MORITURI TE SALUTANT.
We had been sitting on deck chairs smoking and talking for a couple of hours after the late dinner, which was served as soon as the vessel was well out to sea, when Brande came on deck. He was hailed with enthusiasm. This did not move him, or even interest him. I was careful not to join in the acclamations produced by his presence. He noticed this, and lightly called me recalcitrant. I admitted the justice of the epithet, and begged him to consider it one which would always apply to me with equal force. He laughed at this, and contrasted my gloomy fears with the excellent arrangements which he had made for my comfort. I asked him what had become of Grey. I thought it strange that this man should be amongst the absentees.
"Oh, Grey! He goes to Labrador."
"To Labrador! What takes him to Labrador?"
"The same purpose which takes us to the Arafura Sea," Brande answered, and passed on.
Presently there was a slight stir amongst the people, and the word was passed round that Brande was about to undertake some interesting experiment for the amusement of his guests. I hurried aft along with some other men with whom I had been talking, and found Miss Brande and Miss Metford standing hand in hand. Natalie's face was very white, and the only time I ever saw real fear upon it was at that moment. I thought the incident on the quay had unnerved her more than was apparent at the time, and that she was still upset by it. She beckoned to me, and when I came to her she seized my hand. She was trembling so much her words were hardly articulate. Miss Metford was concerned for her companion's nervousness; but otherwise indifferent; while Natalie stood holding our hands in hers like a frightened child awaiting the firing of a cannon.
"He's going to let off something, a rocket, I suppose," Miss Metford said to me. "Natalie seems to think he means to sink the ship."
"He does not mean to do so. He might, if an accident occurred."
"Is he going to fire a mine?" I asked.
"No, he is going to etherize a drop of water." Natalie said this so seriously, we had no thought of laughter, incongruous as the cause of her fears might seem.
At that moment Brande addressed us from the top of the deckhouse, and explained that, in order to illustrate on a large scale the most recent discovery in natural science, he was about to disintegrate a drop of water, at present encased in a hollow glass ball about the size of a pea, which he held between his thumb and forefinger. An electric light was turned upon him so that we could all see the thing quite plainly. He explained that there was a division in the ball; one portion of it containing the drop of water, and the other the agent by which, when the dividing wall was eaten through by its action, the atoms of the water would be resolved into the ultimate ether of which they were composed. As the disintegrating agent was powerless in salt water, we might all feel assured that no great catastrophe would ensue.
Before throwing the glass ball overboard, a careful search for the lights of ships was made from east to west, and north to south.
There was not a light to be seen anywhere. Brande threw the ball over the side. We were going under easy steam at the time, but the moment he left the deckhouse "full speed ahead" was rung from the bridge, and the Esmeralda showed us her pace. She literally tore through the water when the engines were got full on.
Before we had gone a hundred yards a great cry arose. A little fleet of French fishing-boats with no lights up had been lying very close to us on the starboard bow. There they were, boatfuls of men, who waved careless adieus to us as we dashed past.
Brande was moved for a moment. Then he shrugged his shoulders and muttered, "It can't be helped now." We all felt that these simple words might mean much. To test their full portent I went over to him, Natalie still holding my hand with trembling fingers.
"Can't you do anything for them?" I asked.
"You mean, go back and sink this ship to keep them company?"
"No; but warn them to fly."
"It would be useless. In this breeze they could not sail a hundred yards in the time allowed, and three miles is the nearest point of safety. I could not say definitely, as this is the first time I have ever tried an experiment so tremendous; but I believe that if we even slowed to half speed, it would be dangerous, and if we stopped, the Esmeralda would go to the bottom to-night, as certainly as the sun will rise to-morrow."
Natalie moaned in anguish on hearing this. I said to her sternly: "I thought you approved of all these actions?"
"This serves no purpose. These men may not even have a painless death, and the reality is more awful than I thought."
Every face was turned to that point in the darkness toward which the foaming wake of the Esmeralda stretched back. Not a word more was spoken until Brande, who was standing, watch in hand, beside the light from the deckhouse, came aft and said: "You will see the explosion in ten seconds."
He could not have spoken more indifferently if the catastrophe he had planned was only the firing of a penny squib.
Then the sea behind us burst into a flame, followed by the sound of an explosion so frightful that we were almost stunned by it. A huge mass of water, torn up in a solid block, was hurled into the air, and there it broke into a hundred roaring cataracts. These, in the brilliant search light from the ship which was now turned upon them full, fell like cataracts of liquid silver into the seething cauldron of water that raged below. The instant the explosion was over, our engines were reversed, and the Esmeralda went full speed astern. The waves were still rolling in tumultuous breakers when we got back. We might as well have gone on.
The French fishing fleet had disappeared.
I could not help saying to Brande before we turned in: "You expect us, I suppose, to believe that the explosion was really caused by a drop of water?"
"Etherized," he interrupted. "Certainly I do. You don't believe it--on what grounds?"
"That it is unbelievable."
"Pshaw! You deny a fact because you do not understand it. Ignorance is not evidence."
"I say it is impossible."
"You do not wish to believe it possible. Wishes are not proofs."
Without pursuing the argument, I said to him: "It is fortunate that the accident took place at sea. There will be no inquests."
"Oh! I am sorry for the accident. As for the men, they might have had a worse fate. It is better than living in life-long misery as they do. Besides, both they and the fishes that will eat them will soon be numbered amongst the things that have been."
"NO DEATH--SAVE IN LIFE.".
For some days afterwards our voyage was uneventful, and the usual shipboard amusements were requisitioned to while away the tedious hours. The French fishing fleet was never mentioned. We got through the Bay with very little knocking about, and passed the Rock without calling. I was not disappointed, for there was slight inducement for going ashore, oppressed as I was with the ever-present incubus of dread. At intervals this feeling became less acute, but only to return, strengthened by its short absences. After a time my danger sense became blunted. The nervous system became torpid under continuous stress, and refused to pass on the sensations with sufficient intensity to the brain; or the weary brain was asleep at its post and did not heed the warnings. I could think no more.
And this reminds me of something which I must tell about young Halley. For several days after the voyage began, the boy avoided me. I knew his reason for doing this. I myself did not blame him for his want of physical courage, but I was glad that he himself was ashamed of it.
Halley came to me one morning and said: "I wish to speak to you, Marcel. I must speak to you. It is about that miserable episode on the evening we left England. I acted like a cad. Therefore I must be a cad. I only want to tell you that I despise myself as much as you can. And that I envy you. I never thought that I should envy a man simply because he had no nervous system."
"Who is this man without a nervous system of whom you speak?" I asked coldly. I was not sorry that I had an opportunity of reading him a lesson which might be placed opposite the many indignities which had been put upon me, in the form mainly of shoulder shrugs, brow elevations, and the like.
"You, of course. I mean no offence--you are magnificent. I am honest in saying that I admire you. I wish I was like you in height, weight, muscle--and absence of nervous system."
"You would keep your own brain, I suppose?" I asked.
"Yes, I would keep that."
"And I will keep my own nervous system," I replied. "And the difference between mine and yours is this: that whereas my own danger sense is, or was, as keen as your own, I have my reserve of nerve force--or had it--which might be relied on to tide me over a sudden emergency. This reserve you have expended on your brain. There are two kinds of cowards; the selfish coward who cares for no interest save his own; the unselfish coward who cares nothing for himself, but who cannot face a danger because he dare not. And there are two kinds of brave men; the nerveless man you spoke of, who simply faces danger because he does not appreciate it, and the man who faces danger because, although he fears it he dares it. I have no difficulty in placing you in this list."
"You place me--"
"A coward because you cannot help it. You are merely out of harmony with your environment. You ought to bring a supply of 'environment' about with you, seeing that you cannot manufacture it off-hand like myself. I wish to be alone. Good-day."
"Before I go, Marcel, I will say this." There were tears in his eyes. "These people do not really know you, with all their telepathic power. You are not--not--"
"Not as great a fool as they think. Thank you. I mean to prove that to them some day."
With that I turned away from him, although I felt that he would have gladly stayed longer with me.
While the Esmeralda was sweeping over the long swells of the Mediterranean, I heard Brande lecture for the second time. It was a fitting interlude between his first and third addresses. I might classify them thus--the first, critical; the second, constructive; the third, executive. His third speech was the last he made in the world.
We were assembled in the saloon. It would have been pleasanter on the upper deck, owing to the heat, but the speaker could not then have been easily heard in the noise of the wind and waves. I could scarcely believe that it was Brande who arose to speak, so changed was his expression. The frank scepticism, which had only recently degenerated into a cynicism, still tempered with a half kindly air of easy superiority, was gone. In its place there was a look of concentrated and relentless purpose which dominated the man himself and all who saw him. He began in forcible and direct sentences, with only a faintly reminiscent eloquence which was part of himself, and from which he could not without a conscious effort have freed his style. But the whole bearing of the man had little trace in it of the dilettante academician whom we all remembered.
"When I last addressed this Society," he began, "I laboured under a difficulty in arriving at ultimate truth which was of my own manufacture. I presupposed, as you will remember, the indestructibility of the atom, and, in logical consequence I was bound to admit the conservation of suffering, the eternity of misery. But on that evening many of my audience were untaught in the rudiments of ultimate thought, and some were still sceptical of the bona fides of our purpose, and our power to achieve its object. To them, in their then ineptitude, what I shall say now would have been unintelligible. For in the same way that the waves of light or sound exceeding a certain maximum can not be transferred to the brain by dull eyes and ears, my thought pulsations would have escaped those auditors by virtue of their own irresponsiveness. To-night I am free from the limitation which I then suffered, because there are none around me now who have not sufficient knowledge to grasp what I shall present.
"You remember that I traced for you the story of evolution in its journey from the atom to the star. And I showed you that the hypothesis of the indestructibility of the atom was simply a creed of cruelty writ large. I now proceed on the lines of true science to show you how that hypothesis is false; that as the atom is destructible--as you have seen by our experiments (the last of which resulted in a climax not intended by me)--the whole scheme of what is called creation falls to pieces. As the atom was the first etheric blunder, so the material Universe is the grand etheric mistake.
"In considering the marvellous and miserable succession of errors resulting from the meretricious atomic remedy adopted by the ether to cure its local sores, it must first be said of the ether itself that there is too much of it. Space is not sufficient for it. Thus, the particles of ether--those imponderable entities which vibrate through a block of marble or a disc of hammered steel with only a dulled, not an annihilated motion, are by their own tumultuous plenty packed closer together than they wish. I say wish, for if all material consciousness and sentiency be founded on atomic consciousness, then in its turn atomic consciousness is founded upon, and dependent on, etheric consciousness. These particles of ether, therefore, when too closely impinged upon by their neighbours, resent the impact, and in doing so initiate etheric whirlwinds, from whose vast perturbances stupendous drifts set out. In their gigantic power these avalanches crush the particles which impede them, force the resisting medium out of its normal stage, destroy the homogeneity of its constituents, and mass them into individualistic communities whose vibrations play with greater freedom when they synchronise. The homogeneous etheric tendencies recede and finally determine.
"Behold a miracle! An atom is born!
"By a similar process--which I may liken to that of putting off an evil day which some time must be endured--the atoms group themselves into molecules. In their turn the molecules go forth to war, capturing or being captured; the vibrations of the slaves always being forced to synchronise with those of their conquerors. The nucleus of the gas of a primal metal is now complete, and the foundation of a solar system--paltry molecule of the Universe as it is--is laid. Thereafter, the rest is easily followed. It is described in your school books, and must not occupy me now.
"But one word I will interpolate which may serve to explain a curious and interesting human belief. You are aware of how, in times past, men of absolutely no scientific insight held firmly to the idea that an elixir of life and a philosopher's stone might be discovered, and that these two objects were nearly always pursued contemporaneously. That is to my mind an extraordinary example of the force of atomic consciousness. The idea itself was absolutely correct; but the men who followed it had slight knowledge of its unity, and none whatever of its proper pursuit. They would have worked on their special lines to eternity before advancing a single step toward their object. And this because they did not know what life was, and death was, and what the metals ultimately signified which they, blind fools, so unsuccessfully tried to transmute. But we know more than they. We have climbed no doubt in the footholds they have carved, and we have gained the summit they only saw in the mirage of hope. For we know that there is no life, no death, no metals, no matter, no emotions, no thoughts; but that all that we call by these names is only the ether in various conditions. Life! I could live as long as this earth will submit to human existence if I had studied that paltry problem. Metals! The ship in which you sail was bought with gold manufactured in my crucibles.
"The unintelligent--or I should say the grossly ignorant--have long held over the heads of the pioneers of science these two great charges: No man has ever yet transmuted a metal; no man has ever yet proved the connecting link between organic and inorganic life. I say life, for I take it that this company admits that a slab of granite is as much alive as any man or woman I see before me. But I have manufactured gold, and I could have manufactured protoplasm if I had devoted my life to that object. My studies have been almost wholly on the inorganic plane. Hence the 'philosopher's stone' came in my way, but not the 'elixir of life.' The molecules of protoplasm are only a little more complex than the molecules of hydrogen or nitrogen or iron or coal. You may fuse iron, vaporise water, intermix the gases; but the molecules of all change little in such metamorphosis. And you may slay twenty thousand men at Waterloo or Sedan, or ten thousand generations may be numbered with the dust, and not an ounce of protoplasm lies dead. All molecules are merely arrangements of atoms made under different degrees of pressure and of different ages. And all atoms are constructed of identical constituents--the ether, as I have said. Therefore the ether, which was from the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, which is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, is the origin of force, of matter, of life.
"It is alive!
"Its starry children are so many that the sands of the sea-shore may not be used as a similitude for their multitude; and they extend so far that distance may not be named in relation to them. They are so high above us and so deep below us that there is neither height nor depth in them. There is neither east nor west in them, nor north and south in them. Nor is there beginning or end to them. Time drops his scythe and stands appalled before that dreadful host. Number applies not to its eternal multitudes. Distance is lost in boundless space. And from all the stars that stud the caverns of the Universe, there swells this awful chorus: Failure! failure and futility! And the ether is to blame!
"Heterogeneous suffering is more acute than homogeneous, because the agony is intensified by being localised; because the comfort of the comfortable is purchasable only by the multiplied misery of the miserable; because aristocratic leisure requires that the poor should be always with it. There is, therefore, no gladness without its overbalancing sorrow. There is no good without intenser evil. There is no death save in life.
"Back, then, from this ill-balanced and unfair long-suffering, this insufficient existence. Back to Nirvana--the ether! And I will lead the way.
"The agent I will employ has cost me all life to discover. It will release the vast stores of etheric energy locked up in the huge atomic warehouse of this planet. I shall remedy the grand mistake only to a degree which it would be preposterous to call even microscopic; but when I have done what I can, I am blameless for the rest. In due season the whole blunder will be cured by the same means that I shall use, and all the hideous experiment will be over, and everlasting rest or quasi-rest will supersede the magnificent failure of material existence. This earth, at least, and, I am encouraged to hope, the whole solar system, will by my instrumentality be restored to the ether from which it never should have emerged. Once before, in the history of our system, an effort similar to mine was made, unhappily without success.
"This time we shall not fail!"
A low murmur rose from the audience as the lecturer concluded, and a hushed whisper asked: "Where was that other effort made?"
Brande faced round momentarily, and said quietly but distinctly: "On the planet which was where the Asteroids are now."
MISS METFORD'S PLAN.
We coaled at Port Said like any ordinary steamer. Although I had more than once made the Red Sea voyage, I had never before taken the slightest interest in the coaling of the vessel on which I was a passenger. This time everything was different. That which interested me before seemed trivial now. And that which had before seemed trivial was now absorbing. I watched the coaling--commonplace as the spectacle was--with vivid curiosity. The red lights, the sooty demons at work, every bag of coals they carried, and all the coal dust clouds they created, were fitting episodes in a voyage such as ours. We took an enormous quantity of coal on board. I remained up most of the night in a frame of mind which I thought none might envy. I myself would have made light of it had I known what was still in store for the Esmeralda and her company. It was nearly morning when I turned in. When I awoke we were nearing the Red Sea.
On deck, the conversation of our party was always eccentric, but this must be said for it: there was sometimes a scintillating brilliance in it that almost blinded one to its extreme absurdity. The show of high spirits which was very general was, in the main, unaffected. For the rest it was plainly assumed. But those who assumed their parts did so with a histrionic power which was all the more surprising when it is remembered that the origin of their excellent playing was centred in their own fears. I preserved a neutral attitude. I did not venture on any overt act of insubordination. That would have only meant my destruction, without any counter-balancing advantage in the way of baulking an enterprise in which I was a most unwilling participator. And to pretend what I did not feel was a task which I had neither stomach to undertake nor ability to carry out successfully. In consequence I kept my own counsel--and that of Edith Metford.
Brande was the most easily approached maniac I had ever met. His affability continued absolutely consistent. I took advantage of this to say to him on a convenient opportunity: "Why did you bring these people with you? They must all be useless, and many of them little better than a nuisance!"
"Marcel, you are improving. Have you attained the telepathic power? You have read my mind." This was said with a pleasant smile.
"I can not read your mind," I answered; "I only diagnose."
"Your diagnosis is correct. I answer you in a sentence. They are all sympathetic, and human sympathy is necessary to me until my purpose is fulfilled."
"You do not look to me for any measure of this sympathy, I trust?"
"I do not. You are antipathetic."
"But necessary, all the same."
"So be it, until the proper time shall come."
"It will never come," Brande said firmly.
"We shall see," I replied as firmly as himself.
Next evening as we were steaming down the blue waters--deep blue they always seemed to me--of the Red Sea, I was sitting on the foredeck smoking and trying to think. I did not notice how the time passed. What seemed to me an hour at most, must have been three or four. With the exception of the men of the crew who were on duty, I was alone, for the heat was intense, and most of our people were lying in their cabins prostrated in spite of the wind-sails which were spread from every port to catch the breeze. My meditations were as usual gloomy and despondent. They were interrupted by Miss Metford. She joined me so noiselessly that I was not aware of her presence until she laid her hand on my arm. I started at her touch, but she whispered a sharp warning, so full of suppressed emotion that I instantly recovered a semblance of unconcern.
The girl was very white and nervous. This contrast from her usual equanimity was disquieting. She clung to me hysterically as she gasped: "Marcel, it is a mercy I have found you alone, and that there is one sane man in this shipful of lunatics."
"I am afraid you are not altogether right," I said, as I placed a seat for her close to mine. "I can hardly be sane when I am a voluntary passenger on board this vessel."
"Do you really think they mean what they say?" she asked hurriedly, without noticing my remark.
"I really think they have discovered the secret of extraordinary natural forces, so powerful and so terrible that no one can say what they may or may not accomplish. And that is the reason I begged you not to come on this voyage."
"What was the good of asking me not to come without giving me some reason?"
"Had I done so, they might have killed you as they have done others before."
"You might have chanced that, seeing that it will probably end that way."
"And they would certainly have killed me."
I wondered at the sudden intensity of the girl's sharp gasp when I said this, and marvelled too, how she, who had always been so mannish, nestled close to me and allowed her head to sink down on my shoulder. I pitied the strong-willed, self-reliant nature which had given way under some strain of which I had yet to be told. So I stooped and touched her cheek with my lips in a friendly way, at which she looked up to me with half-closed eyes, and whispered in a voice strangely soft and womanish for her: "If they must kill us, I wish they would kill us now."
I stroked her soft cheek gently, and urged a less hopeless view. "Even if the worst come, we may as well live as long as we can."
Whereupon to my surprise she, having shot one quick glance into my eyes, put my arm away and drew her chair apart from mine. Her head was turned away from me, but I could not but notice that her bosom rose and fell swiftly. Presently she faced round again, lit a cigarette, put her hands in the pocket of her jacket, and her feet on another chair, and said indifferently: "You are right. Even if the worst must come, we may as well live as long as we can."