?" He mused for a moment. "Don't you think there is some meaning behind our particular inevitable destinies—that we may perhaps have earned them?"
"Nonsense! It is all the cruel caprice of Nature, and nothing else."
"Oh, come, Dr. Harden, you surely take a larger view. Do you think the short existence we have here is all the chance of activity we ever have? That I have a glimpse of engineering, and you have a short phase of doctoring on this planet, and that then we have finished all experience?"
"Certainly. It would not be possible to take any other view—horrible."
"But you believe in some theory of evolution—of slow upward progress?"
"Yes, of course. That is proved beyond all doubt."
"And yet you think it applies only to the body—to the instrument—and not to the immaterial side of us?"
I stared at him in astonishment.
"I do not think there is any immaterial side, Mr. Thornduck."
"A very unsatisfying view, surely?" he remarked.
"Unsatisfying, perhaps, but sound science," I retorted.
"Sound?" He pondered for an instant. "Can a thing be sound and unsatisfying at the same time? When I see a machine that's ugly—that's unsatisfying from the artist's point of view—I always know it's wrongly planned and inefficient. Don't you think it's the same with theories of life?" He took out his watch and glanced at it. "But I must not keep you. Good-bye, Dr. Harden."
He went to the door, nodded, and left the room before I recalled that I meant to hint to him that a miracle was going to happen, and save his life. I remained on the hearth-rug, wondering what on earth he meant.
I found a note in the hall from Sarakoff asking me to come round to the Pyramid Restaurant at eight o'clock to meet a friend of his. It was a crisp clear evening, and I decided to walk. There were two problems on my mind. One was the outlook of Sarakoff, which even I deemed to be too materialistic. The other was the attitude of young Thornduck, which was obviously absurd.
In my top hat and solemn frock-coat I paced slowly down Harley Street.
Thornduck talked as if suffering, as if all that side of existence which the Blue Germ was to do away with, were necessary and salutary. Sarakoff spoke as if pleasure was the only aim of life. Now, though sheer physical pleasure had never entered very deeply into my life, I had never denied the fact that it was the only motive of the majority of my patients. For what was all our research for? Simply to mitigate suffering; and that is another way of saying that it was to increase physical well-being. Why, then, did Sarakoff's views appear extreme to me? What was there in my composition that whispered a doubt when I had the doctrine of maximum pleasure painted with glowing enthusiasm by the Russian in the train that afternoon?
I moved into Oxford Street deeply pondering. The streets were crowded, and from shop windows there streamed great wedges of white and yellow light. The roar of traffic was round me. The 'buses were packed with men and women returning late from business, or on the way to seek relaxation in the city's amusements. I passed through the throng as through a coloured mist of phantoms. My eyes fastened on the faces of those who passed by. Who could really doubt the doctrine of pleasure? Which one of those people would hesitate to plunge into the full tide of the senses, did not the limitations of the body prevent him?
I crossed Piccadilly Circus with a brisker step. It was no use worrying over questions which could not be examined scientifically. The only really important question in life was to be a success.
The brilliant entrance of the Pyramid Restaurant was before me, and within, standing on the marble floor, I saw the tall figure of the Russian.
Sarakoff greeted me with enthusiasm. He was wearing evening-dress with a white waistcoat, and the fact perturbed me. I put my hat and stick in the cloakroom.
"Who is coming?" I asked anxiously.
"Leonora," he whispered. "I only found out she was in London this afternoon. I met her when I was strolling in the Park while you were busy with your patients."
"But who is Leonora?" I asked. "And can I meet her in this state?"
"Oh, never mind about your dress. You are a busy doctor and she will understand. Leonora is the most marvellous woman in the world. I intend to make her marry me."
"Is she English?" I stammered.
"Little man, you look terrified, as usual. You are always terrified. It is your habit. No, Leonora is not English. She is European. If you went out into the world of amusement a little more—and it would be good for you—you would know that she has the most exquisite voice in the history of civilization. She transcends the nightingale because her body is beautiful. She transcends the peacock because her voice is beautiful. She is, in fact, worthy of every homage, and you will meet her in a short time. Like all perfect things she is late."
He took out his watch and glanced at the door.
"You are an extraordinary person, Sarakoff," I observed, after watching him a moment. "Will you answer me a rather intimate question?"
"What precisely do you mean when you say you intend to make the charming lady marry you?"
"Precisely what I say. She loves fame. So far I have been unsuccessful, because she does not think I am famous enough."
"How do you intend to remedy that?"
He stared at me in amazement.
"Do you think that any people have ever been so famous as you and I will be in a few days?"
I looked away and studied the bright throng of visitors in the hall.
"In a few days?" I asked. "Are you not a trifle optimistic? Don't you think that it will take months before the possibilities and meaning of the germ are properly realized?"
"Rubbish," exclaimed Sarakoff. "You are a confirmed pessimist. You are impossible, Harden. You are a mass of doubts and apprehensions. Ah, here is Leonora at last. Is she not marvellous?"
I looked towards the entrance. I saw a woman of medium height, very fair, dressed in some soft clinging material of a pale primrose colour. From a shoulder hung a red satin cloak. Round her neck was a string of large pearls, and in her hair was a jewelled osprey. She presented a striking appearance and I gained the impression of some northern spirit in her that shone out of her eyes with the brilliancy of ice.
Sarakoff strode forward, and the contrast that these two afforded was extraordinary. Tall, dark, warm and animated, he stood beside her, and stooped to kiss her hand. She gazed at him with a smile so slight that it seemed scarcely to disturb the perfect symmetry of her face. He began to talk, moving his whole body constantly and making gestures with his arms, with a play of different expressions in his face. She listened without moving, save that her eyes wandered slowly round the large hall. At length Sarakoff beckoned to me.
I approached somewhat awkwardly and was introduced.
"Leonora," said the Russian, "this is a little English doctor with a very large brain. He was closely connected with the great discovery of which I am going to tell you something to-night at dinner. He is my friend and his name is Richard Harden."
"I like your name," said Leonora, in a clear soft voice.
I took her hand. We passed into the restaurant. It was one of those vast pleasure-palaces of music, scent, colour and food that abounded in London. An orchestra was playing somewhere high aloft. The luxury of these establishments was always sounding a curious warning deep down in my mind. But then, as Sarakoff had said, I am a pessimist, and if I were to say that I have noticed that nature often becomes very prodigal and lavish just before she takes away and destroys, I would be uttering, perhaps, one of the many half-truths in which the pessimistic spirit delights.
Our table was in a corner at an agreeable distance from the orchestra. Sarakoff placed Leonora between him and myself. Attentive waiters hurried to serve us; and the eyes of everyone in our immediate neighbourhood were turned in our direction. Leonora did not appear to be affected by the interest she aroused. She flung her cloak on the back of her chair, put her elbows on the table, and gazed at the Russian intently.
"Tell me of your discovery, Alexis."
He smiled, enchanted.
"I shall be best able to give you some idea of what our discovery means if I begin by telling you that I am going to read your character. Does that interest you?"
She nodded. Then she turned to me and studied me for a moment.
"No, Alexis. Let Richard read my character first."
I blushed successfully.
"Why do you blush?" she asked with some interest.
"He blushed because of your unpardonable familiarity in calling him Richard," laughed Sarakoff.
"I shall be most happy, Leonora," I stammered, making an immense effort, and longing for the waiter to bring the champagne. "But I am not good at the art."
"But you must try."
I saw no way out of the predicament. Sarakoff's eyes were twinkling roguishly, so I began, keeping my gaze on the table.
"You have a well-controlled character, with a considerable power of knowing exactly what you want to do with your life, and you come from the North. I fancy you sleep badly."
"How do you know I sleep badly?" she challenged.
"Your eyes are a clear frosty blue, and you are of rather slight build. I am merely speaking from my own experience as a doctor."
I suppose my words were not particularly gracious or well-spoken. Leonora simply nodded and leaned back from the table.
"Now, Alexis, tell me about myself," she said.
My glass now contained champagne and I decided to allow that wizard to take charge of my affairs for a time.
"Leonora, you are one of those women who visit this dull planet from time to time for reasons best known to themselves. I think you must come from Venus, or one of the asteroids; or it may be from Sirius. From the beginning you knew you were not like ordinary people."
"Alexis," she drawled, "you are boring me."
"Capital!" said Sarakoff. "Now we will descend to facts, as our friend here did. You are the most inordinately vain, ambitious, cold-hearted woman in Europe, Leonora. You value yourself before everything. You think your voice and your beauty cannot be beaten, and you are right. Now if I were to tell you that your voice and your beauty could be preserved, year after year, without any change, what would you think?"
A kind of fierce vitality sprang into her face.
"What do you mean?" she asked quietly. "Have you discovered the elixir of youth?"
He nodded. She laid her hand on his arm.
"How long does its effect last?"
"Well—for a considerable time."
"You are certain?"
She leaned towards him.
"You will let no one else have it, Alexis," she asked softly. "Only me?"
Sarakoff glanced at me.
"Leonora, you are very selfish."
"Well, you are not the only person who is going to have the elixir. The whole world is going to have it."
I watched her with absorbed attention. She seemed to accept the idea of an elixir of youth without any incredulity, and did not find anything extraordinary in the fact of its discovery. In that respect, I fancied, she was typical of a large class of women—that class that thinks a doctor is a magician, or should be. But when Sarakoff said that the whole world was going to have the elixir, a spasm of anger shewed for a moment in her face. She lowered her eyes.
"This is unkind of you, Alexis. Why should not just you and I have the elixir?" She raised her eyes and turned them directly on Sarakoff. "Why not?" she murmured.
The Russian flushed slightly.
"Leonora, it must either not be, or else the whole world must have it. It can't be confined. It must spread. It's a germ. We have let it loose in Birmingham."
"A germ? What does he mean?" She turned to me.
"It's a germ that will do away with all disease and decay," I said.
"It will make me younger?"
"Of that I am uncertain. It will more probably fix us where we are."
The Russian nodded in confirmation of my view. Leonora considered for a while. I could see nothing in her appearance that she could have wished altered, but she seemed dissatisfied.
"I should have preferred it to make us all a little younger," she said decidedly. Her total lack of the sense of miracles astonished me. She behaved as if Sarakoff had told her that we had discovered a new kind of soap or a new patent food. "But I am glad you have found it, Alexis," she continued. "It will certainly make you famous. That will be nice, but I am sorry you should have given the elixir to Birmingham first. Birmingham is in no need of an elixir, my friend. You should have put something else in their water-supply." She turned to me and examined me with calm criticism. "What a pity you didn't discover the elixir when you were younger, Richard. Your hair is grey at the temples." A clear laugh suddenly came from her. "What a lot of jealously there will be, Alexis. The old ones will be so envious of the young. Think how Madame Reaour will rage—and Betty, and the Signora—all my friends—oh, I feel quite glad now that it doesn't make people younger. You are sure it won't?"
"I don't think so," said Sarakoff, watching her through half-closed lids. "No, I think you are safe, Leonora."
"And my voice?"
"It will preserve that ... indefinitely, I think."
She was arrested by the new idea. She looked into the distance and fingered the pearls at her throat.
"Then I shall become the most famous singer in the whole world," she murmured. "And I shall have all the money I want. My friend, you have done me a service. I will not forget it." She looked at him and laughed slightly. "But I do not think you have done the world a service. A great many people will not like the germ. No, they will desire to get rid of it, Alexis."
She shuddered a little. I stared at her.
"I think you are mistaken," said Alexis, gruffly.
She shook her head.
"Come, let us finish dinner quickly and I will take you both to my flat and sing to you a little."
Leonora's flat was in Whitehall Court, and of its luxury I need not speak. I must confess to the fact that, sober and timid as is my nature, I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere. Leonora was generous. Her voice was exquisite. I sat on a deep couch of green satin and gazed at a Chinese idol cut in green jade, that stood on a neighbouring table, with all my senses lulled by the charm of her singing. The sense of responsibility fell away from me like severed cords. I became pagan as I lolled there, a creature of sensuous feeling. Sarakoff lay back in a deep chair in the shadow with his eyes fixed on Leonora. We were both in a kind of delicious drowsiness when the opening of the door roused us.
Leonora stopped abruptly. With some difficulty I removed my gaze from the Chinese figure, which had hypnotized me, and looked round resentfully.
Lord Alberan was standing in the doorway. He seemed surprised to find that Leonora had visitors. I could not help marking a slight air of proprietorship in his manner.
"I am afraid I am interrupting," he said smoothly. He crossed to the piano and leant over Leonora. "You got my telegram?"
"No," she replied; "I did not even know you had returned from France."
"I came the day before yesterday. I had to go down to Maltby Towers. I came up to town to-day and wired you on the way."
He straightened himself and turned towards us. Leonora rose and came down the room. We rose.
"Geoffrey," she said, drawling slightly, "I want to introduce you to two friends of mine. They will soon be very famous—more famous than you are—because they have discovered a germ that is going to keep us all young."
Lord Alberan glanced at me and then looked hard at the Russian. A swiftly passing surprise shewed that he recognized Sarakoff. Leonora mentioned our names casually, took up a cigarette and dropped into a chair.
"Yes," she continued, "these gentlemen have put the germ into the water that supplies Birmingham." She struck a match and lit the cigarette. I noticed she actually smoked very little, but seemed to like to watch the burning cigarette. "Do sit down. What are you standing for, Geoffrey?"
Lord Alberan's attitude relaxed. He had evidently decided on his course of action.
"That is very interesting," he observed, as if he had never seen Sarakoff before. "A germ that is going to keep us all young. It reminds me of the Arabian Nights. I should like to see it."
"You've seen it already," replied Sarakoff, imperturbably.
Lord Alberan's cold eyes looked steadily before him. His mouth tightened.
"You saw it at Charing Cross Station the night before last."
"At Charing Cross Station?"
I tried to signal to the Russian, but he seemed determined to proceed.
"Yes—you thought I was an anarchist. You saw the contents of my bag. Six tubes containing a blue-coloured gelatine. Perhaps, Lord Alberan, you remember now."
"I remember perfectly," he exclaimed, smiling slightly. "Yes, I regret my mistake. One has to be careful."
"Did you think my Alexis was an anarchist?" cried Leonora. "You are the stupidest of Englishmen."
It was obvious that Alberan did not like this. He glanced at a thin gold watch that he carried in his waistcoat pocket.
"I will not interrupt you any longer," he remarked gravely. "You are quite occupied, I see, and I much apologize for intruding."
"Don't be still more stupid," she said lazily. "Sit down. Tell me how you like the idea of never dying."
"I am afraid I cannot entertain the idea seriously." He hesitated and then looked firmly at Sarakoff. "Do I understand, sir, that you have actually put some germ into the Birmingham water-supply?"
The Russian nodded.
"You'll hear about it in a day or two," he said quietly.
"You had permission to do this?"
"No, I had no permission."
"Are you aware that you are making a very extraordinary statement, sir?"
Lord Alberan became very red. The lower part of his face seemed to expand. His eyes protruded.
"Don't gobble," said Leonora.
"Gobble?" stuttered Alberan, turning upon her. "How dare you say I gobble?"
"But you are gobbling."
"I refuse to stay here another moment. I will leave immediately. As for you, sir, you shall hear from me in course of time. To-morrow I am compelled to go abroad again, but when I return I shall institute a vigorous and detailed enquiry into your movements, which are highly suspicious, sir,—highly suspicious." He moved to the door and then turned. "Mademoiselle, I wish you good-night." He bowed stiffly and went out.
"Thank heaven, I've got rid of him for good," murmured Leonora. "He proposed to me last week, Alexis."
"And what did you say?" asked Sarakoff.
"I said I would see, but things are different now." She turned her eyes straight in his direction. "That is, if you have told me the truth, Alexis. Oh, isn't it wonderful!" She jumped up and threw out her arms. "Suppose that it all comes true, Alexis! Immortality—always to be young and beautiful!"
"It will come true," he said.
She lowered her arms slowly and looked at him.
"I wonder how long love will last?"
THE BLUE DISEASE
Next day the first news of the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus appeared in a small paragraph in an evening paper, and immediately I saw it, I hurried back to the house in Harley Street where Sarakoff was writing a record of our researches.
"Listen to this," I cried, bursting excitedly into the room. I laid the paper on the table and pointed to the column. "Curious disease among trout in Wales," I read. "In the Elan reservoirs which have long been famed for their magnificent trout, which have recently increased so enormously in size and number that artificial stocking is entirely unnecessary, a curious disease has made its appearance. Fish caught there this morning are reported to have an unnatural bluish tint, and their flesh, when cooked, retains this hue. It is thought that some disease has broken out. Against this theory is the fact that no dead fish have been observed. The Water Committee of the City Council of Birmingham are investigating this matter."
Sarakoff pushed his chair back and twisted it round towards me. For some moments we stared at each other with almost scared expressions. Then a smile passed over the Russian's face.
"Ah, we had forgotten that. A bluish tint! Of course, it was to be expected."
"Yes," I cried, "and what is more, the bluish tint will show itself in every man, woman or child infected with the bacillus. Good heavens, fancy not thinking of that ourselves!"
Sarakoff picked up the paper and read the paragraph for himself. Then he laid it down. "It is strange that one so persistently neglects the obvious in one's calculations. Of course there will be a bluish tint." He leaned back and pulled at his beard. "I should think it will show itself in the whites of the eyes first, just as jaundice shews itself there. Leonora won't like that—it won't suit her colouring. You see that these fish, when cooked, retained the bluish hue. That is very interesting."
"It's very bad luck on the trout."
"After getting the bacillus into their system, they blunder on to a hook and meet their death straight away."
"The bacillus is not proof against death by violence," replied Sarakoff gravely. "That is a factor that will always remain constant. We are agreed in looking on all disease as eventually due to poisons derived from germ activity, but a bang on the head or asphyxiation or prussic acid or a bullet in the heart are not due to a germ. Yes, these poor trout little knew what a future they forfeited when they took the bait."
"The bacillus is in Birmingham by now," I said suddenly. I passed my hand across my brow nervously, and glanced at the manuscript lying before Sarakoff. "You had better keep those papers locked up. I spent an awful day at the hospital. It dawned on me that the whole medical profession will want to tear us in pieces before the year is out."
"In theory they ought not to."
"Who cares for theory, when it is a question of earning a living? As I walked along the street to-day, I could have shrieked aloud when I saw everybody hurrying about as if nothing were going to happen. This is unnerving me. It is so tremendous."
Sarakoff picked up his pen, and traced out a pattern in the blotting-pad before him.
"The Water Committee of Birmingham are investigating the matter," he observed. "It will be amusing to hear their report. What will they think when they make a bacteriological examination of the water in the reservoir? It will stagger them."
The next morning I was down to breakfast before my friend and stood before the fire eagerly scanning the papers. At first I could find nothing that seemed to indicate any further effects of the bacillus. I was in the act of buttering a piece of toast when my eye fell on one of the newspapers lying beside me. A heading in small type caught my eye.
"The measles epidemic in Ludlow." I picked the paper up.
"The severe epidemic of measles which began last week and seemed likely to spread through the entire town, has mysteriously abated. Not only are no further cases reported, but several doctors report that those already attacked have recovered in an incredibly short space of time. Doubt has been expressed by the municipal authorities as to whether the epidemic was really measles."
I adjusted my glasses to read the paragraph again. Then I got up and went into my study. After rummaging in a drawer I pulled out and unrolled a map of England. The course of the aqueduct from Elan to Birmingham was marked by a thin red line. I followed it slowly with the point of my finger and came on the town of Ludlow about half-way along. I stared at it.
"Of course," I whispered at length, my finger still resting on the position of the town. "All these towns on the way are supplied by the aqueduct. I hadn't thought of that. The bacillus is in Ludlow."
For about a minute I did not move. Then I rolled up the map and went up to Sarakoff's bedroom. I met the Russian on the landing on his way to the bathroom.
"The bacillus is in Ludlow," I said in a curiously small voice. I stood on the top stair, holding on to the bannister, my big glasses aslant on my nose, and the map hanging down in my limp grasp.
I had to repeat the sentence before Sarakoff heard me.
I sank on my knees and unrolled the map on the floor and pointed directly with my finger.
Sarakoff went down on all fours and looked at the spot keenly.
"Ah, on the line of the aqueduct! But how do you know it is there?"
"It has cut short an epidemic of measles. The doctors are puzzled."
Sarakoff nodded. He was looking at the names of the other towns that lay on the course of the aqueduct.
"Cleobury-Mortimer," he spelt out. "No news from there?"
"And none from Birmingham yet?"
"We'll have news to-morrow." He raised himself on his knees. "Trout and then measles!" he said, and laughed. "This is only the beginning. No wonder the Ludlow doctors are puzzled."
The same evening there was further news of the progress of the bacillus. From Cleobury-Mortimer, ten miles from Ludlow, and twenty from Birmingham, it was reported that the measles epidemic there had been cut short in the same mysterious manner as noticed in Ludlow. But next morning a paragraph of considerable length appeared which I read out in a trembling voice to Sarakoff.
"It was reported a short time ago that the trout in the Elan reservoirs appeared to be suffering from a singular disease, the effect of which was to tint their scales and flesh a delicate bluish colour. The matter is being investigated. In the meanwhile it has been noticed, both in Ludlow and Cleobury-Mortimer, and also in Knighton, that the peculiar bluish tint has appeared amongst the inhabitants. Our correspondent states that it is most marked in the conjunctivae, or whites of the eyes. There must undoubtedly be some connection between this phenomenon and the condition of the trout in the Elan reservoirs, as all the above-mentioned towns lie close to, and receive water from, the great aqueduct. The most remarkable thing, however, is that the bluish discolouration does not seem to be accompanied by any symptoms of illness in those whom it has affected. No sickness or fever has been observed. It is perhaps nothing more than a curious coincidence that the abrupt cessation of the measles epidemic in Ludlow and Cleobury-Mortimer, reported in yesterday's issue, should have occurred simultaneously with the appearance of bluish discolouration among the inhabitants."
On the same evening, I was returning from the hospital and saw the following words on a poster:—
"Blue Disease in Birmingham."
I bought a paper and scanned the columns rapidly. In the stop-press news I read:—
"The Blue Disease has appeared in Birmingham. Cases are reported all over the city. The Public Health Department are considering what measures should be adopted. The disease seems to be unaccompanied by any dangerous symptoms."
I stood stock-still in the middle of the pavement. A steady stream of people hurrying from business thronged past me. A newspaper boy was shouting something down the street, and as he drew nearer, I heard his hoarse voice bawling out:—
"Blue Disease in Birmingham."
He passed close to me, still bawling, and his voice died away in the distance. Men jostled me and glanced at me angrily.... But I was lost in a dream. The paper dropped from my fingers. In my mind's eye I saw the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus in Birmingham, teeming in every water-pipe in countless billions, swarming in the carafes on dining-room tables, and in every ewer and finger-basin, infecting everything it came in contact with. And the vision of Birmingham and the whole stretch of country up to the Elan watershed passed before me, stained with a vivid blue.
THE MAN FROM BIRMINGHAM
The following day while walking to the hospital, I noticed a group of people down a side street, apparently looking intently at something unusual. I turned aside to see what it was. About twenty persons, mostly errand boys, were standing round a sandwich-board man. At the outskirts of the circle, I raised myself on tip-toe and peered over the heads of those in front. The sandwich-board man's back was towards me.
"What's the matter?" I asked of my neighbour.
"One of the blue freaks from Birmingham," was the reply.
My first impulse was to fly. Here I was in close proximity to my handiwork. I turned and made off a few paces. But curiosity overmastered me, and I came back. The man was now facing me, and I could see him distinctly through a gap in the crowd. It was a thin, unshaven face with straightened features and gaunt cheeks. The eyes were deeply sunken and at that moment turned downwards. His complexion was pale, but I could see a faint bluish tinge suffusing the skin, that gave it a strange, dead look. And then the man lifted his eyes and gazed straight at me. I caught my breath, for under the black eye brows, the whites of the eyes were stained a pure sparrow-egg blue.
"I came from Birmingham yesterday," I heard him saying. "There ain't nothing the matter with me."
"You ought to go to a fever hospital," said someone.
"We don't want that blue stuff in London," added another.
"Perhaps it's catching," said the first speaker.
In a flash everyone had drawn back. The sandwich-board man stood in the centre of the road alone looking sharply round him. Suddenly a wave of rage seemed to possess him. He shook his fist in the air, and even as he shook it, his eyes caught the blue sheen of the tense skin over the knuckles. He stopped, staring stupidly, and the rage passed from his face, leaving it blank and incredulous.
"Lor' lumme," he muttered. "If that ain't queer."
He held out his hand, palm downwards. And from the pavement I saw that the man's nails were as blue as pieces of turquoise.
The sun came out from behind a passing cloud and sent a sudden flame of radiance over the scene in the side street—the sandwich-board man, his face still blank and incredulous, staring stupidly at his hands; the crowd standing well back in a wide semi-circle; I further forward, peering through my spectacles and clutching my umbrella convulsively. Then a tall man, in morning coat and top-hat, pushed his way through and touched the man from Birmingham on the shoulder.
"Can you come to my house?" he asked in an undertone. "I am a doctor and would like to examine you."
I shifted my gaze and recognized Dr. Symington-Tearle. The man pointed to his boards.
"How about them things?"
"Oh, you can get rid of them. I'll pay you. Here is my card with the address. I'll expect you in half-an-hour, and it will be well worth while your coming."
Symington-Tearle moved away, and a sudden spasm of jealousy affected me as I watched the well-shaped top-hat glittering down the street in the strong sunlight. Why should Symington-Tearle be given an opportunity of impressing a credulous world with some fantastic rubbish of his own devising? I stepped into the road.
"Do you want a five-pound note?" I asked. The man jumped with surprise. "Very well. Come round to this address at once."
I handed him my card. My next move was to telephone to the hospital to say I would be late, and retrace my footsteps homewards.
My visitor arrived in a very short time, after handing over his boards to a comrade on the understanding of suitable compensation, and was shown into my study. Sarakoff was present, and he pored over the man's nails and eyes and skin with rapt attention. At last he enquired how he felt.
"Ain't never felt so well in me life," said the man. "I was saying to a pal this morning 'ow well I felt."
"Do you feel as if you were drunk?" asked Sarakoff tentatively.
"Well, sir, now you put it that way, I feel as if I'd 'ad a good glass of beer. Not drunk, but 'appy."
"Are you naturally cheerful?"
"I carn't say as I am, sir. My profession ain't a very cheery one, not in all sorts and kinds of weather."
"But you are distinctly more cheerful this morning than usual?"
"I am, sir. I don't deny it. I lost my temper sudden like when that crowd drew away from me as if I'd got the leprosy, and I'm usually a mild and forbearin' man."
"Sit down," said Sarakoff. The man obeyed, and Sarakoff began to examine him carefully. He told him once or twice not to speak, but the man seemed in a loquacious mood and was incapable of silence for more than a minute of time.
"And I ain't felt so clear 'eaded not for years," he remarked. "I seem to see twice as many things to what I used to, and everything seems to 'ave a new coat of paint. I was saying to a pal early this morning what a very fine place Trafalgar Square was and 'ow I'd never seemed to notice it before, though I've known it all my life. And up Regent Street I begun to notice all sort o' little things I'd never seen before, though it was my old beat 'afore I went to Birmingham. O' course it may be because I been out o' London a spell. But blest if I ever seed so many fine shop windows in Regent Street before, or so many different colours."
"Bless you, no, sir. Just the opposite, if you understand." He looked round suddenly. "What's that noise?" he asked. "It's been worryin' me since I came in here."
We listened intently, but neither I nor Sarakoff could hear anything.
"It comes from there." The man pointed to the laboratory door. I went and opened it and stood listening. In a corner by the window a clock-work recording barometer was ticking with a faint rhythm.
"That's the noise," said the man from Birmingham. "I knew it wasn't no clock, 'cause it's too fast."
Sarakoff glanced significantly at me.
"All the senses very acute," he said. "At least, hearing and seeing." He took a bottle from the laboratory and uncorked it in one corner of the study. "Can you smell what this is?"
The man, sitting ten feet away, gave one sniff.
"Ammonia," he said promptly, and sneezed. "This 'ere Blue Disease," said the man after a long pause, "is it dangerous?"
He spread out his fingers, squeezing the turquoise nails to see if the colour faded. He frowned to find it fixed. I was standing at the window, my back to the room and my hands twisting nervously with each other behind me.
"No, it is not dangerous," said Sarakoff. He sat on the edge of the writing-table, swinging his legs and staring meditatively at the floor. "It is not dangerous, is it, Harden?"
I replied only with a jerky, impatient movement.
"What I mean," persisted the man, "is this—supposin' the police arrest me, when I go back to my job. 'Ave they a right? 'Ave people a right to give me the shove—to put me in a 'orspital? That crowd round me in the street—it confused me, like—as if I was a leper." He paused and looked up at Sarakoff enquiringly. "What's the cause of it?"
"A germ—a bacillus."
"Same as what gives consumption?"
Sarakoff nodded. "But this germ is harmless," he added.
"Then I ain't going to die?"
"No. That's just the point. You aren't going to die," said the Russian slowly. "That's what is so strange."
I jumped round from the window.
"How do you know?" I said fiercely. "There's no proof. It's all theory so far. The calculations may be wrong."
The man stared at me wonderingly. He saw me as a man fighting with some strange anxiety, with his forehead damp and shining, his spectacles aslant on his nose and the heavy folds of his frock-coat shaken with a sudden impetuosity.
"How do you know?" I repeated, shaking my fist in the air. "How do you know he isn't going to die?"
Sarakoff fingered his beard in silence, but his eyes shone with a quiet certainty. To the man from Birmingham it must have seemed suddenly strange that we should behave in this manner. His mind was sharpened to perceive things. Yesterday, had he been present at a similar scene, he would probably have sat dully, finding nothing curious in my passionate attitude and the calm, almost insolent, inscrutability of Sarakoff. He forgot his turquoise finger nails, and stared, open-mouthed.
"Ain't going to die?" he said. "What do yer mean?"
"Simply that you aren't going to die," was Sarakoff's soft answer.
"Yer mean, not die of the Blue Disease?"
"Not die at all."
"Garn! Not die at all." He looked at me. "What's he mean, Mister?" He looked almost surprised with himself at catching the drift of Sarakoff's sentence. Inwardly he felt something insistent and imperious, forcing him to grasp words, to blunder into new meanings. Some new force was alive in him and he was carried on by it in spite of himself. He felt strung up to a pitch of nervous irritation. He got up from his chair and came forward, pointing at Sarakoff. "What's this?" he demanded. "Why don't you speak out? Yer cawn't hide it from me." He stopped. His brain, working at unwonted speed, had discovered a fresh suspicion. "Look 'ere, you two know something about this blue disease." He came a step closer, and looking cunningly in my face, said: "That's why you offered me a five-pound note, ain't it?"
I avoided the scrutiny of the sparrow-egg blue orbs close before me.
"I offered you the money because I wished to examine you," I said shortly. "Here it is. You can go now."
I took a note from a safe in the corner of the room, and held it out. The man took it, felt its crispness and stowed it away in a secure pocket. His thoughts were temporarily diverted by the prospect of an immediate future with plenty of money, and he picked up his hat and went to the door. But his turquoise finger nails lying against the rusty black of the hat brought him back to his suspicions. He paused and turned.
"My name's Wain," he said. "I'm telling you, in case you might 'ear of me again. 'Erbert Wain. I know what yours is, remember, because I seed it on the door." He twisted his hat round several times in his hands and drew his brows together, puzzled at the speed of his ideas. Then he remembered the card that Symington-Tearle had given him.
He pulled it out and examined it. "I'm going across to see this gent," he announced. "It's convenient, 'im living so close. Perhaps he'll 'ave a word to say about this 'ere disease. Fair spread over Birmingham, so they say. It would be nasty if any bloke was responsible for it. Good day to yer." He opened the door slowly, and glanced back at us standing in the middle of the room watching him. "Look 'ere," he said swiftly, "what did 'e mean, saying I was never going to die and——" The light from the window was against his eyes, and he could not see the features of Sarakoff's face, but there was something in the outline of his body that checked him. "Guv'ner, it ain't true." The words came hoarsely from his lips. "I ain't never not going to die."
"You are never going to die, Mr. Herbert Wain ... you understand?... Never going to die, unless you get killed in an accident—or starve."
I jerked up my hand to stop my friend.
Wain stared incredulously. Then he burst into a roar of laughter and smacked his thigh.
"Gor lumme!" he exclaimed, "if that ain't rich. Never going to die! Live for ever! Strike me, if that ain't a notion!" The tears ran down his cheeks and he paused to wipe them away. "If I was to believe what you say," he went on, "it would fair drive me crazy. Live for ever—s'elp me, if that wouldn't be just 'ell. Good-day to yer, gents. I'm obliged to yer."
He went out into the sunlit street still roaring with laughter, a thin, ragged, tattered figure, with the shadow of immortality upon him.
THE ILLNESS OF MR. ANNOT
The departure of Mr. Herbert Wain was a relief. I turned to Sarakoff at once and spoke with some heat.
"You were more than imprudent to give that fellow hints that we knew more about the Blue Disease than anybody else," I exclaimed. "This may be the beginning of incalculable trouble."
"Nonsense," replied the Russian. "You are far too apprehensive, Harden. What can he do?"
"What may he not do?" I cried bitterly. "Do you suppose London will welcome the spread of the germ? Do you think that people will be pleased to know that you and I were responsible for its appearance?"
"When they realize that it brings immortality with it, they will hail us as the saviours of humanity."
"Mr. Herbert Wain did not seem to accept the idea of immortality with any pleasure," I muttered. "The suggestion seemed to strike him as terrible."
Sarakoff laughed genially.
"My friend," he said, "Mr. Herbert Wain is not a man of vision. He is a cockney, brought up in the streets of a callous city. To him life is a hard struggle, and immortality naturally appears in a poor light. You must have patience. It will take some time before the significance of this immortality is grasped by the people. But when it is grasped, all the conditions of life will change. Life will become beautiful. We will have reforms that, under ordinary circumstances, would have taken countless ages to bring about. We will anticipate our evolution by thousands of centuries. At one step we will reach the ultimate goal of our destiny."
"And what is that?"
"Immortality, of course. Surely you must see by now that all the activities of modern life are really directed towards one end—towards solving the riddle of prolonging life and at the same time increasing pleasure? Isn't that the inner secret desire that you doctors find in every patient? So far a compromise has only been possible, but now that is all changed."
"I don't agree, Sarakoff. Some people must live for other motives. Take myself ... I live for science."
"It is merely your form of pleasure."
"That's a quibble," I cried angrily. "Science is aspiration. There's all the difference in the world between aspiration and pleasure. I have scarcely known what pleasure is. I have worked like a slave all my life, with the sole ambition of leaving something permanent behind me when I die."
"But you won't die," interposed the Russian. "That is the charm of the new situation."
"Then why should I work?" The question shaped itself in my mind and I uttered it involuntarily. I sat down and stared at the fire. A kind of dull depression came over me, and for some reason the picture of Sarakoff's butterflies appeared in my mind. I saw them with great distinctness, crawling aimlessly on the floor of their cage. "Why should I work?" I repeated.
Sarakoff merely shrugged his shoulders and turned away. Questions of that kind did not seem to bother him. His was a nature that escaped the necessity of self-analysis. But I was different, and our conversation had aroused a train of odd thought. What, after all, was it that kept my nose to the grindstone? Why had I slaved incessantly all my life, reading when I might have slept, examining patients when I might have been strolling through meadows, hurrying through meals when I might have eaten at leisure? What was the cause behind all the tremendous activity and feverish haste of modern people? When Sarakoff had said that I would not die, and that therein lay the charm of the new situation, it seemed as if scales had momentarily fallen from my eyes. I beheld myself as something ridiculous, comparable to a hare that persists in dashing along a country lane in front of the headlight of a motor car, when a turn one way or another would bring it to safety. A great uneasiness filled me, and with it came a determination to ignore these new fields of thought that loomed round me—a determination that I have seen in old men when they are faced by the new and contradictory—and I began to force my attention elsewhere. I was relieved when the door opened and my servant entered. She handed me a telegram. It was from Miss Annot, asking me to come to Cambridge at once, as her father was seriously ill. I scribbled a reply, saying I would be down that afternoon.
After the servant had left the room, I remained gazing at the fire, but my depression left me. In place of it I felt a quiet elation, and it was not difficult for me to account for it.
"I was wrong in saying that I had scarcely known what pleasure is," I observed at length, looking up at Sarakoff with a smile. "I must confess to you that there is one factor in my life that gives me great pleasure."
Sarakoff placed himself before me, hands in pockets and pipe in mouth, and gazed at me with an answering smile in his dark face.
I flushed. The Russian seemed amused.
"I thought as much," he remarked. "This year I noticed a change in you. Your fits of abstraction suggested it. Well, may I congratulate you? When are you to be married?"
"That is out of the question at present," I answered hurriedly. "In fact, there is no definite arrangement—just a mutual understanding.... She is not free."
Sarakoff raised his shaggy eyebrows.
"Then she is already married?"
This cross-examination was intensely painful to me. Between Miss Annot and myself there was, I hoped, a perfect understanding, and I quite realized the girl's position. She was devoted to her father, who required her constant attention and care, and until she was free there could be no question of marriage, or even an engagement, for fear of wounding the old man's feelings. I quite appreciated her situation and was content to wait.
"No! She has an invalid father, and——"
"Rubbish!" said Sarakoff, with remarkable force. "Rubbish! Marry her, man, and then think of her father. Why, that sort of thing——" He drew a deep breath and checked himself.
I shook my head.
"That is impossible. Here, in England, we cannot do such things.... The girl's duty is plain. I am quite prepared to wait."
"To wait for what?"
I looked at him in unthinking surprise.
"Until Mr. Annot dies, of course."
Sarakoff remained motionless. Then he took his pipe out of his mouth, strolled to the window, and began to whistle to himself in subdued tones. A moment later he left the room. I picked up a time-table and looked out a train, a little puzzled by his behaviour.
I reached Cambridge early in the afternoon and took a taxi to the Annots' house. Miss Annot met me at the door.
"It is so good of you to come," she said with a faint smile. "My father behaved very foolishly yesterday. He insisted on inviting the Perrys to lunch, and he talked a great deal and insisted on drinking wine, with the result that in the night he had a return of his gastritis. He is very weak to-day and his mind seems to be wandering a little."
"You should not have allowed him to do that," I remonstrated. "He is in too fragile a state to run any risks."
"Oh, but I couldn't help it. The Perrys are such old friends of father's, and they were only staying one day in Cambridge. Father would have fretted if they had not come."
I had taken off my coat in the hall, and we were now standing in the drawing-room.
"You are tired, Alice," I said.
"I've been up most of the night," she replied, with an effort towards brightness. "But I do feel tired, I admit."
I turned away from her and went to the window. For the first time I felt the awkwardness of our position. I had a strong and natural impulse to comfort her, but what could I do? After a moment's reflection, I made a sudden resolution.
"Alice," I said, "you and I had better become engaged. Don't you think it would be easier for you?"
"Oh, don't," she cried. "Father would never endure the idea that I belonged to another man. He would worry about my leaving him continually. No, please wait. Perhaps it will not be——"
She checked herself. I remained silent, staring at the pattern of the carpet with a frown. To my annoyance, I could not keep Sarakoff's words out of my mind. And yet Alice was right. I felt sure that no one is a free agent in the sense that he or she can be guided solely by love. It is necessary to make a compromise. As these thoughts formed in my mind I again seemed to hear the loud voice of Sarakoff, sounding in derision at my cautious views. A conflict arose in my soul. I raised my eyes and looked at Alice. She was standing by the mantelpiece, staring listlessly at the grate. A wave of emotion passed over me. I took a step towards her.
"Alice!" And then the words stuck in my throat. She turned her head and her eyes questioned me. I tried to continue, but something prevented me, and I became suddenly calm again. "Please take me up to your father," I begged her. She obeyed silently, and I followed her upstairs.
Mr. Annot was lying in a darkened room with his eyes closed. He was a very old man, approaching ninety, with a thin aquiline face and white hair. He lay very still, and at first I thought he was unconscious. But his pulse was surprisingly good, and his breathing deep and regular.
"He is sleeping," I murmured.
She leaned over the bed.
"He scarcely slept during the night," she whispered. "This will do him good."
"His pulse could not be better," I murmured.
She peered at him more closely.
"Isn't he very pale?"
I stooped down, so that my face was close to hers. The old man certainly looked very pale. A marble-like hue lay over his features, and yet the skin was warm to the touch.
"How long has he been asleep?" I asked.
"He was awake over an hour ago, when I looked in last. He said then that he was feeling drowsy."
"I think we'll wake him up."
"Won't you wait for tea?" she whispered. "He would probably be awake by then."
I shook my head.
"I must get back to London by five. Do you mind if we have a little more light?"
She moved to the window and raised the blind half way. I examined the old man attentively. There was no doubt about the curious pallor of his skin. It was like the pallor of extreme collapse, save for the presence of a faint colour in his cheeks which seemed to lie as a bright transparency over a dead background. My fingers again sought his pulse. It was full and steady. As I counted it my eyes rested on his hand.
I stooped down suddenly with an exclamation. Alice hurried to my side.
"Where did those friends of his come from?" I asked swiftly.
"The Perrys? From Birmingham."
"Was there anything wrong with them?"
"What do you mean?"
Before I could reply the old man opened his eyes. The light fell clearly on his face. Alice uttered a cry of horror. I experienced an extraordinary sensation of fear. Out of the marble pallor of Mr. Annot's face, two eyes, stained a sparrow-egg blue, stared keenly at us.
For some moments none of us spoke. Alice recovered herself first.
"What is the matter with him?" she gasped.
I was incapable of finding a suitable reply, and stood, tongue-tied, staring foolishly at the old man. He seemed a little surprised at our behaviour.
"Dr. Harden," he said, "I am glad to see you. My daughter did not tell me you were coming."
His voice startled me. It was strong and clear. On my previous visit to him he had spoken in quavering tones.
"Oh, father, how do you feel?" exclaimed Alice, kneeling beside the bed.
"My dear, I feel extremely well. I have not felt so well for many years." He stretched out his hand and patted his daughter's head. "Yes, my sleep has done me good. I should like to get up for tea."
"But your eyes——" stammered Alice "Can you see, father?"
"See, my dear? What does she mean, Dr. Harden?"
"There is some discolouration of the conjunctivae," I said hastily. "It is nothing to worry about."
At that moment Alice caught sight of his finger nails.
"Look!" she cried, "they're blue."
The old man raised his hands and looked at them in astonishment.
"How extraordinary," he murmured. "What do you make of that, doctor?"
"It is nothing," I assured him. "It is only pigmentation caused—er—caused by some harmless germ."
"I know what it is," cried Alice suddenly. "It's the Blue Disease. Father, you remember the Perrys were telling us about it yesterday at lunch. They said it was all over Birmingham, and that they had come south partly to escape it. They must have brought the infection with them."
"Yes," I said, "that is certainly the explanation. And now, Mr. Annot, let me assure you that this disease is harmless. It has no ill effects."
Mr. Annot sat up in bed with an exhibition of vigour that was remarkable in a man of his age.
"I can certainly witness to the fact that it causes no ill effects, Dr. Harden," he exclaimed. "This morning I felt extremely weak and was prepared for the end. But now I seem to have been endowed with a fresh lease of life. I feel young again. Do you think this Blue Disease is the cause of it?"
"Possibly. It is difficult to say," I answered in some confusion. "But you must not think of getting up, Mr. Annot. Rest in bed for the next week is essential."
"Humbug!" cried the old man, fixing his brilliant eyes upon me. "I am going to get up this instant."
"Oh, father, please don't be so foolish!"
"Foolish, child? Do you think I'm going to lie here when I feel as if my body and mind had been completely rejuvenated? I repeat I am going to get up. Nothing on earth will keep me in bed."
The old man began to remove the bedclothes. I made an attempt to restrain him, but was met by an outburst of irritation that warned me not to interfere. I motioned Alice to follow me, and together we left the room. As we went downstairs I heard a curious sound proceeding from Mr. Annot's bedroom. We halted on the stairs and listened. The sound became louder and clearer.
"Father is singing," said Alice in a low voice. Then she took out her handkerchief and began to sob.
We continued our way downstairs, Alice endeavouring to stifle her sobs, and I in a dazed condition of mind. I was stunned by the fact that that mad experiment of ours should have had such a sudden and strange result. It produced in me a fear that was far worse to bear than the vague anxiety I had felt ever since those fatal tubes of the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus had been emptied into the lake. I stumbled into the drawing-room and threw myself upon a chair. My legs were weak, and my hands were trembling.
"Alice," I said, "you must not allow this to distress you. The Blue Disease is not dangerous."
She lifted a tear-stained face and looked at me dully.
"Richard, I can't bear it any longer. I've given half my life to looking after father. I simply can't bear it."
I sat up and stared at her. What strange intuition had come to her?
"What do you mean?"
She sobbed afresh.
"I can't endure the sight of him with those blue eyes," she went on, rather wildly. "Richard, I must get away. I've never been from him for more than a few hours at a time for the last fifteen years. Don't think I want him to die."
"I'm glad he's better," she remarked irrelevantly.
"So am I."
"The Perrys were saying that the doctors up in Birmingham think that the Blue Disease cut short other diseases, and made people feel better." She twisted her handkerchief for some moments. "Does it?" she asked, looking at me directly.
"I—er—I have heard it does."
An idea had come into my mind, and I could not get rid of it. Why should I not tell her all that I knew?
"I'm thirty-five," she remarked.
"And I'm forty-two." I tried to smile.
"Life's getting on for us both," she added.
"I know, Alice. I suggested that we should get engaged a short while ago. Now I suggest that we get married—as soon as possible." I got up and paced the room. "Why not?" I demanded passionately.
She shook her head, and appeared confused.
"It's impossible. Who could look after him? I should never be happy, Richard, as long as he was living."
I stopped before her.
"Not with me?"
"No, Richard. I should be left a great deal to myself. A doctor's wife always is. I've thought it out carefully. I would think of him."
After a long silence, I made a proposal that I had refused to entertain before.
"Well, there's no reason why he should not come and live with us. There is plenty of room in my house at Harley Street. Would that do?"
It was a relief to me when she said that she would not consent to an arrangement of that kind. I sat down again.
"Alice," I said quietly, "it is necessary that we should decide our future. There are special reasons."
She glanced at me enquiringly. There was a pause in which I tried to collect my thoughts.
"Your father," I continued, "is suffering from a very peculiar disease. It is wrong, perhaps, to call it a disease. You wouldn't call life a disease, would you?"
"I don't understand."
"No, of course not. Well, to put it as simply as possible, it is likely that your father will live a long time now. When he said he felt as if his mind and body had been rejuvenated he was speaking the truth."
"But he will be ninety next year," she said bluntly.
"I know. But that will make no difference. This germ, that is now in his body, has the power of arresting all further decay. Your father will remain as he is now for an indefinite period."
I met her eyes as steadily as I could, but there was a quality in her gaze that caused me to look elsewhere.
"How do you know this?" she asked after a painful silence.
"I—er—I can't tell you." The colour mounted to my cheeks, and I began to tap the carpet impatiently with the toe of my boot. "You wouldn't understand," I continued in as professional a manner as I could muster. "You would need first to study the factors that bring about old age."