"So you are Dr. Harden!" he exclaimed.
He stopped and looked confused.
"Yes," I said; "please sit down, Mr. Clutterbuck."
He did so, twisting his hat awkwardly and gazing at the floor.
"I owe you an apology," he said at length. "I came to consult you, little expecting to find that it was you after all--that you were Dr. Harden. I must apologize for my rudeness to you in the tea-shop, but what you said was so extraordinary ... you could not expect me to believe."
He glanced at me, and then looked away. There was a dull flush on his face.
"Please do not apologize. What did you wish to consult me about?"
"About my wife."
"Is she worse?"
"No." He dropped his hat, recovered it, and finally set it upon a corner of the table. "No, she is not worse. In fact, she is the reverse. She is better."
I waited, feeling only a mild interest in the cause of his agitation.
"She has got the Blue Disease," he continued, speaking with difficulty. "She got it yesterday and since then she has been much better. Her cough has ceased. She--er--she is wonderfully better." He began to drum with his fingers on his knee, and looked with a vacant gaze at the corner of the room. "Yes, she is certainly better. I was wondering if----"
There was a silence.
He started and looked at me.
"Why, you've got it, too!" he exclaimed. "How extraordinary! I hadn't noticed it." He got to his feet and went to the window. "I suppose I shall get it next," he muttered.
"Certainly, you'll get it."
He nodded, and continued to stare out of the window. At length he spoke.
"My wife is a woman who has suffered a great deal, Dr. Harden. I have never had enough money to send her to health resorts, and she has always refused to avail herself of any institutional help. For the last year she has been confined to a room on the top floor of our house--a nice, pleasant room--and it has been an understood thing between Dr. Sykes and myself that her malady was to be given a convenient name. In fact, we have called it a weak heart. You understand, of course."
"I have always been led to expect that the end was inevitable," he continued, speaking with sudden rapidity. "Under such circumstances I made certain plans. I am a careful man, Dr. Harden, and I look ahead and lay my plans." He stopped abruptly and turned to face me. "Is there any truth in what you told me the other day?"
I nodded. A curiously haggard expression came over him. He stepped swiftly towards me and caught my arm.
"Does the germ cure disease?"
"Of course. Your wife is now immortal. You need not be alarmed, Mr. Clutterbuck. She is immortal. Before her lies a future absolutely free from suffering. She will rapidly regain her normal health and strength. Provided she avoids accidents, your wife will live for ever."
"My wife will live forever?" he repeated hoarsely. "Then what will happen to me?"
"You, too, will live for ever," I said calmly. "Please do not grasp my arm so violently."
He drew back. He was extremely pale, and there were beads of perspiration on his brow.
"Are you married?" he asked.
"Have you any idea what all this means to me if what you say is true?" he exclaimed. He drew his hand across his eyes. "I am mad to believe you for an instant. But she is better--there is no denying that. Good God, if it is true, what a tragedy you have made of human lives!"
He remained standing in the middle of the room, and I, not comprehending, gazed at him. Then, of a sudden, he picked up his hat, and muttering something, dashed out and vanished.
I heard the front door bang. Perfectly calm and undisturbed, I rejoined Sarakoff in the waiting-room. The incident of Mr. Clutterbuck passed totally from my mind, and I began to reflect on certain problems arising out of the visit of the Home Secretary.
On the same afternoon Miss Annot paid me a visit. I was still sitting in the waiting-room, and Sarakoff was with me. My mind had been deeply occupied with the question of the larger beliefs that we hold. For it had come to me with peculiar force that law and order, and officials like the Home Secretary, are concerned only with the small beliefs of humanity, with the burdensome business of material life. As long as a man dressed properly, walked decently and paid correctly, he was accepted, in spite of the fact that he might firmly believe the world was square. No one worried about those matters. We judge people ultimately by how they eat and drink and get up and sit down. What they say is of little importance in the long run. If we examine a person professionally, we merely ask him what day it is, where he is, what is his name and where he was born. We watch him to see if he washes, undresses and dresses, and eats properly. We ask him to add two and two, and to divide six by three, and then we solemnly give our verdict that he is either sane or insane.
The enormity of this revelation engrossed me with an almost painful activity of thought.
I gazed across at Sarakoff and wondered what appalling gulf divided our views on supreme things. What view did he really take of women? Did he or did he not think that the planets and stars were inhabited? Did he believe in the evolution of the soul like Mr. Thornduck?
A kind of horror possessed me as I stared at him and reflected that these questions had never entered my consciousness until that moment. I had lived with him and dined with him and worked with him, and yet hitherto it would have concerned me far more if I had seen him tuck his napkin under his collar or spit on the carpet.... What laughable little folk we were! I, who had always seen man as the last and final expression of evolution, now saw him as the stumbling, crawling, incredibly stupid, result of a tentative experiment--a first step up a ladder of infinitive length.
Whilst I was immersed in the humiliation of these thoughts Miss Annot entered. She wore a dark violet coat and skirt and a black hat. I noticed that her complexion, usually somewhat muddy, was perfectly clear, though of a marble pallor. We greeted each other quietly and I introduced Sarakoff.
"So you are an Immortal, Alice," I said smiling. She gazed at me.
"Richard, I do not know what I am, but I know one thing; I am entirely changed. Some strange miracle has been wrought in me. I came to ask you what it is."
"You see that both Professor Sarakoff and I have got the germ in our systems like you, Alice. Yes, it is a miracle; we are Immortals."
I studied her face attentively, she had changed. It seemed to me that she was another woman, she moved in a new way, her speech was unhurried, her gaze was direct and thoughtful. I recalled her former appearance when her manner had been nervous and bashful, her eyes downcast, her movements hurried and anxious.
"I do not understand," she said. "Tell me all you know."
I did so, I suppose I must have talked for an hour on end. Throughout that time neither she nor Sarakoff stirred. When I had finished there was a long silence.
"It is funny to think of our last meeting, Richard," she said at length. "Do you remember how my father behaved? He is different now. He sits all day in his study--he eats very little. He seems to be in a dream."
"And you?" I asked.
"I am in a dream, too. I do not understand it. All the things I used to busy myself with seem unimportant."
"That is how we feel," said Sarakoff. He rose to his feet and spoke strongly. "Harden, as Miss Annot says, everything has changed. I never foresaw this; I do not understand it myself."
He went slowly to the mantelpiece and leaned against it.
"When I created this germ, I saw in my mind an ideal picture of life. I saw a world freed from a dire spectre, a world from which fear had been removed, the fear of death. I saw the great triumph of materialism and the final smashing up of all superstition. A man would live in a state of absolute certainty. He would lay his plans for pleasure and comfort and enjoyment with absolute precision, knowing--not hoping--but certainly knowing, that they would come about. I saw cities and gardens built in triumph to cater for the gratification of every sense. I saw new laws in operation, constructed by men who knew that they had mastered the secret of life and had nothing to fear. I saw all those things about which we are so timid and vague--marriage and divorce, the education of children, luxury, the working classes, religion and so on--absolutely settled in black and white. I saw what I thought to be the millennium."
"And now?" asked Alice.
"Now I see nothing. I am in the dark. I do not understand what has happened to me."
"What we are in for now, no man can say," I remarked.
"It's the extraordinary restfulness that puzzles me," said Sarakoff. "Here I have been sitting for hours and I feel no inclination to do anything."
"The thing that is most extraordinary to me is the difficulty I have in realizing how I spent my time formerly," said Alice. "Of course, father is no bother now and meals have been cut down, but that does not account for all of it. It seems as if I had been living in a kind of nightmare in the past, from which I have suddenly escaped."
"What do you feel most inclined to do?" I asked.
"Nothing at present. I sit and think. It was difficult for me to make myself come here to-day." She smiled suddenly. "Richard, it seems strange to recall that we were engaged."
She spoke without any embarrassment and I answered her with equal ease.
"I hope you don't think our engagement is broken off, Alice. I think my feelings towards you are unchanged."
"Ah!" exclaimed Sarakoff. "That is interesting. Are you sure of that, Harden?"
"Not altogether," I answered tranquilly. "There is a lot to think out before I can be sure, but I know that I feel towards Alice a great sympathy."
"Sympathy!" the Russian exclaimed. "What are we coming to? Good heavens! Is sympathy to be our strongest emotion? What do you think, Miss Annot."
"Sympathy is exactly what I feel," she replied. "Richard and I would be very good companions. Isn't that more important than passion?"
"Is sympathy to be the bond between the sexes, then, and is all passion and romance to die?" he exclaimed scornfully. He seemed to be struggling with himself, as if he were trying to throw off some spell that held him. "Surely I seem to recollect that yesterday life contained some richer emotions than sympathy," he muttered. "What has come over us? Why doesn't my blood quicken when I think of Leonora?" He burst into a laugh. "Harden, this is comic. There is no other word for it. It is simply comic."
"It may be comic, Sarakoff, but to speak candidly, I prefer my state to-day to my state yesterday. Last night seems to me like a bad dream." I got to my feet. "There is one thing I must see about as soon as possible, and that is getting rid of this house. What an absurd place to live in this is! It is a comic house, if you like--like a tomb."
The room seemed suddenly absurd. It was very dark, the wallpaper was of a heavy-moulded variety, sombre in hue and covered with meaningless figuring. The ceiling was oppressive. It, too, was moulded in some fantastic manner. Several large faded oil-paintings hung on the wall. I do not know why they hung there, they were hideous and meaningless as well. The whole place was meaningless. It was the meaninglessness that seemed to leap out upon me wherever I turned my eyes. The fireplace astounded me. It was a mass of pillars and super-structures and carvings, increasing in complexity from within outwards, until it attained the appearance of an ornate temple in the centre of which burned a little coal. It was grotesque. On the topmost ledges of this monstrous absurdity stood two vases. They bulged like distended stomachs, covered on their outsides with yellow, green and black splotches of colour. I recollected that I paid ten pounds apiece for them. Under what perverted impulse had I done that? My memories became incredible. I moved deliberately to the mantelpiece and seized the vases. I opened the window and hurled them out on to the pavement. They fell with a crash, and their fragments littered the ground.
Alice expressed no surprise.
"It is rather comic," said the Russian, "but where are you going to live?"
"Alice and I will go and live by the sea. We have plenty to think about. I feel as if I could never stop thinking, as if I had to dig away a mountain of thought with a spade. Alice, we will go round to the house agent now."
When Alice and I left the house the remains of the vases littered the pavement at our feet. We walked down Harley Street. The house agent lived in Regent Street. It was now a clear, crisp afternoon with a pleasant tint of sunlight in the air. A newspaper boy passed, calling something unintelligible in an excited voice. I stopped him and bought a paper.
"What an inhuman noise to make," said Alice. "It seems to jar on every nerve in my body. Do ask him to stop."
"You're making too much noise," I said to the lad. "You must call softly. It is an outrage to scream like that."
He stared up at me, an impudent amazed face surmounting a tattered and dishevelled body, and spoke.
"You two do look a couple of guys, wiv' yer blue faices. If some of them doctors round 'ere catches yer, they'll pop yer into 'ospital."
He ran off, shrieking his unintelligible jargon.
"We must get to the sea," I said firmly. "This clamour of London is unbearable."
I opened the paper. Enormous headlines stared me in the face.
"Blue Disease sweeping over London. Ten thousand cases reported to-day. Europe alarmed. Question of the isolation of Great Britain under discussion. Debate in the Commons to-night. The Duke of Thud and the Earl of Blunder victims. The Royal Family leave London."
We stood together on the pavement and gazed at these statements in silence. A sense of wonder filled my mind. What a confusion! What an emotional, feverish, heated confusion! Why could not they take the matter calmly? What, in the name of goodness, was the reason of this panic. They knew that the Blue Disease had caused no fatalities in Birmingham, and yet so totally absent was the power of thought and deduction, that they actually printed those glaring headlines.
"The fools," I said. "The amazing, fatuous fools. They simply want to sell the paper. They have no other idea."
A strong nausea came over me. I crumpled up the paper and stood staring up and down the street. The newspaper boy was in the far distance, still shrieking. I saw Sir Barnaby Burtle, the obstetrician, standing by his scarlet front door, eagerly devouring the news. His jaw was slack and his eyes protruded.
The solemn houses of Harley Street only increased my nausea. The folly of it--the selfish, savage folly of life!
"Come, Richard," said Alice. "The sooner we get to the house agent the better. We could never live here."
"I'll put him on to the job of finding a bungalow on the South Coast at once," I said. "And then we'll go and live there."
"We must get married," she observed.
"Married!" I stopped and stared at her with a puzzled expression. "Don't you think the marriage ceremony is rather barbarous?"
She did not reply; we walked on immersed in our own thoughts. At times I detected in the passers-by a gleam of sparrow-egg blue.
My house agent was a large, confused individual who habitually wore a shining top hat on the back of his head and twisted a cigar in the corner of his mouth. He was very fat, with one of those creased faces that seem to fall into folds like a heavy crimson curtain. His brooding, congested eye fell upon me as we entered, and an expression of alarm became visible in its depths. He pushed his chair back and retreated to a corner of the room.
"Dr. Harden!" he exclaimed fearfully, "you oughtn't to come here like that, you really oughtn't."
"Don't be an ass, Franklyn," I said firmly. "You are bound to catch the germ sooner or later. It will impress you immensely."
"It's all over London," he whimpered. "It's too much; it will hit us hard. It's too much."
"Listen to me," I said. "I have come here to see you about business. Now sit down in your chair; I won't touch you. I want you to get me a bungalow by the sea with a garden as soon as possible. I am going to sell my house."
"Sell your house!" He became calmer. "That is very extraordinary, Dr. Harden."
"I am going out of London."
He was astonished.
"But your house--in Harley Street--so central...." he stammered. "I don't understand. Are you giving up your practice?"