The taxi-man seemed about to say something, but he changed his mind.
"Why did you collect beetles?" the policeman asked me.
"I was interested in them."
"But that ain't a suitable answer," he replied. "It ain't suitable. That's what I've been seeing for the first time this morning. The point is--why was you interested in beetles, and why was I interested in bits o' string and stamps?"
"Yes, he's quite right," said Sarakoff; "that certainly is the point."
"To say that we are interested in a thing is no suitable explanation," continued the policeman. "After I'd done collecting stamps----"
"Why don't you arrest these two blokes?" shouted the taxi-man suddenly. "Why can't you do yer duty, you blue fathead?"
"I'm coming to that," said the policeman imperturbably. "As I was saying, after I collected stamps, I collected knives--any sort of old rusty knife--and then I joined the force and began to collect men, I collected all sorts o' men--tall and short, fat and thin. Now why did I do that?"
"It seems to me," observed the taxi-man, suddenly calm, "that somebody will be collecting you soon, and there won't be no need to arsk the reason why."
"That's where you and me don't agree," said the policeman. "I came to the conclusion this morning that we don't ask the reason why enough--not by 'alf. Now if somebody did as you say, and started collectin' policemen, what would be the reason?"
"Reason?" shouted the taxi-man. "Don't arsk me for a reason."
He turned to his taxi-cab and jerked the starting handle violently. The clatter of the engine arose. He climbed into his seat, and pulled at his gears savagely. In a few moments he had turned his cab, after wrenching in fury at the steering-wheel, and was jolting down the road in the morning brightness in search of breakfast.
"My theory," said the policeman, "is that collectin'--and by that I mean all sorts of collection, including that of money--comes from a craving to 'ave something what other people 'aven't got. It comes from a kind o' pride which is foolish. Take a man like Morgan, for instance. Now he spent his life collecting dollars, and he never once stopped to ask 'imself why he was doin' it. I 'eard a friend of mine, a socialist he was, saying as 'ow no one had wasted his life more than Morgan. At the time it struck me as a silly kind of thing to say. But now I seem to see it in a different light." He meditated for some minutes. "It's the reason why--that's what we 'aven't thought of near enough."
I was about to reply when a motor-car stopped before us. It was a large green limousine. It drew up suddenly, with a scraping of tyres, and a woman got out of it. I recognized her at once. It was Leonora. She was wearing a motoring-coat of russet-brown material, and her hat was tied with a veil.
"Alexis!" she exclaimed.
Sarakoff roused himself. He stood up and bowed.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Leonora," he said, "I am so glad to see you. We are just taking the air, and discussing a few matters of general interest." He patted her on the shoulder. "I congratulate you, Leonora. You are an Immortal. It suits you very well."
She was certainly one of the Immortals. The stain in her eyes was wonderfully vivid, but it did not produce a displeasing effect, as I had fancied it would. Indeed, her eyes had lost their hard restless look, and in place of it was an expression of bewilderment.
"What has happened to me?" she exclaimed. "Alexis, what is this that you have done to me?"
"What I told you about at the Pyramid Restaurant. You have got the germ in you and now you are immortal. Sit down, Leonora. I find it warmer when I am sitting. My friend and I had to leave Harley Street somewhat hurriedly, and I had not time to dress."
She sat down and loosened her veil.
"Last night a dreadful thing happened," she said. "And yet, although it was dreadful, I do not feel upset about it. I have been trying to feel upset--as I should--but I can't. Let me tell you about it. I lay down yesterday afternoon in my room after tea to rest. I always do that when I can. I think I fell asleep for a moment. Then I felt a curious light feeling, as if I had suddenly been for a long holiday, and I got up. Alexis, when I saw myself in the glass I was horrified. I had the Blue Disease."
"Of course," said Sarakoff. "You were bound to get it. You knew that."
"I didn't know what to do. I wasn't very upset, only I felt something dreadful had happened. Well, I went to the Opera as usual and everyone was very sympathetic, but I said I was all right. But when my call came I suddenly knew--quite calmly, but certainly--that I could not sing properly. I went on the stage and began, but it was just as if I were singing for the first time in my life. They had to ring the curtain down. I apologized. I was quite calm and smiling. But there the fact remained--I had lost my voice. I had failed in public."
"Extraordinary," muttered Sarakoff. "Are you sure it was not just nervousness?"
"No, I'm certain of that. I felt absolutely self-possessed; far more so that I usually do, and that is saying a lot. No, my voice has gone. The Blue Disease has destroyed it. And yet I somehow don't feel any resentment. I don't understand. Richard, tell me what has happened."
I shook my head.
"I don't know," I said. "I can't explain. The germ is doing things that I never foresaw."
"I ought to be furious with you," she said.
"Try to be--if you can," smiled Sarakoff. "That's one of the strange things. I can't be furious. I have only two emotions--perfect calmness, or violent, horrible fear."
"Fear?" she exclaimed.
"Yes, fear of the worst kind conceivable."
"I understand the perfect calmness," she said, "but the fear--no."
"You will understand in time."
The policeman listened to our conversation with grave attention. Leonora was sitting between Sarakoff and me, and did not seem to find the presence of the visitor surprising. The green limousine stood in the road before us, the chauffeur sitting at the wheel looking steadily in front of him. The Heath seemed remarkably empty. The mist over London was lifting under the influence of the sun.
I was revolving in my mind a theory as to why Leonora had lost her voice. I already knew that the germ produced odd changes in the realm of likes and dislikes. I remembered Sarakoff's words that the germ was killing desire. My thoughts were clear, easy and lucid, and the problem afforded by Leonora's singular experience gave me a sense of quiet enjoyment. If the germ really did do away with desire, why should it at the same time do away with Leonora's wonderful voice? I recalled with marvellous facility everything I knew about her. My memory supplied me with every detail at the dinner of the Pyramid Restaurant. The words of Sarakoff, which had at the time seemed coarse, came back to me. He had called her a vain ambitious cold-hearted woman, who thought that her voice and her beauty could not be beaten.
My reflections were interrupted by the policeman.
"The lady," he remarked, "has lost her voice sudden-like. Now I lost my 'abit of arresting people sudden-like too. I lost it this morning. Any other time I should have taken the gentleman in the dressing-gown in charge for being improperly dressed. But this morning it don't come natural to me. If he wants to wear a dressing-gown on the Spaniard's Walk, he presumably 'as his own reasons. It don't concern me."
"It seems to me that the germ takes ambition out of us," said Sarakoff.
"Ambition?" said the policeman. "No, that ain't right. I've got ambition still--only it's a different kind of ambition."
"I have no ambition now," said Leonora at length. "Alexis is right. This malady has taken the ambition out of me. I may be Immortal, but if I am, then I am an Immortal without ambition. I seem to be lost, to be suddenly diffused into space or time, to be a kind of vapour. Something has dissolved in me--something hard, bright, alert. I do not know why I am here. The car came round as usual to take me for my morning run. I got in--why I don't know."
Sarakoff was studying her attentively.
"It is very strange," he said. "You used to arouse a feeling of strength and determination in me, Leonora. You used to stimulate me intensely. This morning I only feel one thing about you."
"What is that?"
"I feel that I have cheated you."
"Cheated her?" exclaimed the policeman. "How do you come to that conclusion?"
"I've destroyed the one thing that was herself--I've destroyed desire in her. I've left her a mind devoid of all values tacked on to a body that no longer interests her. For what was Leonora, who filled the hearts of men with madness, but an incarnation of desire?"
THE KILLING OF DESIRE.
We drove in Leonora's car through London. The streets were crowded. I do not think that much routine work was done that day. People formed little crowds on the pavements, and at Oxford Circus someone was speaking to a large concourse from the seat of a motor lorry.
Leonora seemed extraordinarily apathetic. She leaned back in the car and seemed uninterested in the passing scene. Sarakoff, wrapped up in a fur rug, stared dreamily in front of him. As far as I can recall them, my feelings during that swift tour of London were vague. The buildings, the people, the familiar signs in the streets, the shop windows, all seemed to have lost in some degree the quality of reality. I was detached from them; and whenever I made an effort to rouse myself, the ugliness and meaninglessness of everything I saw seemed strangely emphasized.
When we reached Harley Street we found my house little damaged, save for a broken panel in the green front door and a few panes of glass smashed in the lower windows. The house was empty. The servants had vanished.
Leonora said she wished to go home and she drove off in the car. Sarakoff did not even wave farewell to her, but went straight up to his room and lay down on the bed. I went into the study and sat in my chair by the fireplace.
I was roused by the opening of the door, and looking up I saw a face that I recognized, but for the moment I could not fit a name to it. My visitor came in calmly, and sat down opposite me.
"My name is Thornduck," he said. "I came to consult you about my health a few days ago."
"I remember," I said.
"Your front door was open so I walked in."
I nodded. His eyes, stained with blue, rested on me.
"I have been thinking," he said. "It struck me that there was something you forgot to tell me the other day."
I nodded again.
"You began, if you remember, by asking me if I believed in miracles. That set me thinking, and as I saw your name in the paper, connected with the Blue Disease, I knew you were a miracle-monger. How did you do it?"
"I don't know. It was all due to my black cat. Tripped over it, got concussion and regained my senses with the idea that led up to the germ."
"A black cat," he mused. "I wonder if it's all black magic?"
"That's what Hammer suggested. I don't know what kind of magic it is."
"Of course it is magic," said Thornduck.
"Of course. Have you even thought what kind of magic it is?"
"A big magic, such as you have worked, is just bringing the distant future into the present with a rush."
"Sarakoff had some such idea," I murmured. "He spoke of anticipating our evolution by centuries at one stroke."
"Exactly. That's magic. The question remains--is it black magic?" He crossed his thin legs and leaned back in the chair. "I got the Blue Disease the day before yesterday and since then I've thought more than I have ever done in all my life. When I read in the paper this morning that you said the Blue Disease conferred immortality on people I was not surprised. I had come to the same conclusion in a roundabout way. But I want to ask you one question. Did you know beforehand that it killed desire?"
"No. Neither Sarakoff nor I foresaw that."
"Well, if you had let me into your confidence before I could have told you that right away in the general principle contained in the saying that you can't eat your cake and have it. It's just another aspect of the law of the conservation of energy, isn't it?"
"I always had a doubt----"
"Naturally. It's intuitional. The laws of the universe are just intuitions put into words. You've carried out an enormous spiritual experiment to prove what all religions have always asserted however obscurely. All religion teaches that you can't eat your cake and have it. That's the essence of religion, and you, formerly a cut-and-dried scientist, have gone and proved it to the whole world for eternity. Rather odd, isn't it?"
I watched his face with interest. It was thin and the complexion was transparent. His eyes, wonderfully wide and brilliantly stained by the germ, produced in me a new sensation. It was akin to enthusiasm, but in it was something of love, such as I had never experienced for any man. I became uplifted. My whole being began to vibrate to some strangely delicate and exquisite influence, and I knew that Thornduck was the medium through which these impulses reached me. It was not his words but the atmosphere round him that raised me temporarily to this degree of receptivity.
"It is odd," I said.
He continued to look at me.
"You have a message for me?" I observed at last.
"Why, yes, I have," he replied. "You have done wrong, Harden. You have worked black magic, and it will fail out of sheer necessity."
"Tell me what I have done."
"You have artificially produced a condition of life many ages before humanity is ready to receive it. The body of desire is being worked up by endless labour into something more delicate and sensitive--into a transmutation that we can only dimly understand. At present the whole plot of life is based on the principle of desire and in this way people are kept busy, constantly spurred on to thought and activity by essentially selfish motives. It is only in abstract thought that the selfless ideal has a real place as yet, but the very fact that it is there shows what lies at the top of the ladder that humanity is so painfully climbing. As long as desire is the plot of life, death is necessary, for its terrible shadow sharpens desire and makes the prizes more alluring and the struggle more desperate. And so man goes on, ceaselessly active and striving, for without activity and striving there is no perfecting of the instrument. You can't have upward progress in conditions of stagnation. All that strange incredible side of life, called the Devil, is the inner plot of life that makes the wheels go round and evolution possible. It is vitally necessary to keep the vast machinery running at the present level of evolution. Desire is the furnace in the engine-house. The wheels go round and the fabric is slowly and intricately spun and only pessimists and bigots fail to see evidence of any purpose in it all. Now what has your Blue Disease done? It has taken the whole plot out of life at its present stage of development at one fell swoop. It has killed Desire--put out the furnace before the pattern in the fabric is nearly complete."
"But I never could see that, Thornduck. How could I foresee that?"
"If you had had a grain of vision you would have known that you couldn't give humanity the gift of immortality without some compensatory loss. The law of compensation is as sure as the law of gravity--you ought to know that."
"I had dim feelings--I knew Sarakoff was wrong, with his dream of physical bliss--but how could I foresee that desire would go?"
"As a mere scientist, test-tube in hand, you couldn't. But you're better than that. You've got a glimmering of moral imagination in you."
He fell into a reverie.
"You are keeping something back. Tell me plainly what you mean," I asked.
"Don't you see that if the germ lasts any length of time," he said, "the machinery will run down and--stop?"