"What's the matter with her?"
"Dr. Sykes thinks it's lung trouble."
He nodded, and an expression of anxiety came over his face.
"Good," I exclaimed. "Now listen to what I have to say. Before the week is out your wife will be cured. I swear it."
He said nothing. It was plain that he was still suspicious.
"You read what they say in the papers about the Blue Disease cutting short other diseases? Well, that Blue Disease will be all over London in a day or two. Now do you understand?"
I saw that I had interested him. He settled himself on his chair, and began to examine me. His gaze travelled over my face and clothes, pausing at my cuff-links and my tie and collar. Then he looked at my card again. Inwardly he came to a decision.
"I'm willing to listen to what you've got to say," he remarked, "if you think it's worth saying."
"Thank you. I think it's worth hearing." I leaned my arms on the table in front of me. "This Blue Disease is not an accidental thing. It was deliberately planned, by two scientists. I was one of those scientists."
"You can't plan a disease," he remarked, after a considerable silence.
"You're wrong. We found a way of creating new germs. We worked at the idea of creating a particular kind of germ that would kill all other germs ... and we were successful. Then we let loose the germ on the world."
"We infected the water supply of Birmingham at its origin in Wales."
I watched his expression intently.
"You mean that you did this secretly, without knowing what the result would be?" he asked at last.
"We foresaw the result to a certain extent."
He thought for some time.
"But you had no right to infect a water supply. That's criminal, surely?"
"It's criminal if the infection is dangerous to people. If you put cholera in a reservoir, of course it's criminal."
"But this germ...?"
"This germ does not kill people. It kills the germs in people."
"What's the difference?"
"All the difference in the world! It's like this.... By the way, what is your name?"
"Clutterbuck." The word escaped his lips by accident. He looked annoyed. I smiled reassuringly.
"It's like this, Mr. Clutterbuck. If you kill all the germs in a person's body, that person doesn't die. He lives ... indefinitely. Now do you see?"
"No, I don't see," said Clutterbuck with great frankness. "I don't understand what you're driving at. You tell me that you're a doctor and you give me a card bearing a well-known specialist's name. Then you say you created a germ and put it in the Birmingham water supply and that the result is the Blue Disease. This germ, you say, doesn't kill people, but does something else which I don't follow. Now I was taught that germs are dangerous things, and it seems to me that if your story is true--which I don't believe--you are guilty of a criminal act." He pushed back his chair and reached for his hat. There was a flush on his face.
"Then you don't believe my tale?"
"No, I'm sorry, but I don't."
"Well, Mr. Clutterbuck, will you believe it when you see your wife restored to health in a few days' time?"
He paused and stared at me.
"What you say is impossible," he said slowly. "If you were a doctor you'd know that as well as I do."
"But the reports in the paper?"
"Oh, that's journalistic rubbish."
He picked up his umbrella and beckoned to the waitress. I made a last attempt.
"If I take you to my house will you believe me then?"
"Look here," he said in an angry tone, "I've had enough of this. I can't waste my time. I'm sure of one thing and that is that you're no doctor. You've got somebody's card-case. You don't look like a doctor and you don't speak like one. I should advise you to be careful."
He moved away from the table. Some neighbouring people stared at me for a moment and then went on eating. Mr. Clutterbuck paid at the desk and left the establishment. I had received the verdict of the average man.
THE DEAD IMMORTAL.
When I reached home, Sarakoff was out. He had left a message to say he would not be in until after midnight, as he was going to hear Leonora sing at the opera, and purposed to take her to supper afterwards. Dinner was therefore a solitary meal for me, and when it was all over I endeavoured to plunge into some medical literature. The hours passed slowly. It was almost impossible to read, for the process, to me, was similar to trying to take an interest in a week-old newspaper.
The thought of the bacillus made the pages seem colourless; it dwarfed all meaning in the words. I gave up the attempt and set myself to smoking and gazing into the fire. What was I to do about Alice?
Midnight came and my mind was still seething. I knew sleep was out of the question and the desire to walk assailed me. I put on a coat and hat and left the house. It was a cold night, clear with stars. Harley Street was silent. My footsteps led me south towards the river. I walked rapidly, oblivious of others. The problem of Alice was beyond solution, for the simple reason that I found it impossible to think of her clearly. She was overshadowed by the wonder of the bacillus. But the picture of her father haunted me. It filled me with strange emotions, and at moments with stranger misgivings.
There are meanings, dimly caught at the time, which remain in the mind like blind creatures, mewing and half alive. They pluck at the brain ceaselessly, seeking birth in thought. Old Annot's face peering into the hall mirror--what was it that photographed the scene so pitilessly in my memory? I hurried along, scarcely noticing where I went, and as I went I argued with myself aloud.
On the Embankment I returned to a full sense of my position in space. The river ran beneath me, cold and dark. I leaned over the stone balustrade and stared at the dark forms of barges. Yes, it was true enough that I had not realized that the germ would keep Mr. Annot alive indefinitely. Sarakoff's significant whistle that morning came to my mind, and I saw that I had been guilty of singular denseness in not understanding its meaning.
And now old Annot would live on and on, year after year. Was I glad? It is impossible to say. It was that expression in the old man's face that dominated me. I tried to think it out. It had been a triumphant look; and more than that ... a triumphant toothless look. Was that the solution? I reflected that triumph is an expression that belongs to youth, to young things, to all that is striving upwards in growth. Surely old people should look only patient and resigned--never triumphant--in this world? Some strong action with regard to Alice's position would be necessary. It was absurd to think that her father should eternally come between her and me. It would be necessary to go down to Cambridge and make a clean confession to Alice. And then, when forgiven, I would insist on an immediate arrangement concerning our marriage. Marriage! The word vibrated in my soul. The solemnity of that ceremony was great enough to mere mortals, but what would it mean to us when we were immortals? Sarakoff had hinted at a new marriage system. Was such a thing possible? On what factors did marriage rest? Was it merely a discipline or was it ultimately selfishness?
My agitation increased, and I hurried eastwards, soon entering an area of riverside London that, had I been calmer, might have given me some alarm. It must have been about two o'clock in the morning when the pressure of thoughts relaxed in my mind. I found myself in the great dock area. The forms of giant cranes rose dimly in the air. A distant glare of light, where nightshifts were at work, illuminated the huge shapes of ocean steamers. The quays were littered with crates and bales. A clanking of buffers and the shrill whistles of locomotives came out of the darkness. For some time I stood transfixed. In my imagination I saw these big ships, laden with cargo, slipping down the Thames and out into the sea, carrying with them an added cargo to every part of the earth. For by them would the Blue Germ travel over the waterways of the world and enter every port. From the ports it would spread swiftly into the towns, and from the towns onwards across plain and prairie until the gift of Immortality had been received by every human being. The vision thrilled me....
A commotion down a side street on my right shattered this glorious picture. Hoarse cries rang out, and a sound of blows. I could make out a small dark struggling mass which seemed to break into separate parts and then coalesce again. A police whistle sounded. The mass again broke up, and some figures came rushing down the street in my direction. They passed me in a flash, and vanished. At the far end of the street two twinkling lights appeared. After a period of hesitation--what doctor goes willingly into the accidents of the streets?--I walked slowly in their direction.
When I reached them I found two policemen bending over the body of a man, which lay in the gutter face downwards.
"Good evening," I said. "Can I be of any service? I am a doctor."
They shone their lamps on me suspiciously. "What are you doing here?"
"Walking," I replied. Exercise had calmed me. I felt cool and collected. "I often walk far at nights. Let me see the body."
I stooped down and turned the body over. The policemen watched me in silence. The body was that of a young, fair-haired sailor man. There was a knife between his ribs. His eyes were screwed up into a rigid state of contraction which death had not yet relaxed. His whole body was rigid. I knew that the knife had pierced his heart. But the most extraordinary thing about him was his expression. I have never looked on a face either in life or death that expressed such terror. Even the policemen were startled. The light of their lamps shone on that monstrous and distorted countenance, and we gazed in horrified silence.
"Is he dead?" asked one at last.
"Quite dead," I replied, "but it is odd to find this rigidity so early." I began to press his eyelids apart. The right eye opened. I uttered a cry of astonishment.
"Look!" I cried.
"Blest if that ain't queer," said one. "It's that Blue Disease. He must 'ave come from Birmingham."
"Queer?" I said passionately. "Why, man, it's tragedy--unadulterated tragedy. The man was an Immortal."
They stared at me heavily.
"Immortal?" said one.
"He would have lived for ever," I said. "In his system there is the most marvellous germ that the world has ever known. It was circulating in his blood. It had penetrated to every part of his body. A few minutes ago, as he walked along the dark street, he had before him a future of unnumbered years. And now he lies in the gutter. Can you imagine a greater tragedy?"
The policemen transferred their gaze from me to the dead man. Then, as if moved by a common impulse, they began to laugh. I watched them moodily, plunged in an extraordinary vein of thought. When I moved away they at once stopped me.
"No, you don't," said one. "We'll want you at the police station to give your evidence. Not," he continued with a grin, "to tell that bit of information you just gave us, about him being an angel or something."
"I didn't say he was an angel."
They laughed tolerantly. Like Mr. Clutterbuck, they thought I was mad.
"Let's hope he's an angel," said the other. "But, by his face, he looks more like the other thing. Bill, you go round for the ambulance. I'll stay with the gentleman."
The policeman moved away ponderously and vanished in the darkness.
"What was that you were saying, sir?" asked the policeman who remained with me.
"Never mind," I muttered, "you wouldn't understand."
"I'm interested in religious matters," continued the policeman in a soft voice. "You think that the Blue Disease is something out of the common?"
I am never surprised at London policemen, but I looked at this one closely before I replied.
"You seem a reasonable man," I said. "Let me tell you that what I have told you about the germ--that it confers immortality--is correct. In a day or two you will be immortal."
He seemed to reflect in a calm massive way on the news. His eyes were fixed on the dead man's face.
"An Immortal Policeman?"
"You're asking me to believe a lot, sir."
"I know that. But still, there it is. It's the truth."
"And what about crime?" he continued. "If we were all Immortals, what about crime?"
"Crime will become so horrible in its meaning that it will stop."
"It hasn't stopped yet...."
"Of course not. It won't, till people realize they are immortal."
He shifted his lantern and shone it down the road.
"Well, sir, it seems to me it will be a long time before people realize that. In fact, I don't see how anyone could ever realize it."
"Just think," he said, with a large air. "Supposing crime died out, what would happen to the Sunday papers? Where would those lawyers be? What would we do with policemen? No, you can't realize it. You can't realize the things you exist for all vanishing. It's not human nature." He brooded for a time. "You can't do away with crime," he continued. "What's behind crime? Woman and gold--one or the other, or both. Now you don't mean to tell me, sir, that the Blue Disease is doing away with women and gold in a place like Birmingham? Why, sir, what made Birmingham? What do you suppose life is?"
"I have never been asked the question before by a policeman," I said. "I do not know what made Birmingham, but I will tell you what life is. It is ultimately a cell, containing protoplasm and a nucleus."
A low rumbling noise began somewhere in his vast bulk. It gradually increased to a roar. I became aware that he was laughing. He held his sides. I thought his shining belt would burst. At length his hilarity slowly subsided, and he became sober. He surveyed the dead body at his feet.
"No, sir," he said, "don't you believe it. Life is women and gold. It always was that, and it always will be." He shone his lamp downwards so that the light fell on the terrible features of the dead sailor. "Now this man, sir, was killed because of money, I'll wager. And behind the money I reckon you'll find a woman." He mused for a time. "Not necessarily a pretty woman, but a woman of some sort."
"How do you account for that look of fear on his face?"
"I couldn't say. I've never seen anything like it. I've seen a lot of dead faces, but they are usually quiet enough, as if they were asleep. But I'll tell you one thing, sir, that I have noticed, and that is that money--which includes diamonds and such like, makes a man die worse and more bitter than anything else."
He turned his lantern down the street. A sound of wheels reached us.
"That's the ambulance."
"Will you really require me at the police station?" I asked.
"Will it be necessary to prove who I am?"