"At your age, Dr. Harden?"
"What has age got to do with it? There is no such thing as age."
He stared. Then his eyes turned to Alice.
"No such thing as age?" he murmured helplessly. "But surely you are not going to sell; you have the best house in Harley Street. Its commanding position ... in the centre of that famous locality...."
"Do you think that any really sane man would live in the centre of Harley Street," I asked calmly. "Is he likely to find any peace in that furnace of crude worldly ambitions? But all that is already a thing of the past. In a few weeks, Franklyn, Harley Street will be deserted."
"Deserted?" His eyes rolled.
"Deserted," I said sternly. "In its upper rooms there may remain a few Immortals, but the streets will be silent. The great business of sickness, which occupies the attention of a third of the world and furnishes the main topic of conversation in every home, will be gone. Sell my house, Franklyn, and find me a bungalow on the South Coast facing the sea."
I turned away and went towards the door, Alice followed me. The house agent sat in helpless amazement. He filled me with a sense of nausea. He seemed so gross, so mindless.
"A bungalow," he whispered.
"Yes. Let us have long, low, simple rooms and a garden where we may grow enough to live on. The age of material complexity and noise is at an end. We need peace."
Strolling along at a slow pace, we went down Oxford Street towards the Marble Arch. It was dusk. The newsboys were howling at every corner and everyone had a paper. Little groups of people stood on the pavements discussing the news. In the roadway the stream of traffic was incessant. The huge motor-buses thundered and swayed along, with their loads of pale humanity feverishly clinging to them. The public-houses were crowded. The slight tension that the threat of the Blue Disease produced in people filled the bars with men and women, seeking the relaxation of alcohol. There was in the air that liveliness, that tendency to collect into small crowds, that is evident whenever the common safety of the great herd is threatened. In the Park a crowd surrounded the platform of an agitator. In a voice like that of a delirious man, he implored the crowd to go down on its knees and repent ... the end of the world was at hand ... the Blue Disease was the pouring out of one of the vials of wrath ... repent!... repent!... His voice rang in our ears and drove us away. We crossed the damp grass. I stumbled over a sleeping man. There was something familiar in his appearance and I stooped down and turned him over. It was Mr. Herbert Wain. He seemed to be fast asleep.... We walked to King's Cross, and I put Alice without regret in the train for Cambridge.
THE MEETING AT THE QUEEN'S HALL.
The same night a vast meeting of medical men had been summoned at the Queen's Hall, with the object of discussing the nature of the strange visitation, and the measures that should be adopted. Doctors came from every part of the country. The meeting began at eight o'clock, and Sir Jeremy Jones, the President of the Royal College of Physicians, opened the discussion with a paper in which the most obvious features of the disease were briefly tabulated.
The great Hall was packed. Sarakoff and I got seats in the front row of the gallery. Sir Jeremy Jones, a large bland man, with beautiful silver grey hair, wearing evening dress, and pince-nez, stood up on the platform amid a buzz of talk. The short outburst of clapping soon ceased and Sir Jeremy began.
The beginnings of the disease were outlined, the symptoms described, and then the physician laid down his notes, and seemed to look directly up at me.
"So far," he said, in suave and measured tones, "I have escaped the Blue Disease, but at any moment I may find myself a victim, and the fact does not disquiet me. For I am convinced that we are witnessing the sudden intrusion and the swift spread of an absolutely harmless organism--one that has been, perhaps, dormant for centuries in the soil, or has evolved to its present form in the deep waters of the Elan watershed by a process whose nature we can only dimly guess at. Some have suggested a meteoric origin, and it is true that some meteoric stones fell over Wales recently. But that is far-fetched to my mind, for how could a white-hot stone harbour living matter? Whatever its origin, it is, I am sure, a harmless thing, and though strange, and at first sight alarming, we need none of us alter our views of life or our way of living. The subject is now open for discussion, and I call on Professor Sarakoff, of Petrograd, the eminent bacteriologist, to give us the benefit of his views, as I believe he has a statement to make."
A burst of applause filled the Hall.
"Good," muttered Sarakoff in my ear. "I will certainly give them my views."
"Be careful," I said idly. Sir Jeremy was gazing round the Hall. Sarakoff stood up and there arose cries for silence. He made a striking figure with his giant stature, his black hair and beard and his blue-stained eyes. Sir Jeremy sat down, smiling blandly.
"Mr. President and Gentlemen," began the Professor, in a voice that carried to every part of the Hall. "I, as an Immortal, desire to make a few simple and decisive statements to you to-night regarding the nature of the Blue Disease, the germ of which was prepared by myself and my friend, Dr. Richard Harden. The germ--in future to be known as the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus--is ultra-microscopical. It grows in practically every medium with great ease. In the human body it finds an admirable host, and owing to the fact that it destroys all other organisms, it confers immortality on the person who is infected by it. We are therefore on the threshold of a new era."
After this brief statement Sarakoff calmly sat down, and absolute silence reigned. Sir Jeremy, still smiling blandly, stared up at him. Every face was turned in our direction. A murmur began, which quickly increased. A doctor behind me leaned over and touched my shoulder.
"Is he sane?" he asked in a whisper.
"Perfectly," I replied.
"But you don't believe him?"
"Of course I do."
"But it's ridiculous! Who is this Dr. Harden?"
"I am Dr. Harden."
The uproar in the Hall was now considerable. Sir Jeremy rose, and waved his hands in gestures of restraint. Finally he had recourse to a bell that stood on the table.
"Gentlemen," he said, when silence was restored. "We have just heard a remarkable statement from Professor Sarakoff and I think I am justified in asking for proofs."
I instantly got up. I was quite calm.
"I can prove that Sarakoff's statement is perfectly correct," I said. "I am Richard Harden. I discovered the method whereby the bacillus became a possibility. Every man in this Hall who has the Sarakoff-Harden bacillus in his system is immortal. You, Mr. President, are not yet one of the Immortals. But I fancy in a day or two you will join us." I paused and smiled easily at the concourse below and around me. "It is really bad luck on the medical profession," I continued. "I'm afraid we'll all have to find some other occupation. Of course you've all noticed how the germ cuts short disease."
I sat down again. The smile on Sir Jeremy's face had weakened a little.
"Turn them out!" shouted an angry voice from the body of the Hall.
Sir Jeremy held up a protesting hand, and then took off his glasses and began to polish them. A buzz of talk arose. Men turned to one another and began to argue. The doctor behind me leaned forward again.
"Is this a joke?" he enquired rather loudly.
"But you two are speaking rubbish. What the devil do you mean by saying you're immortal?"
I turned and looked at him. My calmness enraged him. He was a shaggy, irritable, middle-aged practitioner.
"You've got the Blue Disease, but you're no more immortal than a blue monkey." He looked fiercely round at his neighbours. "What do you think?"
A babel of voices sounded in our ears.
Sir Jeremy Jones appeared perplexed. Someone stood up in the body of the Hall and Sir Jeremy caught his eye and seemed relieved. It was my friend Hammer, who had tended me after the accident that my black cat had brought about.
"Gentlemen," said Hammer, when silence had fallen. "Although the statements of Professor Sarakoff and Dr. Harden appear fantastical, I believe that they may be nearer the truth than we suppose." His manner, slow, impressive and calm, aroused general attention. Frowning slightly, he drew himself up and clasped the lapels of his coat. "This afternoon," he continued, "I was at the bedside of a sick child who was at the point of death. This child had been visited yesterday by a relative who, two hours after the visit, developed the Blue Disease. Now----" He paused and looked slowly about him. "Now the child was suffering from peritonitis, and there was no possible chance of recovery. Yet that child did recover and is now well."
The whole audience was staring at him. Hammer took a deep breath and grasped his coat more firmly.
"That child, I repeat, is now well. The recovery set in under my own eyes. I saw for myself the return of life to a body that was moribund. The return was swift. In one hour the transformation was complete, and it was in that hour that the child developed the outward signs of the Blue Disease."
He paused. A murmur ran round the hall and then once more came silence.
"I am of the opinion," said Hammer deliberately, "that the cause of the miracle--for it was a miracle--was the Blue Disease. Think, Gentlemen, of a child in the last stages of septic peritonitis, practically dead. Think again of the same child, one hour later, alive, free from pain, smiling, interested--and stained with the Blue Disease. What conclusion, as honest men, are we to draw from that?"
He sat down. At once a man near him got to his feet.
"The point of view hinted at by the last speaker is correct," he said. "I can corroborate it to a small extent. This morning I was confined to my bed with the beginnings of a bad influenzal cold. At midday I developed the Blue Disease, and now I am as well as I have ever been in the whole of my life. I attribute my cure to the Blue Disease."
Scarcely had he taken his seat again when a grave scholarly man arose in the gallery.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I come from Birmingham; and it is a city of miracles. The sick are being cured in thousands daily. The hospitals are emptying daily. I verily believe that the Blue Disease may prove to be all that Dr. Sarakoff and Dr. Harden claim it to be."
The effect of these speakers upon the meeting was remarkable. A thrill passed over the crowded Hall. Hammer rose again.
"Let us accept for a moment that this new infection confers immortality on humanity," he said, weighing each word carefully. "What are we, as medical men, going to do? Look into the future--a future free from disease, from death, possibly from pain. Are we to accept such a future passively, or are we, as doctors, to strive to eradicate this new germ as we strive to eradicate other germs?"
Sir Jeremy Jones, with an expression of dismay, raised his hand.
"Surely, surely," he exclaimed shrilly, "we are going too far. That the Blue Disease may modify the course of illness is conceivable, and seems to be supported by evidence. But to assume that it confers immortality----"
"Why should we doubt it?" returned Hammer warmly. "We have been told that it does by two responsible men of science, and so far their claim is justified. You, Mr. Chairman, have not seen the miracle that I have seen this afternoon. If the germ can bring a moribund child back to life in an hour, why should it not banish disease from the world?"
"But if it does banish disease from the world, that does not mean it confers immortality," objected Sir Jeremy. "Do you mean to say that we are to regard natural death as a disease?"
He gazed round the hall helplessly. Several men arose to speak, but were unable to obtain a hearing, for excitement now ran high and every man was discussing the situation with his neighbour. For a moment, a strange dread had gripped the meeting, paralysing thought, but it passed, and while some remained perplexed the majority began to resent vehemently the suggestions of Hammer. I could hear those immediately behind me insisting that the view was sheer rubbish. It was preposterous. It was pure lunacy. With these phrases, constantly repeated, they threw off the startling effect of Hammer's speech, and fortified themselves in the conviction that the Blue Disease was merely a new malady, similar to other maladies, and that life would proceed as before.
I turned to them.
"You are deliberately deceiving yourselves," I said. "You have heard the evidence. You are simply making as much noise as possible in order to shut out the truth."
My words enraged them. A sudden clamour arose around us. Several men shook their fists and there were angry cries. One of them made a movement towards us. In an instant calmness left us. The scene around us seemed to leap up to our senses as something terrible and dangerous. Sarakoff and I scrambled to our feet, pushed our way frantically through the throng, reached the corridor and dashed down it. Fear of indescribable intensity had flamed in our souls, and in a moment we found ourselves running violently down Regent Street.
THE WAY BACK.
It had been a wet night. Pools of water lay on the glistening pavements, but the rain had ceased. We ran steadily until we came in sight of Piccadilly Circus, and there our fear left us suddenly. It was like the cutting off of a switch. We stopped in the street, gasping for breath.
"This is really absurd," I observed; "we must learn to control ourselves."
"We can't control an emotion of that strength, Harden. It's overwhelming. It's all the emotion we had before concentrated into a single expression. No, it's going to be a nuisance."
"The worst of it is that we cannot foresee it. We get no warning. It springs out of the unknown like a tiger."
We walked slowly across the Circus. It was thronged with a night crowd, and seemed like some strange octagonal room, walled by moving coloured lights. Here lay a scene that remained eternally the same whatever the conditions of life--a scene that neither war, nor pestilence, nor famine could change. We stood by the fountain, immersed in our thoughts. "I used to enjoy this kind of thing," said Sarakoff at length.
"Now it is curiously meaningless--absolutely indecipherable."
We walked on and entered Coventry Street. Here Sarakoff suddenly pushed open a door and I followed him. We found ourselves in a brilliantly illuminated restaurant. A band was playing. We sat down at an unoccupied table.
"Harden, I wish to try an experiment. I want to see if, by an effort, we can get back to the old point of view."
He beckoned to the waiter and ordered champagne, cognac, oysters and caviare. Then he leaned back in his seat and smiled.
"Somehow I feel it won't work," I began.
He held up his hand.
"Wait. It is an experiment. You must give it a fair chance. Come, let us be merry."
"Let us eat, drink and be merry," I murmured.
I watched the flushed faces and sparkling eyes around us. So far we had attracted no attention. Our table was in a corner, behind a pillar. The waiter hurried up with a laden tray, and in a moment the table was covered with bottles and plates.
"Now," said Sarakoff, "we will begin with a glass of brandy. Let us try to recall the days of our youth--a little imagination, Harden, and then perhaps the spell will be broken. A toast--Leonora!"
"Leonora," I echoed.
We raised our glasses. I took a sip and set down my glass. Our eyes met.
"Is the brandy good?"
"It is of an admirable quality," said Sarakoff. He put his glass on the table and for some time we sat in silence.
"Excuse me," I said. "Don't you think the caviare is a trifle----?"
He made a gesture of determination.
"Harden, we will try champagne."
He filled two glasses.
"Let us drink off the whole glass," he said. "Really, Harden, we must try."
I managed to take two gulps. The stuff was nasty. It seemed like weak methylated spirits.
"Continue," said Sarakoff firmly; "let us drink ourselves into the glorious past, whither the wizard of alcohol transports all men."
I took two more gulps. Sarakoff did the same. It was something in the nature of a battle against an invisible resistance. I gripped the table hard with my free hand, and took another gulp.
"Sarakoff," I gasped. "I can't take any more. If you want to get alcohol into my system you must inject it under my skin. I can't do it this way."