"You won't need to prove that you're a doctor, sir," he said genially. "We have a lot to do with doctors. I could tell you were a doctor after talking a minute with you. You are all the same."
"What do you mean?"
"Well--it's the things you say. Now only a doctor could have said what you did--about life being a cell. Do you know, sir, I sometimes believe that doctors is more innocent than parsons. It's the things they say...."
The low rumbling began again in his interior. I waited silently until the ambulance came up. I felt a slight shade of annoyance. But how could I expect the enormous uneducated bulk beside me to take a really intelligent and scientific view of life? Of course life was a cell. Every educated person knew that--and now that cell was, for the first time in history, about to become immortal--but what did the policeman care? How stupid people were, I reflected. We moved off in a small procession towards the police station. Half an hour later I was on my way west, deeply pondering on the causes of that extraordinary expression of fear in the dead sailor's face. Never in my life before had I seen so agonized a countenance, but I was destined to see others as terrible. As I walked, the strangeness of the dead man's tragedy grew in my mind and filled me with a tremendous wonder, for who had ever seen a dead Immortal?
On reaching home I roused Sarakoff and related to him what I had seen.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF IMMORTALITY.
After two hours of sleep I awoke. My brief rest had been haunted by unpleasant dreams, vague and indefinite, but seeming to centre about the idea of an impending catastrophe. I lay in bed staring at the dimly outlined window. I felt quite rested and very wide awake. For some time I remained motionless, reflecting on my night adventures and idly thinking whether it was worth while getting up and attending to some correspondence that was overdue. The prospect of a chilly study was not attractive. And then I noticed a very peculiar sensation.
There is only one thing that I can compare it with. After a day of exhausting work a glass of champagne produces in me an almost immediate effect. I feel as if the worries of the day are suddenly removed to a great and blessed distance. A happy indifference takes their place. I felt the same effect as I lay in bed on that dreary winter's morning. The idea that I should get up and work retreated swiftly. A pleasant sense of languor came over me. My eyes closed and for some time I lay in a blissful state of peace, such as I had never experienced before so far as my memory could tell.
I do not know how long I lay in this state, but at length a persistent noise made me open my eyes. I looked round. It seemed to be full daylight now. The first thing I noticed was the unusual size of the room. The ceiling seemed far above my head. The walls seemed to have receded many feet. In my astonishment I uttered an exclamation. The result was startling. My voice seemed to reverberate and re-echo as if I had shouted with all my strength. Considerably startled, I remained in a sitting posture, gazing at my unfamiliar surroundings. The persistent noise that had first roused me continued, and for a long time I could not account for it. It appeared to come from under my bed. I leaned over the edge, but could see nothing. And then, in a flash, I knew what it was. It was the sound of my watch, that lay under my pillow.
I drew it out and stared at it in a state of mystification. Each of its ticks sounded like a small hammer striking sharply against a metal plate. I held it to my ear and was almost deafened. For a moment I wondered whether I were not in the throes of some acute nervous disorder, in which the senses became sharpened to an incredible degree. Such an exultation of perception could only be due to some powerful intoxicant at work on my body. Was I going mad? I laid the watch on the counterpane and in the act of doing it, the explanation burst on my mind. For the recollection of Mr. Herbert Wain and the Clockdrum suddenly came to me. I flung aside the bedclothes, ran to the window and drew the curtains. The radiance of the day almost blinded me. I pressed my hands to my eyes in a kind of agony, feeling that they had been seared and destroyed, and dropped on my knees. I remained in this position for over a minute and then gradually withdrew my hands and gazed at the carpet. I dared not look up yet. The pattern of the carpet glowed in colours more brilliant than I had ever seen before. As I knelt there, in attitude of prayer, it seemed to me that I had never noticed colour before; that all my life had been passed without any consciousness of colour. At last I lifted my sight from the miracle of the carpet to the miracle of the day. High overhead, through the dingy windowpane, was a patch of clear sky, infinitely sweet, remote and inaccessible, framed by golden clouds. As I gazed at it an indescribable reverence and joy filled my mind. In the purity of the morning light, it seemed the most lovely and wonderful thing I had ever beheld. And I, Richard Harden, consulting physician who had hitherto looked on life through a microscope, remained kneeling on my miraculous carpet, gazing upwards at the miraculous heavens. Acting on some strange impulse I stretched out my hands, and then I saw something which turned me into a rigid statue.
It was in this attitude that Sarakoff found me.
He entered my room violently. His hair was tousled and his beard stuck out at a grotesque angle. He was clad in pink pyjamas, and in his hand he carried a silver-backed mirror. My attitude did not seem to cause him any surprise. The door slammed behind him, with a noise of thunder, and he rushed across the room to where I knelt, and stooping, examined my finger nails at which I was staring.
"Good!" he shouted. "Good! Harden, you've got it too!"
He pointed triumphantly. Under the nails there was a faint tinge of blue, and at the nail-bed this was already intense, forming little crescent-shaped areas of vivid turquoise.
Sarakoff sat down on the edge of my bed and studied himself attentively in the hand mirror.
"A slight pallor is perceptible in the skin," he announced as if he was dictating a note for a medical journal, "and this is due, no doubt, to a deposit of the blue pigment in the deeper layers of the epidermis. The hair is at present unaffected save at the roots. God knows what colour blond hair will become. I am anxious about Leonora. The expression--I suppose I can regard myself as a typical case, Harden--is serene, if not animated. Subjectively, one may observe a great sense of exhilaration coupled with an extraordinary increase in the power of perception. You, for example, look to me quite different."
"In what way?" I demanded.
"Well, as you kneel there, I notice in you a kind of angular grandeur, a grotesque touch of the sublime, that was not evident to me before. If I were a sculptor, I would like to model you like that. I cannot explain why--I am just saying what I feel. I have never felt any impulse towards art until this morning." He twisted his moustache. "Yes, you have quite an interesting face, Harden. I can see in it evidence that you have suffered intensely. You have taken life too seriously. You have worked too hard. You are stunted and deformed with work."
I regarded him with some astonishment.
"Work is all very well," he continued, "but this morning I see with singular clarity that it is only a means of development. My dear Harden, if it is overdone, it simply dwarfs the soul. Our generation has not recognized this properly."
"But you were always an apostle of hard work," I remarked irritably.
"May be." He made a gesture of dismissal. "Now, I am an Immortal, and you are an Immortal. The background to life has changed. Formerly, the idea of death lurked constantly in the depths of the unconscious mind, and by its vaguely-felt influences spurred us on to continual exertion. That is all changed. We have, at one stroke, removed this dire spectre. We are free."
He rose suddenly and flung the mirror across the room.
"What do we need mirrors for?" he cried. "It is only when we fear death that we need mirrors to tell us how long we have to live." He strode over to me and halted. "You seem in no hurry to get up from that carpet," he observed. His remark made me realize that I had been kneeling for some minutes. Now this was rather odd. I am restless by nature and rarely remain in one position for any length of time, and to stay like that, kneeling before the window, was indeed curious. I got up and moved to the dressing-table, thinking. Sarakoff must have been thinking in the same direction, for he asked me a question.
"Did you realize you were kneeling?"
"Yes," I replied. "I knew what I was doing. It merely did not occur to me that I should change my position."
"The explanation is simple," said the Russian. "Restlessness, or the idea that we must change our position, or that we should be doing something else, belongs to the anxious side of life; and the anxious side of life is nourished and kept vigorous by the latent fear of death. All that is removed from you, and therefore you see no reason why you should do anything until it pleases you."
I began to study myself in the glass on the dressing-table. The examination interested me immensely. There was certainly a marble-like hue about the skin. The whites of my eyes were distinctly stained, but not so intensely as had been the case with Mr. Herbert Wain, showing that I had not suffered from the Blue Disease as long as he had. But when I began to study my reflection from the aesthetic point of view, I became deeply engrossed.
"I don't agree with you, Sarakoff," I remarked at length. "We still need mirrors. In fact I have never found the mirror so interesting in my life."
"Don't use that absurd phrase," he answered. "It implies that something other than life exists."
"So it does."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, if I stick this pair of scissors into your heart you will die, my dear fellow." He was silent, and a frown began to gather on his brow. "Yes," I continued, "your psychological deductions are not entirely valid. The fear of death still exists, but now limited to a small sphere. In that sphere, it will operate with extreme intensity." I picked up the scissors and made a stealthy movement towards him. To my amazement I obtained an immediate proof of my theory. He sprang up with a loud cry, darted to the door and vanished. For a moment I stood in a state of bewilderment. Was it possible that he, with all his size and strength, was afraid of me? And then a great fit of laughter overcame me and I sank down on my bed with the tears coming from my eyes.
THE TERRIBLE FEAR.
On coming down to breakfast, I found Sarakoff already seated at the table devouring the morning papers. I picked up a discarded one and stood by the fire, glancing over its contents. There was only one subject of news, and that was the spread of the Blue Disease. From every part of the north cases were reported, and in London it had broken out in several districts.
"So it's all come true," I remarked.
He nodded, and continued reading. I sauntered to the window. A thin driving snow was now falling, and the passers-by were hurrying along in the freezing slush, with collars turned up and heads bowed before the wind.
"This is an ideal day to spend indoors by the fireside," I observed. "I think I'll telephone to the hospital and tell Jones to take my work."
Sarakoff raised his eyes, and then his eyebrows.
"So," he said, "the busy man suddenly thinks work a bother. The power of the germ, Harden, is indeed miraculous."
"Do you think my inclination is due to the germ?"
"Beyond a doubt. You were the most over-conscientious man I ever knew until this morning."
For some reason I found this observation very interesting. I wished to discuss it, and I was about to reply when the door opened and my housemaid announced that Dr. Symington-Tearle was in the hall and would like an immediate interview.
"Shew him in," I said equably. Symington-Tearle usually had a most irritating effect upon me, but at the moment I felt totally indifferent to him. He entered in his customary manner, as if the whole of London were feverishly awaiting him. I introduced Sarakoff, but Symington-Tearle hardly noticed him.
"Harden," he exclaimed in his loud dominating tones, "I am convinced that there is no such thing as this Blue Disease. I believe it all to be a colossal plant. Some practical joker has introduced a chemical into the water supply."
"Probably," I murmured, still thinking of Sarakoff's observation.
"I'm going to expose the whole thing in the evening papers; I examined a case yesterday--a man called Wain--and was convinced there was nothing wrong with him. He was really pigmented. And what is it but mere pigmentation?" He passed his hand over his brow and frowned. "Yes, yes," he continued, "that's what it is--a colossal joke. We've all been taken in by it--everyone except me." He sat down by the breakfast table suddenly and once more passed his hand over his brow.
"What was I saying?" he asked.
Sarakoff and I were now watching him intently.
"That the Blue Disease was a joke," I said.
"Ah, yes--a joke." He looked up at Sarakoff and stared for a moment. "Do you know," he said, "I believe it really is a joke."
An expression of intense solemnity came over his face, and he sat motionless gazing in front of him with unblinking eyes. I crossed to where he sat and peered at his face.
"I thought so," I remarked. "You've got it too."
"The Blue Disease. I suppose you caught it from Wain, as we did." I picked up one of his hands and pointed to the faintly-tinted fingernails. Dr. Symington-Tearle stared at them with an air of such child-like simplicity and gravity that Sarakoff and I broke into loud laughter.
The humour of the situation passed with a peculiar suddenness and we ceased laughing abruptly. I sat down at the table, and for some time the three of us gazed at one another and said nothing. The spirit-lamp that heated the silver dish of bacon upon the table spurted at intervals and I saw Symington-Tearle stare at it in faint surprise.
"Does it sound very loud?" asked Sarakoff at length.
"Extraordinarily loud. And upon my soul your voice nearly deafens me."
"It will pass," I said. "One gets adjusted to the extreme sensitiveness in a short time. How do you feel?"
"I feel," said Symington-Tearle slowly, "as if I were newly constructed from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet. After a Turkish bath and twenty minutes' massage I've experienced a little of the feeling."
He stared at Sarakoff, then at me, and finally at the spirit lamp. We must have presented an odd spectacle. For there we sat, three men who, under ordinary circumstances, were extremely busy and active, lolling round the unfinished breakfast table while the hands of the clock travelled relentlessly onward.
Relentlessly? That was scarcely correct. To me, owing to some mysterious change that I cannot explain, the clock had ceased to be a tyrannous and hateful monster. I did not care how fast it went or to what hour it pointed. Time was no longer precious, any more than the sand of the sea is precious.
"Aren't you going to have any breakfast?" asked Symington-Tearle.
"I'm not in the least hurry," replied Sarakoff. "I think I'll take a sip of coffee. Are you hungry, Harden?"
"No. I don't want anything save coffee. But I'm in no hurry."
My housemaid entered and announced that the gentleman who had been waiting in Dr. Symington-Tearle's car, and was now in the hall, wished to know if the doctor would be long.
"Oh, that is a patient of mine," said Symington-Tearle, "ask him to come in."
A large, stout, red-faced gentleman entered, wrapped in a thick frieze motor coat. He nodded to us briefly.
"Sorry to interrupt," he said, "but time's getting on, Tearle. My consultation with Sir Peverly Salt was for half past nine, if you remember. It's that now."
"Oh, there's plenty of time," said Tearle. "Sit down, Ballard. It's nice and warm in here."
"It may be nice and warm," replied Mr. Ballard loudly, "but I don't want to keep Sir Peverly waiting."
"I don't see why you shouldn't keep him waiting," said Tearle. "In fact I really don't see why you should go to him at all."
Mr. Ballard stared for a moment. Then his eyes travelled round the table and dwelt first on Sarakoff and then on me. I suppose something in our manner rather baffled him, but outwardly he shewed no sign of it.
"I don't quite follow you," he said, fixing his gaze upon Tearle again. "If you recollect, you advised me strongly four days ago to consult Sir Peverly Salt about the condition of my heart, and you impressed upon me that his opinion was the best that was obtainable. You rang him up and an appointment was fixed for this morning at half-past nine, and I was told to call on you shortly after nine."
He paused, and once more his eyes dwelt in turn upon each of us. They returned to Tearle. "It is now twenty-five minutes to ten," he said. His face had become redder, and his voice louder. "And I understood that Sir Peverly is a very busy man."
"He certainly is busy," said Tearle. "He's far too busy. It is very interesting to think that business is only necessary in so far----"
"Look here," said Mr. Ballard violently. "I'm a man with a short temper. I'm hanged if I'll stand this nonsense. What the devil do you think you're all doing? Are you playing a joke on me?"
He glared round at us, and then he made a sudden movement towards the table. In a moment we were all on our feet. I felt an acute terror seize me, and without waiting to see what happened, I flung open the door that led into my consulting room, darted to the further door, across the hall and up to my bedroom.
There was a cry and a rush of feet across the hall. Mr. Ballard's voice rang out stormily. A door slammed, and then another door, and then all was silent.
I became aware of a movement behind me, and looking round sharply, I saw my housemaid Lottie staring at me in amazement. She had been engaged in making the bed.
"Whatever is the matter, sir?" she asked.
"Hush!" I whispered. "There's a dangerous man downstairs."
I turned the key in the lock, listened for a moment, and then tip-toed my way across the floor to a chair. My limbs were shaking. It is difficult to describe the intensity of my terror. There was a cold sweat on my forehead. "He might have killed me. Think of that!"
Her eyes were fixed on me.
"Oh, sir, you do look bad," she exclaimed. "Whatever has happened to you?" She came nearer and gazed into my eyes. "They're all blue, sir. It must be that disease you've got."
A sudden irritation flashed over me. "Don't stare at me like that. You'll have it yourself to-morrow," I shouted. "The whole of the blessed city will have it." A loud rap at the door interrupted me. I jumped up, darted across the room and threw myself under the bed. "Don't let anyone in," I whispered. The rap was repeated. Sarakoff's voice sounded without.
"Let me in. It's all right. He's gone. The front door is bolted." I crawled out and unlocked the door. Sarakoff, looking rather pale, was standing in the passage. He carried a poker. "Symington-Tearle's in the coal-cellar," he announced. "He won't come out."
I wiped my brow with a handkerchief.
"Good heavens, Sarakoff," I exclaimed, "this kind of thing will lead to endless trouble. I had no idea the terror would be so uncontrollable."
"I'm glad you feel it as I do," said the Russian. "When you threatened me with a pair of scissors this morning I felt mad with fear."