"I am attending."
"By the hold over my sister's imagination which I have gained, I will kill her on the fourth morning from now."
"I tell you I will," Brande shrieked, starting up in his berth. "I could do it now."
"Man, do you know what you are saying? You to bandy words with me! A clod-brained fool to dare a man of science! Man of science forsooth! Your men of science are to me as brain-benumbed, as brain-bereft, as that fly which I crush--thus!"
The buzzing insect was indeed dead. But I was something more than a fly. At last I was on a fair field with this scientific magician or madman. And on a fair field I was not afraid of him.
"You are agitating yourself unnecessarily and injuriously," I said in my best professional manner. "And if you persist in doing so you will make my one month three."
In a voice of undisguised scorn, Brande exclaimed, without noticing my interruption: "Bearded by a creature whose little mind is to me like the open page of a book to read when the humour seizes me." Then with a fierce glance at me he cried: "I have read your mind before. I can read it now."
He threw himself back in his berth and strove to concentrate his mind. For nearly five minutes he lay quite still, and then he said gently: "You are right. Have you, then, a higher power than I?"
"No; a lower!"
"A lower! What do you mean?"
"I mean that I have merely paralysed your brain--that for many months to come it will not be restored to its normal power--that it will never reach its normal power again unless I choose."
"Then all is lost--lost--lost!" he wailed out. "The end is as far off, and the journey as long, and the way as hard, as if I had never striven. And the tribute of human tears will be exacted to the uttermost. My life has been in vain!"
The absolute agony in his voice, the note of almost superhuman suffering and despair, was so intense, that, without thinking of what it was this man was grieving over, I found myself saying soothingly: "No, no! Nothing is lost. It is only your own overstrained nervous system which sends these fantastic nightmares to your brain. I will soon make you all right if you will listen to reason."
He turned to me with the most appealing look which I had ever seen in human eyes save once before--when Natalie pleaded with me.
"I had forgotten," he said, "the issue now lies in your hands. Choose rightly. Choose mercy."
"I will," I answered shortly, for his request brought me back with a jerk to his motive.
"Then you will get me well as soon as your skill can do it?"
"I will keep you in your present condition until I have your most solemn assurance that you will neither go farther yourself nor instigate others to go farther with this preposterous scheme of yours."
"Bah!" Brande ejaculated contemptuously, and lay back with a sudden content. "My brain is certainly out of order, else I should not have forgotten--until your words recalled it--the Labrador expedition."
"The Labrador expedition?"
"Yes. On the day we sailed for the Arafura Sea, Grey started with another party for Labrador. If we fail to act before the 31st December, in the year 1900, he will proceed. And the end of the century will be the date of the end of the earth. I will signal to him now."
His face changed suddenly. For a moment I thought he was dead. Then the dreadful fact came home to me. He was telegraphing telepathically to Grey. So the murder that was upon my soul had been done in vain. Then another life must be taken. Better a double crime than one resultless tragedy. I was spared this.
Brande opened his eyes wearily, and sighed as if fatigued. The effort, short as it was, must have been intense. He was prostrated. His voice was low, almost a whisper, as he said: "You have succeeded beyond belief. I cannot even signal him, much less exchange ideas." With that he turned his face from me, and instantly fell into a deep sleep.
I left the cabin and went on deck. As usual, it was fairly sprinkled over with the passengers, but owing to the strong head-wind caused by the speed of the steamer, there was a little nook in the bow where there was no one to trouble me with unwelcome company.
I sat down on an arm of the starboard anchor and tried to think. The game which seemed so nearly won had all to be played over again from the first move. If I had killed Brande--which surely would have been justifiable--the other expedition would go on from where he left off. And how should I find them? And who would believe my story when I got back to England?
Brande must go on. His attempt to wreck the earth, even if the power he claimed were not overrated, would fail. For if the compounds of a common explosive must be so nicely balanced as they require to be, surely the addition of the figures which I had made in his formula would upset the balance of constituents in an agent so delicate, though so powerful, as that which he had invented. When the master failed, it was more than probable that the pupil would distrust the invention, and return to London for fresh experiments. Then a clean sweep must be made of the whole party. Meantime, it was plain that Brande must be allowed the opportunity of failing. And this it would be my hazardous duty to superintend.
I returned to Brande's cabin with my mind made up. He was awake, and looked at me eagerly, but waited for me to speak. Our conversation was brief, for I had little sympathy with my patient, and the only anxiety I experienced about his health was the hope that he would not die until he had served my purpose.
"I have decided to get you up," I said curtly.
"You have decided well," he answered, with equal coldness.
That was the whole interview--on which so much depended.
After this I did not speak to Brande on any subject but that of his symptoms, and before long he was able to come on deck. The month I spoke of as the duration of his illness was an intentional exaggeration on my part.
Rockingham was forgotten with a suddenness and completeness that was almost ghastly. The Society claimed to have improved the old maxim to speak nothing of the dead save what is good. Of the dead they spoke not at all. It is a callous creed, but in this instance it pleased me well.
We did not touch at Aden, and I was glad of it. The few attractions of the place, the diving boys and the like, may be a relief in ordinary sea voyages, but I was too much absorbed in my experiment on Brande to bear with patience any delay which served to postpone the crisis of my scheme. I had treated him well, so far as his bodily health went, but I deliberately continued to tamper with his brain, so that any return of his telepathic power was thus prevented. Indeed, Brande himself was not anxious for such return. The power was always exercised at an extreme nervous strain, and it was now, he said, unnecessary to his purpose.
In consequence of this determination, I modified the already minute doses of the drug I was giving him. This soon told with advantage on his health. His physical improvement partly restored his confidence in me, so that he followed my instructions faithfully. He evidently recognised that he was in my power; that if I did not choose to restore him fully no other man could.
Of the ship's officers, Anderson, who was in command, and Percival, the doctor, were men of some individuality. The captain was a good sailor and an excellent man of business. In the first capacity, he was firm, exacting, and scrupulously conscientious. In the second, his conscience was more elastic when he saw his way clear to his own advantage. He had certain rigid rules of conduct which he prided himself on observing to the letter, without for a moment suspecting that their raison d'etre lay in his own interests. His commercial morality only required him to keep within the law. His final contract with myself was, I admit, faithfully carried out, but the terms of it would not have discredited the most predatory business man in London town.
Percival was the opposite pole of such a character. He was a clever man, who might have risen in his profession but for his easy-going indolence. I spent many an hour in his cabin. He was a sportsman and a skilled raconteur. His anecdotes helped to while the weary time away. He exaggerated persistently, but this did not disturb me. Besides, if in his narratives he lengthened out the hunt a dozen miles and increased the weight of the fish to an impossible figure, made the brace a dozen and the ten-ton boat a man-of-war, it was not because he was deliberately untruthful. He looked back on his feats through the telescope of a strongly magnifying memory. It was more agreeable to me to hear him boast his prowess than have him inquire after the health and treatment of my patient Brande. On this matter he was naturally very curious, and I very reticent.
That Brande did not entirely trust me was evident from his confusion when I surprised him once reading his formula. His anxiety to convince me that it was only a commonplace memorandum was almost ludicrous. I was glad to see him anxious about that document. The more carefully he preserved it, and the more faithfully he adhered to its conditions, the better for my experiment. A sense of security followed this incident. It did not last long. It ended that evening.
After a day of almost unendurable heat, I went on deck for a breath of air. We were well out in the Indian Ocean, and soundings were being attempted by some of our naturalists. I sat alone and watched the sun sink down into the glassy ocean on which our rushing vessel was the only thing that moved. As the darkness of that hot, still night gathered, weird gleams of phosphorus broke from the steamer's bows and streamed away behind us in long lines of flashing spangles. Where the swell caused by the passage of the ship rose in curling waves, these, as they splashed into mimic breakers, burst into showers of flamboyant light. The water from the discharge-pipe poured down in a cascade, that shone like silver. Every turn of the screw dashed a thousand flashes on either side, and the heaving of the lead was like the flight of a meteor, as it plunged with a luminous trail far down into the dark unfathomable depths below.
My name was spoken softly. Natalie Brande stood beside me. The spell was complete. The unearthly glamour of the magical scene had been compassed by her. She had called it forth and could disperse it by an effort of her will. I wrenched my mind free from the foolish phantasmagoria.
"I have good news," Natalie said in a low voice. Her tones were soft, musical; her manner caressing. Happiness was in her whole bearing, tenderness in her eyes. Dread oppressed me. "Herbert is now well again."
"He has been well for some time," I said, my heart beating fast.
"He is not thoroughly restored even yet. But this evening he was able to receive a message from me by the thought waves. He thinks you are plotting injury to him. His brain is not yet sufficiently strong to show how foolish this fugitive fancy is. Perhaps you would go to him. He is troubling himself over this. You can set his mind at rest."
"I can--and will--if I am not too late," I answered.
5000 TO DETAIN THE SHIP.
Brande was asleep when I entered his cabin. His writing-table was covered with scraps of paper on which he had been scribbling. My name was on every scrap, preceded or followed by an unfinished sentence, thus: "Marcel is thinking-- When I was ill, Marcel thought-- Marcel means to--" All these I gathered up carefully and put in my pocket. Then I inoculated him with as strong a solution of the drug I was using on him as was compatible with the safety of his life. Immediate danger being thus averted, I determined to run no similar risk again.
For many days after this our voyage was monotonous. The deadly secret shared by Edith Metford and myself drew us gradually nearer to each other as time passed. She understood me, or, at least, gave me the impression that she understood me. Little by little that capricious mood which I have heretofore described changed into one of enduring sympathy. With one trivial exception, this lasted until the end. But for her help my mind would hardly have stood the strain of events which were now at hand, whose livid shadows were projected in the rising fire of Brande's relentless eyes.
Brande appeared to lose interest gradually in his ship's company. He became daily more and more absorbed in his own thoughts. Natalie was ever gentle, even tender. But I chafed at the impalpable barrier which was always between us. Sometimes I thought that she would willingly have ranged herself on my side. Some hidden power held her back. As to the others, I began to like the boy Halley. He was lovable, if not athletic. His devotion to Natalie, which never waned, did not now trouble me. It was only a friendship, and I welcomed it. Had it been anything more, it was not likely that he would have prevailed against the will of a man who had done murder for his mistress. We steamed through the Malay Archipelago, steering north, south, east, west, as if at haphazard, until only the navigating officers and the director of the Society knew how our course lay. We were searching for an island about the bearings of which, it transpired, some mistake had been made. I do not know whether the great laureate ever sailed these seas. But I know that his glorious islands of flowers and islands of fruit, with all their luscious imagery, were here eclipsed by our own islands of foliage. The long lagoons, the deep blue bays, the glittering parti-coloured fish that swam in visible shoals deep down amidst the submerged coral groves over which we passed, the rich-toned sea-weeds and brilliant anemones, the yellow strands and the steep cliffs, the riotous foliage that swept down from the sky to the blue of the sea; all these natural beauties seemed to cry to me with living voices--to me bound on a cruise of universal death.
After a long spell of apparently aimless but glorious steaming, a small island was sighted on our port bow. The Esmeralda was steered directly for it, and we dropped anchor in a deep natural harbour on its southern shore. Preparations for landing had been going on during the day, and everything was ready for quitting the ship.
It was here that my first opportunity for making use of the gold I had brought with me occurred. Anderson was called up by Brande, who made him a short complimentary speech, and finished it by ordering his officer to return to England, where further instructions would be given him. This order was received in respectful silence. Captain Anderson had been too liberally treated to demur if the Esmeralda had been ordered to the South Pole.
Brande went below for a few minutes, and as soon as he had disappeared I went forward to Anderson and hailed him nervously, for there was not a moment to spare.
"Anderson," I said hurriedly, "you must have noticed that Mr. Brande is an eccentric--"
"Pardon me, sir; it is not my business to comment upon my owner."
"I did not ask you to comment upon him, sir," I said sharply. "It is I who shall comment upon him, and it is for you to say whether you will undertake to earn my money by waiting in this harbour till I am ready to sail back with you to England."
"Have you anything more to say, sir?" Anderson asked stiffly.
"I presume I have said enough."
"If you have nothing more to say I must ask you to leave the bridge, and if it were not that you are leaving the ship this moment, I would caution you not to be impertinent to me again."
He blew his whistle, and a steward ran forward.
"Johnson, see Mr. Marcel's luggage over the side at once." To me he said shortly: "Quit my ship, sir."
This trivial show of temper, which, indeed, had been provoked by my own hasty speech, turned my impatience into fury.
"Before I quit your ship," I said, with emphasis, "I will tell you how you yourself will quit it. You will do so between two policemen if you land in England, and between two marines if you think of keeping on the high seas. Before we started, I sent a detailed statement of this ship, the nature of this nefarious voyage, and the names of the passengers--or as many as I knew--to a friend who will put it in proper hands if anything befalls me. Go back without me and explain the loss of that French fishing fleet which was sunk the very night we sailed. It is an awkward coincidence to be explained by a man who returns from an unknown voyage having lost his entire list of passengers. You cannot be aware of what this man Brande intends, or you would at least stand by us as long as your own safety permitted. In any case you cannot safely return without us."
Anderson, after reflecting for a moment, apologised for his peremptory words, and agreed to stand by night and day, with fires banked, until I, and all whom I could prevail upon to return with me, got back to his vessel. There was no danger of his running short of coal. A ship that was practically an ocean liner in coal ballast would be a considerable time in burning out her own cargo. But he insisted on a large money payment in advance. I had foolishly mentioned that I had a little over 5000 in gold. This he claimed on the plea that "in duty to himself"--a favourite phrase of his--he could not accept less. But I think his sense of duty was limited only by the fact that I had hardly another penny in the world. Under the circumstances he might have waived all remuneration. As he was firm, and as I had no time to haggle, I agreed to give him the money. Our bargain was only completed when Brande returned to the deck.
It was strange that on an island like that on which we were landing there should be a regular army of natives waiting to assist us with our baggage, and the saddled horses which were in readiness were out of place in a primeval wilderness. An Englishman came forward, and, saluting Brande, said all was ready for the start to the hills. This explained the puzzle. An advance agent had made everything comfortable. For Brande, his sister, and Miss Metford the best appointed horses were selected. I, as physician to the chief, had one. The main body had to make the journey on foot, which they did by very easy stages, owing to the heat and the primitive track which formed the only road. Their journey was not very long--perhaps ten miles in a direct line.
Mounted as we were, it was often necessary to stoop to escape the dense masses of parasitic growth which hung in green festoons from every branch of the trees on either side. Under this thick shade all the riotous vegetation of the tropics had fought for life and struggled for light and air till the wealth of their luxuriant death had carpeted the underwood with a thick deposit of steaming foliage. As we ascended the height, every mile in distance brought changes in the botanical growths, which might have passed unnoticed by the ordinary observer or ignorant pioneer. All were noted and commented on by Brande, whose eye was still as keen as his brain had once been brilliant. His usual staid demeanour changed suddenly. He romped ahead of us like a schoolboy out for a holiday. Unlike a schoolboy, however, he was always seeking new items of knowledge and conveying them to us with unaffected pleasure. He was more like a master who had found new ground and new material for his class. Natalie gave herself up like him to this enjoyment of the moment. Edith Metford and I partly caught the glamour of their infectious good-humour. But with both of us it was tempered by the knowledge of what was in store.
When we arrived at our destination we dismounted, at Brande's request, and tied our horses to convenient branches. He went forward, and, pushing aside the underwood with both hands, motioned to us to follow him till he stopped on a ledge of rock which overtopped a hollow in the mountain. The gorge below was the most beautiful glade I ever looked upon.
It was a paradise of foliage. Here and there a fallen tree had formed a picturesque bridge over the mountain stream which meandered through it. Far down below there was a waterfall, where gorgeous tree-ferns rose in natural bowers, while others further still leant over the lotus-covered stream, their giant leaves trailing in the slow-moving current. Tangled masses of bracken rioted in wild abundance over a velvety green sod, overshadowed by waving magnolias. Through the trees bright-plumaged birds were flitting from branch to branch in songless flight, flashing their brilliant colours through the sunny leaves. In places the water splashed over moss-grown rocks into deep pools. Every drifting spray of cloud threw over the dell a new light, deepening the shadows under the great ferns.
It was here in this glorious fairyland; here upon this island, where before us no white foot had ever trod; whose nameless people represented the simplest types of human existence, that Herbert Brande was to put his devilish experiment to the proof. I marvelled that he should have selected so fair a spot for so terrible a purpose. But the papers which I found later amongst the man's effects on the Esmeralda explain much that was then incomprehensible to me.
Our camp was quickly formed, and our life was outwardly as happy as if we had been an ordinary company of tourists. I say outwardly, because, while we walked and climbed and collected specimens of botanical or geological interest, there remained that latent dread which always followed us, and dominated the most frivolous of our people, on all of whom a new solemnity had fallen. For myself, the fact that the hour of trial for my own experiment was daily drawing closer and more inevitable, was sufficient to account for my constant and extreme anxiety.
Brande joined none of our excursions. He was always at work in his improvised laboratory. The boxes of material which had been brought from the ship nearly filled it from floor to roof, and from the speed with which these were emptied, it was evident that their contents had been systematised before shipment. In place of the varied collection of substances there grew up within the room a cone of compound matter in which all were blended. This cone was smaller, Brande admitted, than what he had intended. The supply of subordinate fulminates, though several times greater than what was required, proved to be considerably short. But as he had allowed himself a large margin--everything being on a scale far exceeding the minimum which his calculations had pointed to as sufficient--this deficiency did not cause him more than a temporary annoyance. So he worked on.
When we had been three weeks on the island I found the suspense greater than I could bear. The crisis was at hand, and my heart failed me. I determined to make a last appeal to Natalie, to fly with me to the ship. Edith Metford would accompany us. The rest might take the risk to which they had consented.
I found Natalie standing on the high rock whence the most lovely view of the dell could be obtained, and as I approached her silently she was not aware of my presence until I laid my hand on her shoulder.
"Natalie," I said wistfully, for the girl's eyes were full of tears, "do you mind if I withdraw now from this enterprise, in which I cannot be of the slightest use, and of which I most heartily disapprove?"
"The Society would not allow you to withdraw. You cannot do so without its permission, and hope to live within a thousand miles of it," she answered gravely.
"I should not care to live within ten thousand miles of it. I should try to get and keep the earth's diameter between myself and it."
She looked up with an expression of such pain that my heart smote me. "How about me? I cannot live without you now," she said softly.
"Don't live without me. Come with me. Get rid of this infamous association of lunatics, whose object they themselves cannot really appreciate, and whose means are murder--"
But there she stopped me. "My brother could find me out at the uttermost ends of the earth if I forsook him, and you know I do not mean to forsake him. For yourself--do not try to desert. It would make no difference. Do not believe that any consideration would cause me willingly to give you a moment's pain, or that I should shrink from sacrificing myself to save you." With one of her small white hands she gently pressed my head towards her. Her lips touched my forehead, and she whispered: "Do not leave me. It will soon be over now. I--I--need you."
As I was returning dejected after my fruitless appeal to Natalie, I met Edith Metford, to whom I had unhappily mentioned my proposal for an escape.
"Is it arranged? When do we start?" she asked eagerly.
"It is not arranged, and we do not start," I answered in despair.
"You told me you would go with her or without her," she cried passionately. "It is shameful--unmanly."
"It is certainly both if I really said what you tell me. I was not myself at the moment, and my tongue must have slandered me. I stay to the end. But you will go. Captain Anderson will receive you--"
"How am I to be certain of that?"
"I paid him for your passage, and have his receipt."
"And you really think I would go and leave--leave--"
"Natalie? I think you would be perfectly justified."
At this the girl stamped her foot passionately on the ground and burst into tears. Nor would she permit any of the slight caresses I offered. I thought her old caprices were returning. She flung my arm rudely from her and left me bewildered.
"THIS EARTH SHALL DIE.".
My memory does not serve me well in the scenes which immediately preceded the closing of the drama in which Brande was chief actor. It is doubtless the transcendental interest of the final situation which blunts my recollection of what occurred shortly before it. I did not abate one jot of my determination to fight my venture out unflinching, but my actions were probably more automatic than reasoned, as the time of our last encounter approached. On the whole, the fight had been a fair one. Brande had used his advantage over me for his own purpose as long as it remained with him. I used the advantage as soon as it passed to me for mine. The conditions had thus been equalised when, for the third and last time, I was to hear him address his Society.
This time the man was weak in health. His vitality was ebbing fast, but his marvellous inspiration was strong within him, and, supported by it, he battled manfully with the disease which I had manufactured for him. His lecture-room was the fairy glen; his canopy the heavens.