Another installment of this fascinating story of Love’s struggle against mastery over Death
The story: In answer to an advertisement for a secretary “who must be physically fit,” Hector Court, a young Londoner, goes down to Monk’s Mount, Hoddesdon, Herts, where he finds a strange menage and meets its head, a-Mr. Absalom, “whose gray eyes seem oddly dry, and whose brown hair suggests a wig.” This strange individual puts his visitor through a series of tests and then offers him the position. Hector, however, secures a few days for consideration.
The next day, dining at, a Mrs. Baxter’s, he meets an attractive girl, Anthea Reichert, and learns that she lives at Monk’s Mount. Anthea at first infers that she would be pleased if Hector took the position offered by Mr. Absalom, but finally begs him not to, for his own sake. Hector accepts, and goes down to Monk’s Mount where he discovers that Anthea fears some sort of menace. Ultimately, Absalom shows his secretary his laboratory. It is an eerie place filled with extraordinary instruments, including “a giant installation like a sentry-box with a close-fitting door.” In this contrivance Absalom places a live guineapig. He moves a switch and the guinea-pig disappears. Absalom explains that the animal has been “dissipated into its original atoms.”
Following this demonstration, Absalom is visited by a Bulgarian prince, Dimitri, who turns out to be a very old, decrepit man over whom Absalom has some strange hold. The night of Dimitri’s arrival, Hector is aroused by Hervey, the butler, who informs him that Absalom has been hurt. Hector finds the injury a superficial one but Absalom seems to be very much perturbed.
The next morning Dimitri is a changed man who seems to have regained his youth. During the day Mrs. Baxter arrives from London and at dinner that evening Absalom announces that he is one hundred years old. Dimitri also reveals his great age and explains that as a result of Absalom’s treatment, he was able to palm himself off as his own son, following the latter’s tragic death. Mrs. Baxter has a somewhat similar story to tell and it develops that Absalom has enabled a selected group of notables to live long past their allotted span.
Still ignorant of what his own relation to this extraordinary situation may be, Hector reveals to Anthea his love for her and is overjoyed to learn that his feeling is reciprocated. Absalom learns of this mutual avowal und summons the lovers to the laboratory. There he exhibits Siak, a huge gorilla, that he has been using in his experiments, shows Hector a living picture of “harpies of death” at work in his beloved’s body, and subjects her to the revivifying treatment in the glass chamber. Then he announces that he is tired of working with middle-aged clients.
“What I want are younger ones, still in the flush of youth, without stain or physical flaw, and capable of the peifect Union. These I propose to perpetuate and I will endow them as youth has never been endowed before.”
Hector gave Absalom one fearless look, went to Anthea’s side and took her unresisting hand.
“Come, dear,” he said.
They went out from the laboratory with fingers interlocked, like fingers of children that feel instinctively for each other.
ABSALOM watched them, his lips moving a little, but without sound. He saw the door close, heard their footsteps die away. A deep silence reigned in the study, and his face was very grave. He sat for some time perfectly motionless, immersed in profound thought. Then he touched a bell.
“Hervey, my compliments to Mrs. Baxter, and would she please come here a minute?”
Mrs. Baxter must have been waiting for the summons; so quickly did she arrive. Her look was very expectant.
“Well,” she said breathlessly, “how did he take it? Is he willing—was he much excited?”
“I have not asked for a final decision yet.”
“N-no, I suppose that’s expecting too much. I saw them go off into the park just now. He was holding her hand. Of course, it was a terrific surprise?”
“He is a fine fellow,” ruminated Absalom. “I’ve been looking for such a one for two years. He took it—well —in view of the fact that they are already in love—he took it much as I anticipated. The matter has only been broached so far, with no details given.”
“He knows nothing about the money?”
“That was not advisable yet.”
“And you believe that he will do this thing out of sheer love?” Mrs. Baxter’s eyes had a strange expression.
“I fancy so*—it was not difficult to read his thoughts.” “It’s very wonderful—the thing we called love,” she said soberly. “I remember when I felt it myself, and what days those were. But now ...” She broke off with a gesture.
“Won’t you go on?”
“It—it hurts a little, Absalom.”
“Still!” The vertical brows lifted a trifle.
“Curious, isn’t it. The rest is just as you told me it would be. You said that you could not perpetuate real emotion, because that was a thing of the spirit, and the spirit was beyond you. Yet today, to see those two young things in the grip of what you and I can understand and analyze but not feel ourselves, is—well—• rather painful.”
“H’m! Remember something else I told you?”
“In that connection?”
“I thought I remembered everything. I’ve every reason to.”
“It was this: that the fact that you had ceased to be subject to emotion was your great safeguard. The warm body consumes itself, but the cold one survives. If now, in your present physical condition you were to conceive any deep emotion, you could not last long—in spite of me. To put it figuratively, you would burn up.”
“Yes, I remember now; but, Absalom, it’s rather awful just the same.”
“You cannot have everything in life—even such a life as yours.”
She leaned her intelligent, gray head on a ringed hand. “It almost makes one wonder, doesn’t it, whether such a life as mine is really worth while. I seem to myself dead beside those two. You see, Absalom, I don’t do anything for anyone. I only use other people to amuse myself. I feed them, and wine them, and watch them dance, and sometimes they seem to be dancing on my heart. It’s getting a bit hard to be amused—now.” “My services can be discontinued at any time,” he remarked cynically.
She caught at his arm in a sudden spasm of fear. “Don’t—don’t talk like that ! You know I don’t mean anything, but the more the end is put off, the more I seem in dread of it. Isn’t it queer to be shirking a thing that’s so far away. But I don’t seem very real to myself nowadays, Absalom. And the people who come to my parties—they aren’t very real either. It’s just as though they wore masks, and I couldn’t get at their faces—or thoughts. And that makes one lonely. When are you going to see Mr. Court again?”
“In a few days.”
“And Anthea—I’m sorry for Anthea?”
“I don’t think it will be necessary to say anything more to her. She has known about the programme since it was formed. Today she is in love with Court—which should be sufficient.”
“Does he know the alternative?”
“He will soon.”
“Absalom,” she tried to speak lightly, but her eyes were very haunted, “you’re not really in earnest about that. It’s too ghastly to think of.” '
“My dear Sarah, I’m quite serious. Consider a moment. Under my invariable agreement I only undertake to vitalize a client so long as I accept his fee. I make no forward contracts—though you know what has been offered me. And when the time covered by the fee has expired, my obligation is at an end.”
“Yes—yes—” she put in hastily, “I quite understand that. I sent my cheque to your bank last week.
He smiled faintly. “That was not in my mind. Today, frankly, I am very bored. Forgive my saying this to a ady, but it is true. It began two years ago. I discovered that I had become too used to Maktai—there, look at her blink—and Siak. They ceased to suggest anything to me. That spread to my clients. By the time you have literally preserved an individual for forty years, they lose all interest—be they of either sex.”
“That’s the first time such a thing has been said to me,” she interrupted tartly.”
“Again forgive me—but you are not dealing with a society man. I want you to understand how the new programme came about. I could not love—I, like you, was dead to passion—but I wanted to see it in others.” “And if those two decide to refuse?” she asked in a strained tone.
“Then I contemplate getting into the cabinet myself, and having Hervèy turn the dial in the minus direction. Very simple—and I think he might be more than ready.” “Absalom !” she expostulated, “you’re mad. Think of the rest, all the rest of us !”
“My brain is dulled with thinking. No—I want to perpetuate beauty—youth—strength—vigor! I want
the union of these qualities to produce such a perfect breed as this world has never seen before. Behind them will be great wealth, and such powers as the world has not yet imagined. That will be the real triumph of Monk’s Mount.”
They looked at each other, she crowding back the fear that was contracting her heart, and searching his impassive face. The face reflected no triumph, only inflexible resolution. Sarah Baxter had great wealth— wealth that was not diminished in spite óf extravagant expenditure, but not one tithe as precious as the barren life to which she clung.
And there were the others, some of whom she knew, of most of whom she had heard —the tightly closed circle of Absalom’s clients, the most secret society in the world.
Each had millions. Could he actually contemplate relinquishing the vast sum he had already acquired, and the prospect of as much more as he cared to take?
His face revealed nothing of what was going on in his extraordinary brain, but it was not the face of one who spoke lightly. He seemed burdened with what he had shouldered.
What use, after all, had a man like this for money when his sole interest was confined to the potent domain he had himself created? No—the thing that fascinated him was the unknown, and what more natural than that he should take one step he could never retrace?
“Is there anything I can do,
Absalom?” she ventured.
“I think not—until Court is aware of the alternative. Treat them as one would the ordinary young couple newly in love. By the way, Sarah, what a strangely sounding phrase that is—‘newly in love’ ! Be natural —joke when you can—and tell Dimitri what I have told you.
I don’t want to see him this morning. And remember that if Court observes in either of you anything that—that—”
“Would antagonize his mind to a similar condition?” she put in.
“Well, he won’t—in me.
“She will be guided by him.”
“I’m not so sure. She might possibly feel so self-guilty in the matter that she might refuse at the last moment.”
“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. If we do come to it, I shall count on pity to effect what fear will not.”
“I did not say ‘for us’ ! ”
There was something final about this, and she got up, standing for a moment as though loath to leave. She confessed to feeling rather differently about Absalom since he said that he was bored with keeping people like herself alive. And the thought gave her a chill.
“You look rather disillusioned, Sarah. What is it?”
“Nothing much,” she said, with a hard little laugh. “I was just wondering again what life is worth, really. I mean the life of persons like me, not you.”
He gave his mechanical smile, but did not answer. When he was alone, there came over him once more a profound revulsion of thought. He got up and paced the study. Maktai also got up and took a few steps after him. He stopped, looked at her suddenly with a strange expression, and turned into the laboratory. The gray beast followed at his heels.
“Had enough, Maktai?” He might have been speaking to a friend.
The gaunt brute yawned its reply.
“You think,” he went on in a measured tone, “that I’ve taken an unfair advantage. You’ve seemed to be saying for some time that you didn’t ask to live—and the thing has gone far enough already? Perhaps too far.
Well, you’ve had your nine lives—and more!”
Maktai blinked, so that the great yellow eyes were like dipping headlights in a fog.
Absalom opened the door of the glass dome. “Show me if you agree, my fellow adventurer.”
The cat stalked in, and seated herself beneath the chair. He closed the door.
“Maktai,” he said musingly, “perhaps—who knows— you have the better of it.”
The white fingers turned the dial and moved to the switch. There came the shimmering mist. It cleared. The dome was empty of life !
“One!” he said, and went back to the study.
Here retrospect appeared to engulf him. Presently he slid back a small panel and took out a morocco case, rubbing his fingers over the soft leather in an abyss of thought. His eyes receded till he became a mere consciousness, encased for the time in a queer human frame. He sighed deeply, and, gradually, his features became distorted with grief.
The case revealed the photograph of a woman beside a dark-haired child of about five, with Anthea’s eyes and the grave candor of Anthea’s face. The woman might have been forty, another, older Anthea. She was looking at the child with a smile of utter tenderness and a world of motherhood in the look.
Absalom put his hand hard over the picture, pressing it as though to bury it. His lips began to tremble. The parchment texture of his skin became suffused with a faint color, as the blood slowly forced itself to the surface, revisiting channels it had long since deserted. It seemed that the man was visibly becoming alive.
His lips parted. He breathed deeply, and the dry, gray eyes appeared to enlarge and soften. He was no longer chemical, and from some secret cell something human, tangible and perishable demonstrated itself. Emotion! Emotion against which he had warned Sarah Baxter. Emotion that threatened a life so unnaturally and mechanically prolonged.
Tears trickled from his eyes, bright, glistening drops, the first that had passed those sunken sockets for many and many a vanished year. They fell on his hand on the picture. He saw them shine, those vagrant missioners of a tortured heart. He knew what they meant, what they threatened. For a second he recoiled. Then the shadow of fear lifted from him, and he bent over the face that had meant more than all else in the world.
“You!” he whispered brokenly. “You alone, and only you ! All is nothing without you !”
ANTHEA and Hector were in the park. Instinctively, they left the drive and walked beside coverts where bronze pheasants were feeding in the pale beams of a November sun. Rabbits sat up, regarding the humans with bright, curious eyes, then hopped into shelter. Rooks convened in the tops of tall elms, filling the moist air with their softened clamor.
Neither of the two had spoken a word. Hector searched the face of the girl he loved, whose hand still clung to his, and tried to imagine that all this had happened to someone else. What would someone else —being the right sort—do about it?
Her eyes were unfathomable, and she sent him no . glance in return. A shadow was over her, but he thought he could read her mind, however vaguely. He made out that she was questioning herself, not him; demanding of herself how he, knowing what he knew now, and aware that she had known from the first, could perform his part of Absalom’s programme. Could any woman expect the love of a man who had been trapped with her connivance?
Suddenly she gave a smothered exclamation and faced him.
“Well, what do you think of me now?” She stood very straight, speaking bitterly and in revolt. She had the desperate look of one who goes down, fighting to the last.
' “Don’t!” he begged, taken off guard and hating to see her hurt herself like this. “I have not had time to think. You couldn’t help it.”
“I could,” she said, in a strange voice.
He stared at her blankly. “I don’t understand.”
“I could, but didn’t,” she repeated doggedly. “You don’t realize it, Hector; you don’t think enough of yourself for that. It was because I 'had begun to—to care. That meant so much that I shut my eyes to what I knew must follow. I tried not to care, Hector, but it wasn’t any use.”
A great wave of pity swept over him. She found herself snatched into his arms, held close, close, her head on his shoulder, a big hand pressing against her cold cheek. His strength so encompassed and enfolded her that she had a vast sense of safety and warmth, and she hoped that she might die like this.
“You poor little thing!” he whispered. “You poor little thing !”
“Hector,” she asked in a small voice, “what are we going to do now?”
“Get married, of course, and live for, oh, for ever so long. What an amazing time we’ll have. Makes me dizzy to think of it.”
She drew away, staring at him, completely bewildered. “You mean that—knowing what you do!”
“Listen!” he said. “You don’t know me very well yet. Of 'course I mean it. First thing is that I love you with all my heart. Second, that it’s too wonderful you should love me. Third, that Absalom, remarkable as he is, doesn’t matter. He offers me a long, long time with you, and—and ...”
His voice trailed out as though he were confronted with sudden difficulty—a flaw—a cloud—something that drifted in, obscuring his mental vision. The girl watched him with a sad little smile of 'understanding.
“You see, Hector, you see—don’t you? I was waiting for this.”
He put his hand to his head. “I see something—I don’t know—-what is it?”
“What I have seen from the first. Dearest, it’s impossible.”
“Nothing is impossible when we -love each other.” “Ah, Hector, you make yourself say that. You’ve had a glimpse of the reality. You and I don’t want to live on and on—however much we love. Isn’t that it?” “Why not?” he protested.
“You know why.”
He shook his head, but with none of his former conviction.
“Look at Dimitri and Mrs. Baxter!”
“Yes,” she said gently, “do look at them, and see how unutterably lonely they are. Their thoughts must be a graveyard.”
“But I must, because it’s true. It’s what you’ve already begun to see. And we don’t want that for ourselves. Think of watching one’s friends drop away one by one.
Before long we’d be afraid to make any. And life, Hector, real life, isn’t it made up of many things, joy and suffering, fear and hope, meeting and parting, and the knowledge that in a given time it will be all over, and we have just that much time to do our best in. Don’t you see?”
“Go on,” he said, under his breath.
“I think that when people love each other deeply, each must sometimes look at the other and try and count the years that are naturally left to them; and the knowledge that there will not be more than so many years makes them more tender and understanding. Try and help me a little, Hector. While I was in the glass dome I hoped Absalom would make a mistake, and I would die—while you were watching and loving me.”
He caught her by the arm.
“Wrong—wrong—a thousand times wrong! Darling, you’re blind. We can be in London in an hour and married at once. Come—now—as you are! We’ll put an end to all this. Absalom and his science be damned forever!”
His grip hurt her, and she loved him the more for it.
“It’s so wonderful, Hector, just to hear that. But you forget the alternative.”
“Absalom’s—if he’s thwarted.”
“What has that to do with it?
This is a free country.”
“You can go—you can escape it, and he cannot stop you. But to me and others it means a great deal.”
“You mean he’ll take it out of others?”
“He didn’t tell you in so many words, but he hinted at it.”
“What is he driving at?”
“Stopping!” she said in an awed tone.
He stared at her, suddenly shaken and incredulous. There came a slowly widening perception of «the terrific pressure that chemical-faced man could exert when he chose.
“Mrs. Baxter—Dimitri—you mean ... !”
“Yes, and how many more I don’t know. He does not really care very much for his own life now, though he guards it so closely. But all those others! Hector, can’t you see them looking to him for what is more precious than anything else in the world.”
He racked his brain for an answer, then gave a great sigh of relief.
“Do you believe that life is a thing that ought to be
bought and sold?”
“I can’t think of it that way.”
“Or that those who want to buy it are generally worthy of it?”
“It doesn’t seem they could be.”
“Then what real purpose is served by these miracles? Absalom follows onlv his own ambitions. He has declared war on destiny.”
“Yes—it’s like that.”
“Only that! He does what he does to gratify himself. If he asked whether certain lives were worth something to the world, if he said the world would be a better place if such a man lives longer, there would be something magnificent about it. But even then, doesn’t it seem that people sometimes accomplish as much by dying as by living? I mean their memory and tradition live on, which might be a bigger thing than the man himself.” “Absalom wouldn’t argue that way.”
“In which case,” he announced with a sort of triumph, “the sooner he stops the better. Does the world lose if Mrs. Baxter and Dimitri die? It won’t make a ripple in London, and from what I’ve heard of Dimitri, the Balkans would be none the worse off.”
He paused, distinctly shocked with himself. Here he was trying to demonstrate the unimportance of the death of a woman who for three years had been the kindest and most generous of friends. It was horrible! And Dimitri, that old sportsman ! To what depths had his own desire already driven him?
“Hector,” she said desperately, “I believe that’s all true—every word of it, but when I picture what would follow if Absalom stopped, it terrifies me.” “And yet you say it’s impossible that we should be married. Isn’t that the signal for stopping?”
“You and I, Hector; not I and someone else. That would serve his purpose just as well—when he finds the man.” She said this with a look that the martyred virgin might have worn at the stake in Rouen. “You see, Hector, I can’t help it. To save those I’ve never seen, I must marry some man I’ve never seen. Oh, my dear, there won’t be any love in it. Under Absalom’s conditions I could not marry a man I loved. What draws us together is what keeps us apart.”
“Not that,” he stammered, “not that!”
She gave him a hopeless smile. “I’ll always long for your arms, my lover, my real lover.”
“I can’t let you go,” he said brokenly.
“Dearest, you needn’t—yet. We’ve a few days, you and I. Absalom is not impatient, and we must make them wonderful days. No, don’t kiss me now, darling. All the others need know is—well—that we’re in love. Help me to be brave, Hector !”
THINNER that night at Monk’s Mount was for the lovers an unnatural affair. Neither Dimitri nor Mrs. Baxter, who had stayed over, was in evidence through the day, and Hector had a shrewd idea as to how they were occupied.
It was grotesque, but unescapable. He had a vision of the old Bulgarian, sitting stiffly erect in the glass dome, subjecting his lean body to potent rays while Absalom stood at the switchboard, life and destruction balanced to a hairbreadth between white, nerveless fingers. He saw the projection of Mrs. Baxter’s heart, that kindly, generous, anxious heart, on the polished screen, while Absalom examined the pulsating image in search of the harpies of death distinguishable only by his cold gray eyes. What mental tortures these two must undergo in hours when existence hung by a thread! What extraordinary reactions when they stepped out of that formidable chamber into the world they so desperately feared to relinquish !
These were his thoughts when Mrs. Baxter entered the drawing-room with Anthea.
By what sheer courage the girl had come to it he could not tell, but there was not a shadow in her eyes. Fear seemed to have passed from her. Her manner was unaffectedly charming, her lips had a smile especially for him, and her appearance was almost that of one who has found her heart’s desire. It was acting, he knew, consummate acting. She had determined to snatch what she might from the days that were left.
Mrs. Baxter displayed a sort of tremulous interest in both, it being obvious that she realized that it was on these two there turned her own prospect of defying destiny still longer. It gave Hector a queer sensation to watch her, to feel that she knew this, and to note in her expression a strange mingling of hope uncertainty, nervousness and appeal. It made him reflect rather cynically that one who had been so kind in the past was now likely to be kinder yet.
Then Dimitri, ever young, ever old. Judging by the light quickness of his step, Absalom had done well for him that day. The diamond star was no brighter than his dark eyes. He must have known all that Mrs. Baxter knew, but, being a sportsman, showed nothing of it. He shot numerous little glances, seemed amused, and talked rapidly about everything in the world except what was uppermost in his mind.
Absalom’s face had its usual calm, with nothing to suggest that he was poised on the verge of the greatest experiment of all. Nor was there any trace of the storm of emotion he had undergone.
It was halfway through dinner that Dimitri peered under the table as though in search of something. Then at Absalom.
“You look lonely, my friend. Where is it?”
“Maktai! To see you without that unamiable beast is incredible. “Ah, Maktai! She is not here.”
“For the first time in how many years? Where is she?”
“Nowhere,” said Absalom calmly. Dimitri furrowed his piebald brows. “You speak in riddles. She is either here, or elsewhere.”
“Paul, you would be solving what is to me an unanswerable question if you can tell me where she is.”
Suddenly Mrs. Baxter gave a strangled gasp. “Absalom—you don’t mean that . . .” She stopped, eyes round and .staring.
“I simply mean that Maktai has passed on—to somewhere. She and I went into the matter together. Of late she has seemed hontêe, ennuyée. She appeared definitely bored with life—and with me. I had, unfortunately, nothing new to offer, and so she passed on. There are no secrets at this table now, so I may speak frankly.” Mrs. Baxter looked stupefied. “I—I thought you loved that animal?” she stammered.
“Yes—perhaps—yes, I think I did. But I came to Dimitri’s conclusion that her tribe is selfish and unresponsive. They accept, but they do not give. She had ignored me a good deal of late, and I would much sooner be hated than ignored.”
This remark, made in the coolest of tones, had a peculiar effect. The two older people glanced at each other with ill-concealed apprehension, while Hector signalled courage and love to Anthea. Then Mrs. Baxter, with an effort worthy of admiration, broke away from a for.bidding topic.
“Well, I suppose one can do what one will with one’s own. Absalom, I’ve an idea!”
“Paul is coming to town with me tomorrow, so why shouldn’t Anthea and Hector?”
The vertical brows went up a • little.. “Anything special in view?”
“Well, youth is youth, and I think a dinner and dance are quite in order.” She gave a light, little laugh very reminiscent of St. James’ Square. “Paul looks as if he’d like to dance, too. Paul, I’ll do a tarantella with you.”
Hector was completely surprised. It was very like her to suggest it, and equally unlike Absalom, he imagined, to agree. Absalom was waiting for an answer.
“But this is admirable!” announced Dimitri, “and we shall make a four square party. Sarah, it is a long time since we together have danced. Absalom, why do not you also come?”
“Would you?” asked Mrs. Baxter dubiously.
“Thank you—no, but Anthea will be happy to accept, and no doubt I can spare my secretary overnight—if he promises not to run away. Eh, Court?” He said this with a direct stare in which there was a faint amusement and a good deal of satire. It expressed the assurance that now there was not the slightest prospect of Hector’s running away.
The atmosphere at the table had under-' gone so abrupt a change that Hector found it difficult to answer. They knew —all of them—where he stood. Absalom’s stipulations about the sheltered life had been thrown overboard. Only one reason for that. Absalom knew he was anchored. But he did not know that his plan, so far as it concerned his present secretary, was about to miscarry. For the immediate moment he need not.
Mrs. Baxter and Dimitri were also reckoning too soon. It would need but a suggestion of the truth to demoralize them. It was strange to look at these two, to meet their glances and hear them talk, and at the same time realize the facts.
“I’m sure Hector will be delighted,” put in Anthea hurriedly, “won’t you?” “Of course—awfully good of you, Mrs. Baxter,” he jerked out. “Fact is, I hadn’t -counted on a holiday so soon.” With this he-could not resist a look at Absalom.
• “Ah, Court, you are only beginning to wake up to your privileges at Monk’s Mount.”
Hector carried it off as best he could, but for the rest of the meal there was a subcurrent one could not escape. So many things said, merely for the sound of them, to avoid awkwardness and conceal the real thoughts of the moment. Dimitri every now and then sent a covert glance at Absalom, thinking of Maktai, wondering whether the destruction of this animal, symbol of Absalom’s power, meant that its master was developing a sort of mania. Was he going to destroy all that he had so miraculously preserved? Was he also bored?
Mrs. Baxter, doing her best to maintain conversation, found it impossible to keep her eyes from Anthea and her lover. They, too, had achieved significance. Their youth and strength almost taunted her, and she visualized herself at Anthea’s age.
“Absalom,” she said suddenly, “who of all your circle—you know what I mean— interests you most, present company excepted. Who stands out?”
He lifted his shoulders a little. “Really, I cannot say. All are interesting—to a point.”
She knew what the point was, but put that aside.
“Is there any very notable person? I don’t ask for names.”
“What is it to be notable—as you see it?”
Dimitri made a gesture as though there were something he would iike to put forward. But he did not speak.
“Well,” said Mrs. Baxter, “any great scientists, artists, humanitarians—that sort of thing?”
“The scientists I met were rather contemptuous of myself, and soon got out of their depth. The artists, being naturally egoists, were contemptuous of other artists; and as for the humanitarians, they seemed destructive of—well—-privacy. I cannot imagine any real intellectual progress under their theories. But,” he added contentedly, “there are some great financiers with international names, recent clients, most of them.” y
“I know that,” she ' answered with complete candor, “but the other sort, the sort that don’t live for themselves, as Paul and I. I feel rather like taking the lid off tonight. Do you mind, Paul?”
“Not at all. The same thing I have sometimes said to myself. But that is Absalom’s affair; eh, my friend?”
“I have not overlooked that angle of it,” said Absalom, his face hardening a little. “Most of my circle are financiers because in my opinion they are the important people of the world today. I do not pretend to be a judge of other gifts.”
There was a silence. Mrs. Baxter felt rather quenched, as though she had stepped off her own ground and been sent back with a warning. But what had made her speak was a glimmering of what he might do for those more worthy than herself, and the thought had given her weary heart an unaccustomed glow. She admitted, however, that one could not argue with the arbiter of one’s existence.
“Well,” she conceded, “I suppose you know best.”
“Were you thinking of anyone in particular?” Absalom’s voice was very polite.
When it came to that, she had to confess that she was not. The St. James’ Square establishment was a general clearing-house for the younger set, a set too busy enjoying life -to think of much else. They started on treasure hunts from there. She used to see them dash off in the small hours, car after car loaded with riotous youth, then prepare for her own secret treasure hunt to Monk’s Mount. She didn’t know any great statesmen or men creatively endowed. Her house was open to them, but they didn’t come. Now she began to see why.
“I’m not thinking of any special person,” she said regretfully.
“Then, Dimitri, shall we have a game of billiards? As I remember it, we are about even, while my secretary is much too good—when he plays his own game.”
They went off. Mrs. Baxter slipped her arm into Anthea’s, and nodded at Hector.
“Come into the drawing-room with me, you two. Anthea, you haven’t said a word all evening. That dinner was awful, wasn’t it? I can’t bottle myself up any more, and I’m going to be terribly frank. Can’t help it. Hector, have you forgiven me?”
“My dear boy, that’s rather nice of you, but you know perfectly well. I asked you to meet this child.” Here she gave Anthea’s arm a squeeze. “Absalom insisted, and I had to. Now you know why I had to.”
“I haven’t thought much about that part of it—lately.”
“N-no, perhaps not, but there it is. Now you’re in love with each other—any fool can see that—and I’m responsible. Anthea, dear, I mustn’t get worked up over this—it isn’t good for me—but if either of you could say something— anything ...”
The two looked at each other in wonder. The shining fact was that in spite of all their hopelessness they would not have it otherwise. Such was the depth of what they felt that it was impossible to imagine their not having met. Mrs. Baxter watched them hungrily, twisting her ringed fingers till the diamonds burrowed little purple pits in her flesh.
“Absalom simply gave me instructions,” she went on, “and I was afraid to disobey. You, Hector, you’re too young to have any idea of what he’s done for me. You know the facts, and that’s all. For the rest of it, you just know me as a good many hundreds of others do. But you don’t know what it means to be afraid of death !”
“You want me to say that in spite of the way it was brought about, and your motives in doing it, and what we’re up against now—I’m glad it happened?”
“Could you?” she breathed.
He stood looking down at this frightened woman. In that moment it struck him that her exquisite dress, her diamonds her perfect coiffure, her social popularity, her wealth—all this was tinsel. In comparison, he felt prodigiously rich. She. was but a lonely soul, afraid of death, and he yielded to an unspeakable pity. How would she take the whole truth?
He bent over, and kissed her. “I’m glad,” he said.
She gave a little cry and covered her face. Tears gushed out, glistening on the diamonds. She struggled with herself, dabbed her eyes with a shred of lace, and lay back as though exhausted. Presently she gave them a misty smile.
“Oh, my dears, you’ve made me so much happier. Of course, all I know is that you’re in love, but not whether anything definite has been settled. Absalom has told me that apart from the main thing, he’s going to do a great deal for you. You’ll be as rich as Croesus.”
“Mrs. Baxter!” said Anthea, in a low voice. . ■
“It’s very difficult for us.”
Something in her manner set up alarm in the other woman’s heart. She stared, her eyes contracting.
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t say any more yet. I do love Hector, just as he loves me.” She leaned forward, very earnest and superlatively honest. “But you would be wrong in counting * on my letting Hector marry me.”
“Why!” gasped Mrs. Baxter.
“Because I love him too much.” She paused, thinking of the brain that was like a graveyard.
“But Hector has just told me that
“I did,” he put in, “and say it again. I’m glad. Don’t you understand?”
“No,” she quavered.
“Well, it’s like this. We don’t know what’s ahead. I love Anthea with all my soul and she loves me. I’m for getting married—now—at once. She isn’t. Absalom has put us in a terrible position, and I have to see him again. Anthea wanted me to go away—for good. I wouldn’t. And all today we’ve been thinking about you and Dimitri and all the others.”
“You poor dears—you poor, poor dears!”
“So will you help us to try and forget just for a little while? We haven’t long.”
The quick intelligent features lost their artificial touch, and Mrs. Baxter rose to a point of sheer bravery far beyond any she ever reached before. In thinking of these two, she forgot herself, and it seemed that all the fascination she used to find in the vicarious youth that frequented St. James’ Square was suddenly concentrated here. Hector had touched a spring that animated her highest instincts.
“It’s very strange,” she said, regarding them with sudden tenderness, “and much harder for you than me. I know what Anthea feels—it’s just what her sort would feel. And, my dears, I begin to think that Absalom’s secret circle is not as attractive as it once was. We’re all measuring where we stand, and how we stand. I’ve really done nothing else for fifty years. I’m terrified of that laboratory, and terrified not to go there.”
She broke off, watching them wistfully, marvelling that this spectacle of young and hopeless love should move her so greatly. It was, she perceived, deeper than any she had experienced herself. Perhaps, had she found it, she would have been content to live and love and die with the rest of humanity.
She was pondering this when it came over her in a wave that here was the solution of her avid hunger for life—more life, the hunger that possessed Dimitri and the rest of them. Absalom, too. They had not drunk the cup to the full, or else, having drunk and lost, found no other draught to take its place. They were still •unsatisfied. She saw Anthea looking at her lover, her whole spirit in her eyes, and read the answer there.
“My dears,” she went on, “I didn’t expect to talk like this when we came in here. I was hoping to find out whether it was all settled, and thought about nothing else at dinner. So did Dimitri. Now, if I were to tell you that my side of it needn’t sadden you—that I’m far readier for—” she paused with a long tremulous breath, “for whatever may come than I ever thought I could be—would that help? It’s only because you two have taught me something.”
Anthea put her soft arms round the drooping shoulders. “Mrs. Baxter, what have we done?”
“Done, child! You’ve only shown a very old woman—how old you will never know—that there’s something bigger than life, and without it life is hardly worth the effort. You can think that out together. And say nothing of this past hour to anyone. Now I think I’ll go to bed. I’m—I’m rather tired.”
“I’ll go with you for a minute, if I may. Wait for me, Hector.”
SHE came back soon, her eyes soft and tender, bringing a book. He put that aside, and his arms went round her. They stayed thus for some time, with no words for what they felt. Presently, Anthea looked at him. Her expression was strange, almost awed.
“It’s something like a recompense, Hector. I hadn’t thought it could come so soon.”
“Yes; she said we were right. Then she kissed me as though she loved me. She’s never done that before.”
He tried to think they were right, but that was beyond him, and his arms tightened.
“I can’t let you go, whatever may happen. That isn’t right.”
Her head was on his shoulder again, her cheek pressed against his. He held her very close.
“I clan’t let you go.”
“The real me you must never let go. That will never leave you—never.”
“You—as you are now—I want you— just that. I can’t live on dreams.”
“Hector, what was the most difficult thing you ever did?”
“Nothing was difficult—till now.”
She gazed at him for a moment, while the silence of Monk’s Mount enfolded them.
“Hector,” she whispered, “do you understand? I’m only yours and yours alone. You’re only mine and mine alone. Absalom can’t prevent that. And, Hector, you must help me now—tonight. I don’t want to go, and I mustn’t stay. Do you understand that, my lover?”
“And you won’t think me cold, or one who is full of theories and strange ideas. I want you not to do that. If you could see my heart now, you’d know.”
Still holding her, he stood up, kissing her , eyes and mouth.
“Tell me what I’m to do, and I’ll do it.” Her lips clung to his, then she drew gently away.
“We have a few days yet. Think just of that. Oh, my dearest, it’s the hardest fight you’ve ever had, but you’re going to win. I can tell that now. It means that I’ll win, too. If you see Absalom before we go to town—which isn’t likely—tell him that you’ll give him your decision when you get back. Good-night, my lover ! I would that—that ...”
She turned swiftly and ran out of the room. He made no attempt to follow. That wouldn’t be helping, and she had been through all that her strength would stand. She could not marry him because she loved him too much to let him pay the price. The price was such immortality as Absalom could bestow—or what she looked on as a living death. The conditions were against nature and destiny, and one’s memory would become a graveyard. He wondered if in all Absalom’s circle there was a case of man and wife being immortalized together.
HE WAS still immersed in a slough of unprofitable thoughts when he heard the study door open and Dimitri’s voice in the hall. It came very faintly, and he listened with ears that were preternaturally sharp. Now, he was not ashamed to listen.
“Well, cher ami, tomorrow I to London go with Mme. Baxter, but unless you say so, I shall not return here. What do you say?” i . .
“It will not be necessary,” replied the toneless voice. “Your physical condition is exactly as it was six months ago, with no wastage that I can see. There is no reason this should not continue as long as you wish.”
“Mon Dieu, but you are a miracle! Another matter—what about our young Twenty-five? That interests me, yes, greatly.”
“1 anticipate no difficulty there. Hé ia m love.”
“What an envy abominable 1 have for that youth! He understands it all— everything?'
"My dear Paul, he understands—or will, shortly—as much as is wise. One does not expect the youthful mind to grasp this thing as yod and I can see it.” The old Bulgarian chuckled. "Ah, .Absalom, how is it that you are always so right? As much as is wise—for the rest of us ! And he will come to Bucharest on his honeymoon; you will see to that, eh! He spoke of the expense, knowing nothing, and it was hard not to laugh in his young British face. Now, there is one thing more.
To you but small, to me of importance!”
“Tell me, in that too marvellous chamber of yours is there not one little appliance that would help to revive the inner Paul Josef of some fifty years ago. Of the Paul visible to your eye I do not speak, but the man inside, the man who sees what is meant to be loved by men, but, alas, produces no flame. For him could you do something?”
“Dimitri, you know that you ask the impossible.”
“Hélas—I am devastated! Not one little small spark of the divine flame. Perhaps it is that you, who always a cool man must have been, do not realize how sharp that hunger is. I see many beautiful women, Absalom. I say to myself, ‘there, Paul, there!’ I catch, perhaps, one so eloquent glance—perhaps more than one —and the thing that was me remains dead and without motion in my breast. Absalom, this is deplorable, but very true. For many years with deliberation I ruled women out of my life—but now ... !” “You are not then satisfied?” Absalom’s voice was edged with satire.
“But yes—ten thousand times—of course, I am !” The words tumbled over each other in nervous haste. “Forget my too childish talk. My friend, where should I be without you?”
“I wonder, Dimitri. Good-night.” Then the sound of steps going upstairs, and other steps approaching the drawingroom. Hector snatched up a book of verse, and was apparently deep in it when Absalom entered.
“Ah, Court, I thought everyone was in bed. What are you reading?”
There was no trace of suspicion in his tone. Hector gave him the book. He glanced at it, smiled faintly, and put it down.
“One of Anthea’s, I see, and no doubt very appropriate. She always liked verse, but lyrics are too remote from realities for my taste. Y ou are off for a day or so tomorrow?”
“If you don’t mind, sir.”
“It’s quite all right. Does that surprise you at all?”
“It would a little while ago.”
“But under existing circumstances you are not so surprised?”
Hector nodded. The sight of this man had roused all his antagonism, and the knowledge that his own brain was no match for Absalom’s made the feeling stronger. But now he might possibly learn something more. Dimitri’s plea stood out sharp in his mind.
“Well, that introduces the matter I was thinking of, and we might as well employ the next few minutes in making the situation a little clearer. With regard to Anthea, did I make it plain that you would be extremely rich—both of you?” “You just referred to it.”
“I put it very mildly. Court, I have several millions sterling for which I have no need. The source of them exists, as long as I do. I propose to settle that income on you and your children.”
Strange that this should sound empty and meaningless, but it did.
“It is a great deal of money,” said the young man quietly.
“It is, and I’ve earned it. I have, as you can understand, no next of kin except Anthea, whom I have legally constituted my heir. The documents are all in order, and deposited with the securities at my solicitor’s. That for the business side of it.”
“I see, sir.”
Absalom gave his chemical smile. “You take it with exceptional composure. Now, with regard to the more important and scientific angle, I wish to make one thing quite clear. I cannot undo the result of physical injury, let us say by accident, but I can protect you both againstq disease or the wastage of physical life as induced by age.
“I would remain as I am today, and feel all that I feel now?”
“Well, sir, I love Anthea, and she loves me. I don’t know what you yourself may have felt once, but I don’t want to go on living unless I go on feeling. Shall I be able to do that—to feel and care as I do now? I’d sooner burn out than rust out any day.”
Absalom’s pale lids lowered a fraction. “I’m a little surprised, Mr. Court.”
“That you should consider ceasing to love. Anthea, it seems, hasn’t made a very deep impression after all.”
Shrewd, but not quite shrewd enough. He had sidestepped. He could not say “yes” without lying, and he was afraid to lie in case his conversation with Dimitri had been overheard. Hector saw this in a flash and sidestepped himself.
“Well, sir,” he admitted, “that’s a pretty good answer.”
“I’m glad you’re satisfied. By all means talk fully to Mrs. Baxter. If she is not content she will tell you. Now, Mr. Court, there’s another side to the affair, but perhaps it will not be necessary to touch on that.”
“I think we ought to touch on everything.”
“As you wish. It’s the alternative—if you should not agree. I told you there was one.”
“Well, I’d like to know where I stand there, too.”
“I had not meant to say anything about it till you returned from town. It is simply this—if you and Anthea do not agree, my discovery ceases to be available for anyone else.”
“In addition to the present circle?” Hector got this out very evenly.
“Including the present circle.” Absalom spoke with a sort of bloodless indifference.
He had said it, but it sounded unbelievable. Anthea was right. And though Hector had expected this, had nerved himself to meet it, this announcement was, nevertheless, the most inhuman thing he had ever heard from mortal lips.
“Pretty hard on ’em, sir, isn’t it?” jerked out the young man.
“I don’t see that. I sell, and they buy. I cease to sell, and they cease to buy. My stock-in-trade is not ordinary. And sometimes, Court, the salesman gets tired of selling to old customers and wants a new one. The difference with Anthea and you is that you get the millions the others have paid.”
“I wasn’t thinking of millions.”
“If you were that sort, we would never have reached this point. Now I’ve said what probably wasn’t necessary to be said at all, but you wanted what you called the whole thing. Well, you’ve got it. I suggest that you forget the latter part. Would you care to see something interesting, or are you too sleepy?”
“Whatever you like to show me. I’m not sleepy.”
“Then I have a little work to do on Siak. Come alone.”
r’PHE laboratory was brilliantly lit, and its array of vertical cylinders stood in gleaming battalions, charged with mysterious gases and fluids of which only Absalom knew the secret. The door of the great glass dome was open. Absalom glanced at it, then picked up a brass spray such as one employs on rose trees, and" passed on to the outer enclosure.
Hector followed as in a dream. The moon shone clear, its pale beams slanting into the cage where the orang squatted.
At sight of Absalom the flat leathery ears began to twitch. As he thrust his weight forward, his vast chest expanded, and there issued a sharp-pitched note of anger. This increased in volume, throbbing with hate, and menacing beyond | description.q
“You can see for yourself,” said Absalom, quite undisturbed. “He has come to the same conclusion as Maktai, but expresses it differently. Maktai was also tired of life and merely became bored. Siak resents it. He is the only one of my circle who does.”
“I had almost decided that Siak should be obliterated also,” went on the cold voice, “but am keeping him for the present. It is more difficult in his case to know when treatment is needed.”
“You’re going to treat him now?” asked Hector thickly.
“In a moment.” He touched the brass spray. “This is a rather necessary preliminary—a certain gas. Its discovery was an accident—when something broke in the lab, since which it’s been most useful. Now watch his reactions.”
He inserted the nozzle between the bars, pressed the plunger, and there issued a fine jet of liquid that mixing with the air became instantly vaporized. This vapor, which had a faintly sweetish odor, and was visible as a thin bluish cloud, gradually permeated the cage, and rose to the level of Siak’s half-human face.
The great ape breathed it in. He appeared to like it, opening his jaws so that one saw a yawning cavern of throat. Simultaneously, the fire of anger subsided in the small, hot eyes. The vast muscles relaxed in chest and arms. He began to sway a little with a slow, weaving motion of his webbed fingers, and in a few moments was reduced to a sort of pleasurable stupor.
“That condition should last for several minutes, but a stronger dose might be fatal.” Saying this, Absalom nodded contentedly, opened the sliding door and stepped into the cage.
He was brave—perhaps with the bravery of fatalism—this man of science, and stood there, a small white hand on that titanic shoulder, looking at Hector with a smile that baffled interpretation. Master he seemed of man and beast. Several moments there were in which to do his will before the fury reawoke, but that would be enough. He betrayed no quiver of nerve, no halting of iron resolution. One sharp word in a foreign tongue, then he backed out of the cage, and beckoned.
Siak came on in a curious lurch, his feet turned in so that he rested on their horny edges, paws on the ground, half erect as though he were rising out of prehistoric murk to signalize one further step in the ascent to man from beast. On across the paved enclosure—on into the brilliant laboratory with Absalom just in front, till at last he halted by the great glass dome.
Here the brute hesitated. Another stinging word, and he scrambled in, feet slithering on the polished floor, and stood, hands grasping the chair exactly as his stuffed kindred in their glass cases grasp a simulated branch in the corridors of a museum.
Absalom closed the massive door and moved swiftly to the dial. Here he seemed to deliberate for an instant, as though pondering which way to turn that small black knob. Would he obliterate this captive giant, or keep him a while longer in his golden age?
Then a dry laugh, and there came the flicker that had enveloped Anthea. Sentence of death was postponed.
He wasted no time. The thing was done. The harpies of destruction in the ape’s breast were defeated again, and Siak was led back. But none too soon. At the clang of the sliding door he gave a snarl and lifted his formidable head.
“One has to be quick in this matter,” said the scientist coolly. “He nearly caught me the other night. Now, Court, good-by for a day or two. I’ll expect your definite answer when you get back, and please be careful of the traffic in town. In this case,” he added satirically, “it seems to be the man, not the lady, who needs pressing.”