The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 81

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"It's awful," I murmured. "We can't be too careful." We began to descend the stairs. "Sarakoff, you remember I told you about that dead sailor? I see now why that expression was on his face. It was the terror that he felt."

"Extraordinary!" he muttered. "He couldn't have known. It must have been instinctive."

"Instincts are like that," I said. "I don't suppose an animal knows anything about death, or even thinks of it, yet it behaves from the very first as if it knew. It's odd."

A door opened at the far end of the hall, and Symington-Tearle emerged. There was a patch of coal-dust on his forehead. His hair, usually so flat and smooth that it seemed like a bra.s.s mirror, was now disordered.

"Has he gone?" he enquired hoa.r.s.ely.



We nodded. I pointed to the chain on the door.

"It's bolted," I said. "Come into the study."

I led the way into the room. Tearle walked to the window, then to a chair, and finally took up a position before the fire.

"This is extraordinary!" he exclaimed.

"What do you make of it?" I asked.

"I can make nothing of it. What's the matter with me? I never felt anything like that terror that came over me when Ballard approached me."

Sarakoff took out a large handkerchief and pa.s.sed it across his face. "It's only the fear of physical violence," he said. "That's the only weak spot. Fear was formerly distributed over a wide variety of possibilities, but now it's all concentrated in one direction."

"Why?" Tearle stared at me questioningly.

"Because the germ is in us," I said. "We're immortal."

"Immortal?"

Sarakoff threw out his hands, and flung back his head. "Immortals!"

I crossed to my writing-table, and picked up a heavy volume.

"Here is the first edition of Buckwell Pink's System of Medicine. This book was produced at immense cost and labour, and it is to be published next week. When that book is published no one will buy it."

"Why not?" demanded Tearle. "I wrote an article in it myself."

"So did I," was my reply. "But that won't make any difference. No member of the medical profession will be interested in it."

"Not interested? I can't believe that. It contains all the recent work."

"The medical profession will not be interested in it for a very simple reason. The medical profession will have ceased to exist."

A look of amazement came to Tearle's face. I tapped the volume and continued.

"You are wrong in thinking it contains all the recent work. It does not. The last and greatest achievement of medical science is not recorded in these pages. It is only recorded in ourselves. For that blue pigmentation in your eyes and fingers is due to the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus which closes once and for all the chapter of medicine."

CHAPTER XVI.

THE VISIT OF THE HOME SECRETARY.

In a few hours the initial effects of stimulation had worn off. The acuity of hearing was no longer so p.r.o.nounced and the sense of refreshment, although still present, was not intense. We were already becoming adjusted to the new condition. The feeling of inertia and irresponsibility became gradually replaced by a general sense of calmness. To me, it seemed as if I had entered a world of new perspectives, a larger world in which s.p.a.ce and time were widened out immeasurably. I could scarcely recall the nature of those impulses that had once driven me to and fro in endless activities, and in a constant state of anxiety. For now I had no anxiety.

It is difficult to describe fully the extraordinary sense of freedom that came from this change. For anxiety--the great modern emotion--is something that besets a life on all sides so silently and so continuously that it escapes direct detection. But it is there, tightening the muscles, crinkling the skin, quickening the heart and shortening the breath. Though almost imperceptible, it lurks under the most agreeable surroundings, requiring only a word or a look to bring it into the light. To be free from it--ah, that was an experience that no man could ever forget! It was perhaps the nearest approach to that condition of bliss, which many expect in one of the Heavens, that had ever been attained on earth. As long as no physical danger threatened, this bliss-state surrounded me. Its opposite, that condition of violent, agonizing, uncontrollable fear that suddenly surged over one on the approach of bodily danger, was something which pa.s.sed as swiftly as it came, and left scarcely a trace behind it. But of that I shall have more to say, for it produced the most extraordinary state of affairs and more than anything else threatened to disorganize life completely.

I fancy Sarakoff was more awed by the bliss-state than I was. During the rest of the day he was very quiet and sat gazing before him His boisterousness had vanished. Symington-Tearle had left us--a man deeply amazed and totally incredulous. I noticed that Sarakoff scarcely smoked at all during that morning. As a rule his pipe was never out. He was in the habit of consuming two ounces of tobacco a day, which in my opinion was suicidal. He certainly lit his pipe several times, mechanically, but laid it aside almost immediately. At lunch--we had not moved out of the house yet--we had very little appet.i.te. As a matter of interest I will give exactly what we ate and drank. Sarakoff took some soup and a piece of bread, and then some cheese. I began with some cold beef, and finding it unattractive, pushed it away and ate some biscuits and b.u.t.ter. There was claret on the table. I wish here to call attention to a pa.s.sing impression that I experienced when sipping that claret. I had recently got in several dozen bottles of it and on that day regretted it because it seemed to me to be extremely poor stuff. It tasted sour and harsh.

We did not talk much. It was not because my mind was devoid of ideas, but rather because I was feeling that I had a prodigious, incalculable amount to think about. Perhaps it was the freedom from anxiety that made thinking easier, for there is little doubt that anxiety, however masked, deflects and disturbs the power of thought more than anything else. Indeed it seemed to me that I had never really thought clearly before. To begin a conversation with Sarakoff seemed utterly artificial. It would have been a useless interruption. I was entirely absorbed.

Sarakoff was similarly absorbed. When, therefore, the servant came in to announce that two gentlemen wished to see us, and were in the waiting-room, we were loth to move. I got up at length and went across the hall. I recollect that before entering the waiting-room I was entirely without curiosity. It was a matter of total indifference to me that two visitors were within. They had no business to interrupt me--that was my feeling. They were intruders and should have known better.

I entered the room. Standing by the fire was Lord Alberan. Beside him was a tall thin man, carefully dressed and something of a dandy, who looked at me sharply as I came across the room. I recognized his face, but failed to recall his name.

Lord Alberan, holding himself very stiffly, cleared his throat.

"Good day, Dr. Harden," he said, without offering his hand. "I have brought Sir Robert Smith to interview you. As you may know he is the Home Secretary." He cleared his throat again, and his face became rather red. "I have reported to the Home Secretary the information that I--er--that I acquired from you and your Russian companion concerning this epidemic that has swept over Birmingham and is now threatening London." He paused and stared at me. His eyes bulged. "Good heavens," he exclaimed, "you've got it yourself."

Sir Robert Smith took a step towards me and examined my face attentively.

"Yes," he said, "there's no doubt you've got it."

I indicated some chairs with a calm gesture.

"Won't you sit down?"

Lord Alberan refused, but Sir Robert lowered himself gracefully into an arm-chair and crossed his legs.

"Dr. Harden," he said, in smooth and pleasant tones, "I wish you to understand that I come here, at this unusual hour, solely in the spirit of one who desires to get all the information possible concerning the malady, called the Blue Disease, which is now sweeping over England. I understand from my friend Lord Alberan, that you know something about it."

"That is true."

"How much do you know?"

"I know all there is to be known."

"Ah!" Sir Robert leaned forward. Lord Alberan nodded violently and glared at me. There was a pause. "What you say is very interesting," said Sir Robert at length, keeping his eyes fixed upon me. "You understand, of course, that the Blue Disease is causing a lot of anxiety?"

"Anxiety?" I exclaimed. "Surely you are wrong. It has the opposite effect. It abolishes anxiety."

"You mean----?" he queried politely.

"I mean that the germ, when once in the system, produces an atmosphere of extraordinary calm," I returned. "I am aware of that atmosphere at this moment. I have never felt so perfectly tranquil before."

He nodded, without moving his eyes.

"So I see. You struck me, as you came into the room, as a man who is at peace with himself." Lord Alberan snorted, and was about to speak, but Sir Robert held up his hand. "Tell me, Dr. Harden, did you actually contaminate the water of Birmingham?"

"My friend Sarakoff and I introduced the germ that we discovered into the Elan reservoirs."

"With what object?"

"To endow humanity with the gift of immortality."

"Ah!" he nodded gently. "The gift of immortality." He mused for a moment, and never once did his eyes leave my face. "That is interesting," he continued. "I recollect that at the International Congress at Moscow, a few years ago, there was much talk about longevity. Virchow, I fancy, and Nikola Tesla made some suggestive remarks. So you think you have discovered the secret?"

"I am sure."

"Of course you use the term immortality in a relative sense? You mean that the--er--germ that you discovered confers a long life on those it attacks?"

"I mean what I say. It confers immortality."

"Indeed!" His expression remained perfectly polite and interested, but his eyes turned for a brief moment in the direction of Lord Alberan. "So you are now immortal, Dr. Harden?"

"Yes."

"And will you, in such circ.u.mstances, go on practising medicine--indefinitely?"

"No. There will be no medicine to practise."

"Ah!" he nodded. "I see--the germ does away with disease. Quite so." He leaned back in the chair and pressed his finger tips together. "I suppose," he continued, "that you are aware that what you say is very difficult to believe?"

"Why?"

"Well, the artificial prolongation of life is, I believe, a possibility that we are all prepared to accept. By special methods we may live a few extra years, and everything goes to show that we are actually living longer than our ancestors. At least I believe so. But for a man of your position, Dr. Harden, to say that the epidemic is an epidemic of immortality is, in my opinion, an extravagant statement."

"You are ent.i.tled to any opinion you like," I replied tranquilly. "It is possible to live with totally erroneous opinions. For all I know you may think the earth is square. It makes no difference to me."

"What do you mean, sir?" exclaimed Lord Alberan. He had become exceedingly red during our conversation and the lower part of his face had begun to swell. "Be careful what you say," he continued violently. "You are in danger of being arrested, sir. Either that, or being locked in an asylum."

The Home Secretary raised a restraining hand.

"One moment, Lord Alberan," he said, "I have not quite finished. Dr. Harden, will you be so good as to ask your friend--his name is Sarakoff, I believe--to come in here?"

I rose without haste and fetched the Russian. He behaved in an extremely quiet manner, nodded to Alberan and bowed to the Home Secretary.

Sir Robert gave a brief outline of the conversation he had had with me, which Sarakoff listened to with an absolutely expressionless face.

"I see that you also suffer from the epidemic," said Sir Robert. "Are you, then, immortal?"

"I am an Immortal," said the Russian, in deep tones. "You will be immortal to-morrow."

"I quite understand that I will probably catch the Blue Disease," said Sir Robert, suavely. "At present there are cases reported all over London, and we are at a loss to know what to do."

"You can do nothing," I said.

"We had thought of forming isolation camps." He stared at us thoughtfully. There was a slightly puzzled look in his face. It was the first time I had noticed it. It must have been due to Sarakoff's profound calm. "How did you gentlemen find the germ?" he asked suddenly.

Sarakoff reflected.

"It would take perhaps a week to explain."

Sir Robert smiled slightly.

"I'm afraid I am too busy," he murmured.

"You are wasting your time," muttered Alberan in his ear. "Arrest them."

The Home Secretary took no notice.

"It is curious that this epidemic seems to cut short other diseases," he said slowly. "That rather supports what you tell me."

His eyes rested searchingly on my face.

"You are foolish to refuse to believe us," I said. "We have told you the truth."

"It would be very strange if it were true." He walked to the window and stood for a moment looking on to the street. Then he turned with a movement of resolution. "I will not trespa.s.s on your time," he said. "Lord Alberan, we need not stay. I am satisfied with what these gentlemen have said." He bowed to us and went to the door. Lord Alberan, very fierce and upright, followed him. The Home Secretary paused and looked back. The puzzled looked had returned to his face.

"The matter is to be discussed in the House to-night," he said. "I think that it will be as well for you if I say nothing of what you have told me. People might be angry." We gazed at him unmoved. He took a sudden step towards us and held out his hands. "Come now, gentlemen, tell me the truth. You invented that story, didn't you?" Neither of us spoke. He looked appealingly at me, and with a laugh left the room. He turned, however, in a moment, and stood looking at me. "There is a meeting at the Queen's Hall to-night," he said slowly. "It is a medical conference on the Blue Disease. No doubt you know of it. I am going to ask you a question." He paused and smiled at Sarakoff. "Will you gentlemen make a statement before those doctors to-night?"

"We intended to do so," said Sarakoff.

"I am delighted to hear it," said the Home Secretary. "It is a great relief to me. They will know how best to deal with you. Good day."

He left the room.

I heard the front door close and then brisk footsteps pa.s.sing the window on the pavement outside.

"There's no doubt that they're both a little mad." Sir Robert's voice sounded for a moment, and then died away.

CHAPTER XVII.

CLUTTERBUCK'S ODD BEHAVIOUR.

Scarcely had the Home Secretary departed when my maid announced that a patient was waiting to see me in my study.

I left Sarakoff sitting tranquilly in the waiting-room and entered the study. A grave, precise, clean-shaven man was standing by the window. He turned as I entered. It was Mr. Clutterbuck.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vi Part 81

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