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If Not Too Late!







From: The Crack Of Doom

When I came on deck next morning the coast of Arabia was rising, a thin
thread of hazy blue between the leaden grey of the sea and the soft grey
of the sky. The morning was cloudy, and the blazing sunlight was veiled
in atmospheric gauze. I had hardly put my foot on deck when Natalie
Brande ran to meet me. I hung back guiltily.

"I thought you would never come. There is dreadful news!" she cried.

I muttered some incoherent words, to which she did not attend, but went
on hurriedly:

"Rockingham has thrown himself overboard in a hysterical fit, brought on
by the heat. The sailors heard the splash--"

"I know they did." This escaped me unawares, and I instantly
prevaricated, "I have been told about that."

"Do you know that Herbert is ill?"

I could have conscientiously answered this question affirmatively also.
Her sudden sympathy for human misadventure jarred upon me, as it had
done once before, when I thought of the ostensible object of the cruise.
I said harshly:

"Then Rockingham is at rest, and your brother is on the road to it." It
was a brutal speech. It had a very different effect to that which I
intended.

"True," she said. "But think of the awful consequences if, now that
Rockingham is gone, Herbert should be seriously ill."

"I do think of it," I said stiffly. Indeed, I could hardly keep from
adding that I had provided for it.

"You must come to him at once. I have faith in you." This gave me a
twinge. "I have no faith in Percival" (the ship's doctor).

"You are nursing your brother?" I said with assumed carelessness.

"Of course."

"What is Percival giving him?"

She described the treatment, and as this was exactly what I myself would
have prescribed to put my own previous interference right, I promised to
come at once, saying:

"It is quite evident that Percival does not understand the case."

"That is exactly what I thought," Natalie agreed, leading me to Brande's
cabin. I found his vitality lower than I expected, and he was very
impatient. The whole purpose of his life was at stake, dependent on his
preserving a healthy body, on which, in turn, a vigorous mind depends.

"How soon can you get me up?" he asked sharply, when my pretended
examination was over.

"I should say a month at most."

"That would be too long," he cried. "You must do it in less."

"It does not depend on me--"

"It does depend on you. I know life itself. You know the paltry science
of organic life. I have had no time for such trivial study. Get me well
within three days, or--"

"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."

"You will--not."

"I tell you I will," Brande shrieked, starting up in his berth. "I could
do it now."

"You could--not."

"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."

"You can--not."

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.





Next: L5000 To Detain The Ship

Previous: Rockingham To The Sharks



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