The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 77
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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 hoa.r.s.ely 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 c.o.c.kney, 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 circ.u.mstances, would have taken countless ages to bring about. We will antic.i.p.ate 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 b.u.t.terflies 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-a.n.a.lysis. 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 das.h.i.+ng 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 s.h.a.ggy 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----"
"Rubbis.h.!.+" said Sarakoff, with remarkable force. "Rubbis.h.!.+ 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 pa.s.sed 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 a.s.sured him. "It is only pigmentation caused--er--caused by some harmless germ."
The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 77
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