He put down his glass. It was half full. There were beads of perspiration on his brow.
"I'll finish that glass somehow," he observed. He passed his hand across his forehead. "This is extraordinary. It's just like taking poison, Harden, and yet it is an excellent brand of wine."
"Do get these oysters taken away," I said. "They serve no purpose lying here. They only take up room."
"Wait till I finish my glass."
With infinite trouble he drank the rest of the champagne. The effort tired him. He sat, breathing quickly and staring before him.
"That's a pretty woman," he observed. "I did not notice her before."
I followed the direction of his gaze. A young woman, dressed in emerald green, sat at a table against the opposite wall. She was talking very excitedly, making many gestures and seemed to me a little intoxicated.
Sarakoff poured out some more champagne.
"I am getting back," he muttered. He looked like a man engaged in some terrific struggle with himself. His breath was short and thick, his eyes were reddened. Perspiration covered his face and hands. He finished the second glass.
"Yes, she is pretty," he said, "I like that white skin against the brilliant green. She's got grace, too. Have you noticed white-skinned women always are graceful, and have little ears, Harden?"
He laughed suddenly, with his old boisterousness and clapped me on the shoulder.
"This is the way out!" he shouted, and pointed to the silver tub that contained the champagne bottle.
His voice sounded loudly above the music.
"The way out!" he repeated. He got to his feet. His eyes were congested. The sweat streamed down his cheeks. "Here," he called in his deep powerful voice, "here, all you who are afraid--here is the way out." He waved his arms. People stopped drinking and talking to turn and stare at him. "Back to the animals!" he shouted. "Back to the fur and hair and flesh! I was up on the mountain top, but I've found the way back. Here it is--here is the magic you need, if you're tired of the frozen heights!"
He swayed as he spoke. Strangely interested, I stared up at him.
"He's delirious," called out the emerald young woman. "He's got that horrid disease."
The manager and a couple of waiters came up. "It's coming," shouted Sarakoff; "I saw it sweeping over the world. See, the world is white, like snow. They have robbed it of colour." The manager grasped his arm firmly.
"Come with me," he said. "You are ill. I will put you in a taxi."
"You don't understand," said Sarakoff. "You are in it still. Don't you see I'm a traveller?"
"He is mad," whispered a waiter in my ear.
"A traveller," shouted the Russian. "But I've come back. Greeting, brothers. It was a rough journey, but now I hear and see you."
"If you do not leave the establishment at once I will get a policeman," said the manager with a hiss.
Sarakoff threw out his hands.
"Make ready!" he cried. "The great uprooting!" He began to laugh unsteadily. "The end of disease and the end of desire--there's no difference. You never knew that, brothers. I've come back to tell you--thousands and thousands of miles--into the great dimension of hell and heaven. It was a mistake and I'm going back. Look! She's fading--further and further----" He pointed a shaking hand across the room and suddenly collapsed, half supported by the manager.
"Dead drunk," remarked a neighbour.
"No. Live drunk," I said. "The champagne has brought him back to the world of desire."
The speaker, a clean-shaven young man, stared insolently.
"You have no business to come into a public place with that disease," he said with a sneer.
"You are right. I have no business here. My business is to warn the world that the end of desire is at hand." I signalled to a waiter and together we managed to get Sarakoff into a taxi-cab.
As we drove home, all that lay behind Sarakoff's broken confused words revealed itself with increasing distinctness to me.
Sarakoff spoke again.
"Harden," he muttered thickly, "there was a flaw--in the dream----"
"Yes," I said. "I was sure there would be a flaw. I hadn't noticed it before----"
"We're cut off," he whispered. "Cut off."
Next morning the headlines of the newspapers blazed out the news of the meeting at the Queen's Hall, and the world read the words of Sarakoff.
Strange to say, most of the papers seemed inclined to view the situation seriously.
"If," said one in a leading article, "it really means that immortality is coming to humanity--and there is, at least, much evidence from Birmingham that supports the view that the germ cures all sickness--then we are indeed face to face with a strange problem. For how will immortality affect us as a community? As a community, we live together on the tacit assumption that the old will die and the young will take their place. All our laws and customs are based on this idea. We can scarcely think of any institution that is not established upon the certainty of death. What, then, if death ceases? Our food supply----"
I was interrupted, while reading, by my servant who announced that a gentleman wished to see me on urgent business. I laid aside the paper and waited for him to enter.
My early visitor was a tall, heavily-built man, with strong eyes. He was carefully dressed. He looked at me attentively, nodded, and sat down.
"My name is Jason--Edward Jason. You have no doubt heard of me."
"Certainly," I said. "You are the proprietor of this paper that I have just been reading."
"And of sixty other daily papers, Dr. Harden," he said in a soft voice. "I control much of the opinion in the country, and I intend to control it all before I die."
"A curious intention. But why should you die? You will get the germ in time. I calculate that in a month at the outside the whole of London and the best part of the country will be infected."
While I spoke he stared hard at me. He nodded again, glanced at his boots, pinched his lips, and then stared again.
"A year ago I made a tour of all the big men in your profession, both here, in America, and on the continent, Dr. Harden. I had a very definite reason for doing this. The reason was that--well, it does not matter now. I wanted a diagnosis and a forecast of the future. I consulted forty medical men--all with big names. Twenty-one gave me practically identical opinions. The remaining nineteen were in disagreement. Of that nineteen six gave me a long life."
"What did the twenty-one give you?"
"Five years at the outside."
I looked at him critically.
"Yes, I should have given the same--a year ago."
He coloured a little, and his gaze fell; he shifted himself in his chair. Then he looked up suddenly, with a strong glow in his eyes.
"Now I give you--immortality." I spoke quite calmly, with no intention of any dramatic effect.
The colour faded from his cheeks, and the glow in his eyes increased.
"If I get the Blue Disease, do you swear that it will cure me?"
"Of course it will cure you."
He got to his feet. He seemed to be in the grip of some powerful emotion, and I could see that he was determined to control himself. He walked down the room and stood for some time near the window.
"A gipsy once told me I would die when I was fifty-two. Will you believe me when I say that that prophecy has weighed upon me more than any medical opinion?" He turned and came up the room and stood before me. "Did you ever read German psychology and philosophy?"
"To a certain extent--in translations."
"Well, Dr. Harden, I stepped out of the pages of some of those books, I think. You've heard of the theory of the Will to Power? The men who based human life on that instinct were right!" He clenched his hands and closed his eyes. "This last year has been hell to me. I've been haunted every hour by the thought of death--just so much longer--so many thousand days--and then Nothing!" He opened his eyes and sat down before me. "Are you ambitious, Dr. Harden?"
"I was--very ambitious."
"Do you know what it is to have a dream of power, luring you on day and night? Do you know what is to see the dream becoming reality, bit by bit--and then to be given a time limit, when the dream is only half worked out?"
"I have had my dream," I said. "It is now realized."
I nodded. He leaned forward.
"Then you are satisfied?"
"I have no desires now."
He did not appear to understand.
"I don't believe yet in your theory of immortality," he said slowly. "But I do believe that the germ cures sickness. I have had private reports from Birmingham, and to-morrow I'm going to publish them as evidence. You see, Harden, I've decided to back you. To-morrow I'm going to make Gods of you and your Russian associate. I'm going to call you the greatest benefactors the race has known. I'm going to lift you up to the skies."
He looked at me earnestly.
"Doesn't that stir you?" he asked.
"No, I told you that I have no desires."
"You're dazed. You must have worked incredibly hard. Wait till you see your name surrounded by the phrases I will devise you. I can make men out of nothing." His eyes shone into mine. "I once heard a man say that the trail of the serpent lay across my papers. That man is in an asylum now. I can break men, too, you see. Now I want to ask you something."
I watched him with ease, totally uninfluenced by his magnetism--calm and aloof as a man watching a mechanical doll.
"Can you limit the germ?" he asked softly.
I shook my head.
"Can you take any steps to stop it or keep it--within control?"
I shook my head again. He stared for a minute at me.
"I believe you," he said at last. "It's a pity. Think what we could have done--just a few of us!" He sat for some time drumming his fingers on his knees and frowning slightly. Then he stood up.
"Never mind," he exclaimed. "I'm convinced it will cure me. That is the main thing. I'll have plenty of time to realize my dream now, Harden, thanks to you. You don't know what that means--ah, you don't know!"
"By the way," I said, "I see you are suggesting that food may become a problem in the future. I think we'll be all right."
"Well, you see, if there's no desire, there's no appetite."
"I don't understand," he said. "It seems clear that if disease is mastered by the germ, then the death-rate will drop, and there will be more mouths to fill. If everyone lives for their threescore and ten, the food question will be serious."
"Oh, they'll live longer than that. They'll live for ever, Mr. Jason."
He laughed tolerantly.
"In any case there will be a food problem," he said in a quiet friendly voice. "There will be more births, and more children--for none will die--and more old people."
"There won't be more births," I said.
He swung round on his heel.
"Why not?" he asked sharply.
"Because there will be no desire, Mr. Jason. You can't have births without desires, don't you see?"
At that moment Sarakoff entered the room. I introduced him to the great newspaper proprietor. Jason made some complimentary remarks, which Sarakoff received with cool gravity.
I could see that Jason was very puzzled. He had seated himself again, and was watching the Russian closely.