"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."