THE BLUE GERM.
BY MARTIN SWAYNE.
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.