"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.