Vaughan, Assistant Surgeon at St. Peggotty’s, was building himself a practice near Sloane Street. Loftie, pathologist, with the beginnings of a reputation, was—for he had married the unstable daughter of one of his earlier London landladies—bacteriological advisor to a Public Department, on five-hundred-and-seventy pounds per annum, and a prospect of being graded for pension. Ackerman, also a St. Peggotty’s man, had been left a few hundreds a year just after he had qualified, and so had given up all serious work except gastronomy and the allied arts.
Vaughan and Loftie knew of Harries’ luck, which Harries explained in detail at the dinner, and stated what, at the lowest count, his income would be.
‘Now,’ said he, ‘“Tacks” can tell you.’
Ackerman made himself small in his chair, as though it had been the shell-hole whence he had once engineered their retreat.
‘We know each other fairly well,’ he began. ‘We’ve seen each other stripped to the Ultimate Atom pretty often? We needn’t camouflage? Agreed? You’re always saying what you’d do if you were independent. Have you changed your minds?’
‘Not me,’ said Vaughan, whose oft-told dream was a nursing-home of his own near Sloane Street. He had marked the very house for it.
‘Do you think I’d keep on with this sewage job if it wasn’t for the pension?’ Loftie asked. He had followed research the more keenly since, at twenty-two, he had wrecked his own happiness.
‘Be free, then,’ said Ackerman. ‘Take three thousand——’
‘Hold on,’ Harries broke in plaintively. ‘I said “up to five.”’
‘Sorry, old man! I was trying for the commission. Take up to five thousand a year from Harries for as long as you choose—for life, if you like. Then research on your own lines, Loftie, and—and—let the Bull know if you stumble on anything. That’s the idea, isn’t it?’
‘Not all.’ Harries surged a little in his seat. ‘A man’s entitled to use a telescope as well as a microscope, isn’t he? Well—I’ve got notions I want to test. They mean keeping one’s eyes open and—logging the exact times that things happen.’
‘That’s what you said when you lectured our company about Astrology—that night under Arras. D’you mean “planetary influences?”’ Loftie spoke with a scientist’s scorn.
‘This isn’t my lecture.’ Harries flushed. ‘This is my gamble. We can’t tell on what system this dam’ dynamo of our universe is wound, but we know we’re in the middle of every sort of wave, as we call ’em. They used to be “influences.”’
‘Like Venus, Cancer, and that lot?’ Vaughan inquired.
‘Yes—if you choose. Now I want Vaughan to start his clinic, and give me a chance to test my notions occasionally. No! Not faith-healing! Loftie can worry his cells and tissues with radium as much as he likes. But——’
‘We’re only on the threshold of radium,’ Loftie snapped.
‘Then get off it!’ was the blasphemous retort. ‘Radium’s a post hoc, not a propter. I want you merely to watch some of your cellgrowths all round the clock. Don’t think! Watch—and put down the times of any changes you see.
‘Or imagine?’ Loftie supplemented.
‘You’ve got it. Imagination is what we want. This rigid “thinking” game is hanging up research. You told me yourself, the other night, it was becoming all technique and no advance,’ Harries ended.
‘That’s going too far. We’re on the edge of big developments.’
‘All the better! Take the money and go ahead. Think of your lab., Lofter! Stoves, filters, sterilisers, frigidaria—everything you choose to indent for!’
‘I’ve brought along Schermoltz’s last catalogue. You might care to look at it, later.’ Ackerman passed the pamphlet into Loftie’s stretched hand.
‘Five thousand a year,’ Loftie muttered and turned the enthralling pages. ‘God! What one could afford! . . . But I’m not worth the money, Bull. Besides, it’s robbery. . . . You’ll never arrive at anything by this astrology nonsense.’
‘But you may, on your lines. What do you suppose is the good of Research?’
‘God knows,’ Loftie replied, devouring the illustrations. ‘Only—only it looks—sometimes—as if He were going to tell.’
‘That’s all we want,’ Harries coaxed. ‘Keep your eye on Him, and if He seems inclined to split about anything, put it down.’
‘I’ve had my eye on that house for the last half-year. You could build out a lift-shaft at the back.’ Vaughan looked and spoke into the future.
Here the padrone came in to say that if more drinks were needed, they should be ordered.
Ackerman ordered; Harries stared at the fire; Loftie sank deeper into the catalogue; and Vaughan into his vision of the desirable house for his clinic. The padrone came back with a loaded tray.
‘It’s too much money to take—even from you, Bull.’ Vaughan’s voice was strained. ‘If you’d lend me a few hundred for my clinic, I could . . .’
Loftie came out of the catalogue and babbled to the same effect, while he reckoned up for just how many pounds a week the horror that defiled his life and lodgings could be honourably removed from both till it drank itself dead.
Harries reared up over them like a walrus affronted.
‘Do you remember the pill-box at Zillebeeke, and the skeleton in the door? Who pinched the bombs for us then?’ he champed.
‘Me and The Lofter,’ said Vaughan, sullen as a schoolboy.
‘Because we dam’ well needed ’em.’
‘We need ’em worse now! We’re up against the beggar in the pill-box. He’s called Death—if you’ve ever heard of him. This stuff of mine isn’t money, you imbeciles! It’s a service-issue—same as socks. We—we haven’t kept on saving each other’s silly lives for this! Oh, don’t let me down! Can’t you see?’ The big voice quavered.
‘Kamerad, Bull! I’ll come in,’ said Loftie. Vaughan’s hands had gone up first, and he was the first to recover himself, saying: ‘What about “Tacks?” He isn’t let off, is he?’
‘No. I’m going to make commission out of the lot of you,’ said Ackerman. ‘Meantime! Come on, me multi-millionaires! The Bald-headed Beggar in the pill-box is old, but the night is yet young.’
The effects of five thousand a year are stimulating.
A mere Cabinet Minister, dependent on elections for his place, looking in on a Committee where Loftie was giving technical evidence, asked in too loud a whisper, if that all-but-graded Civil Servant were ‘one of my smell-and-tell temporaries.’ Loftie’s resignation was in that evening. Vaughan, assisted by an aunt, started a little nursing-home near Sloane Street, where his new household napery lift and drying-cupboards almost led to his capture by ‘just the kind of girl, my dear, to make an ideal wife for a professional man.’
Harries continued to observe the heavens, and commissioned Ackerman to find a common meeting-place. This—Simson House was its name—had been a small boys’ school in a suburb without too many trams. Ackerman put in floods of water, light and power, an almost inspired kitchen-range, a house-man and his cook-wife, and an ex-Navy petty rating as valet-plumber, steward-engineer, and butler-electrician; set four cots in four little bedrooms, and turned the classroom in the back garden into a cement-floored hall of great possibilities, which Harries was the first to recognise. He cut off a cubicle at one end of it, where he stored books, clocks, and apparatus. Next, Loftie clamoured for a laboratory and got it, dust and air-tight, with lots of the Schermoltz toys laid out among taps and sinks and glass shelves. Hither he brought various numbered odds-and-ends which Vaughan and other specialists had sent him in the past, and on which, after examination, he had pronounced verdicts of importance to unknown men and women. Some of the samples—mere webs of cancerous tissue—he had, by arts of his own, kept alive in broths and salts after sentence had been executed on their sources of origin.
There were two specimens—Numbers 127 and 128—from a rarish sort of affliction in exactly the same stage of development and precisely the same position, in two women of the same age and physique, who had come up to Vaughan on the same afternoon, just after Vaughan had been appointed Assistant Surgeon at St. Peggotty’s. And when the absurdly identical operations were over, a man, whose praise was worth having, but whose presence had made Vaughan sweat into his palms, had complimented him. So far as St. Peggotty’s knew, both cases were doing well several months after. Harries found these samples specially interesting, and would pore over them long times on end, for he had always used the microscope very neatly.
‘Suppose you watch what these do for a while,’ he suggested to Loftie one day.
‘I know what they’ll do well enough,’ the other returned. He was hunting a line of his own in respect to brain-cells.
‘Then couldn’t you put Frost on to watch ’em with a low-power lens?’ Harries went on. ‘He’s a trained observer in his own line. What? Of course he’s at your disposition, old man. You could make anything of him. Oh, by the way, do you happen to remember what time of day you operated on One-twenty-Seven and Eight?’
‘Afternoon, of course—at St. Peggotty’s—between three and five. It’s down somewhere.’
‘It don’t matter. I only wanted to get an idea. Then you’ll turn on Frost to watch ’em? Thanks awfully.’
Frost, the valet-plumber, etc., was ex-captain of a turret, with the hard blue eye of the born gunlayer—a middle-aged, uncomely man, no mean mechanic, and used to instruments of precision. He liked sitting in a warm room, looking through a microscope at what he called ‘muckings,’ with instructions to ‘watch ’em all round the clock and log all changes.’ But no sooner did he begin than Loftie, jealous as two women, and knowing what beginner’s luck may do, stood watch and watch with him. Loftie was in hard work on his brain-cells, and the monotony of this sentry-go made him fear that his mind might build theories on self-created evidence. So he told Frost, after a while, that the whole thing was absurd, as well as bad for the eyes. ‘Isn’t it?’ he added.
‘I don’t know how it is with you, sir,’ Frost replied. ‘It sometimes makes me feel as if I were seeing a sort of ripple strike up along the edges of ’em. Like broken water, with the sun tipping it. Like Portland Race in open-and-shut weather.’
‘That’s eye-strain. But when does it come on—with you?’
‘Sometimes through the middle watch—from twelve to four a.m. Then, again, it will come on through the first and second dog-watches—four to eight p.m., sir.’
‘No matter which—what sample—you are looking at?’ Loftie asked keenly.
‘I’d say it depended on the sample. Now, One-twenty-Eight—’seems to me—plays up in the middle watch—from midnight on—and One-twenty-Seven in the afternoon. I’ve logged it all.’
Three months later, at Simson House, Loftie told the others that, while not in the least departing from his own theories, there was a phenomenon, which for the sake of brevity he would call ‘tide,’ in Samples 127 and 128. It occurred at certain hours, which had all been noted and passed on to Harries—‘for what that may be worth.’
Harries smiled, and hired an expensive expert to photo the two samples and film them; which took several weeks and cost some hundreds of pounds. They all checked the magnified ‘tides’ by some curious tables which Harries had worked out—‘for what that’s worth,’ as Loftie said.
Harries said it was worth the expense, and took to spending a good deal of his leisure at Simson House. Vaughan, too, reeking of ether, would put in for shelter there, as the hunt after him (which his aunt whipped) quickened with his successes. Loftie had been almost a fixture in his lab. from the first; and poor ‘Tacks,’ who could no more have made a dishonest penny than he could have saved an honest one, catered for them so lavishly that even the cook shied at the weekly bills, which Harries flatly refused to audit.
Three months after their first film’s ‘release,’ Loftie read them a typed paper before dinner, asserting there was ‘tide ‘ in the normal cells of all tissues which he and his helper, Frost, had observed; but he could see no sign of ‘tide’ in the malignant areas. He detailed tests and observations till they yawned. Then Frost ran the latest film for them—in slow and quick time—and they sat round the fire.
‘I’m not committing myself to anything,’ said Loftie, speaking like a badly-shaken human being, ‘but every dam’ tissue up till now seems to have its own time for its own tides. Samples from the same source have the same tides in strength and time. But, as I showed you just now, there are minute constant variations—reactions to something or other—in each tide, as individual as finger-prints. I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it except to you. But I know it’s so.’
‘What do you suppose it means?’ Vaughan half-whispered.
‘As I read it,’ Harries spoke quietly, ‘the minor differences in those “tides” in the tissues are due to interferences with the main or external influence—whichever it may be—which sets up, or which is, the main tide in all matter. They both come from without. Not within.’
‘How far out?’ Vaughan asked.
‘’Can’t tell—yet—to a few light-years. I’ve been trying to disentangle the minor interferences or influences—which may be due to the nearer—er—influences—from the main tide. In my opinion——’
‘Stop!’ Loftie cried shrilly. ‘You swore us all not to theorise before a year.’
‘Hear me out! I’ve verified some of my calculations at my end of the game, and they justify me in saying that . . . we are all justified in getting tight to-night.’
So, then, they did: being drunk with the ferment of their own speculations before they went to table. Loftie, whom Ackerman confined to strong beer as best for tired brain-cells, rose up above the savoury, and said that he was ‘the Servant of the Infil-tresimally Minute, but not of that fat tape-worm, Tacks.’ Harries described to them the vasts of the Ultimate Heavens fizzing in spirals ‘with—or rather like—champagne,’ but all one generating station of one Power drawn from the Absolute, and of one essence and substance with all things. Then he slept soundly. Vaughan—the professional man—merely wanted to telephone for a taxi that he might drive to discredit a hated West End rival by calling him to his bedroom window and there discussing ‘dichotomy’—a hard word at 3 A.M.
Then they packed Loftie off for a month’s holiday, with a cubic metre of seven-and-sixpenny detective novels, plus Vaughan’s aunt to see that he ate and dressed properly. On his return, he began certain experiments with mice, which Frost took charge of in the boiler-room, because he remembered when their ancestors served in the earliest submarines. It seemed that ‘tides’ worked in their tissues also; but slipped a little round the clock according to the season of each litter’s birth.
And there were born to them mice among mice with prodigious ‘tides.’ Some of these, inoculated at the flood, threw off the trouble, and were promoted by Frost to the rating of pets. Treated on their lowest ebbs, they perished less quickly than the average. Harries kept careful count of their times in all things and ways, and had Frost sling some of their cages on various compass-bearings or set them out in moonlight or thunderstorms.
This last was too much for Loftie, who returned once more to the legitimate drama of cultures and radium emanations, and the mysteries of malignant cells which never acknowledge any ‘tide.’ At the end of three weeks, he, and Frost, broke off the campaign.
He said to Harries one evening after watching their usual film: ‘What do you suppose germs think of?’
‘If you’ve got as far as that,’ was the answer, ‘you’ll develop an imagination one day.’
Then Vaughan came in full of trouble. His matron had been immobilised by sciatica, and his household staff had taken base advantages. He needed at once, some table-napkins, some bathtowels, two jacketed water jugs and a metal—not china—bedroom breakfast-set. Ackerman said he would speak to Frost and see what could be spared from the ship.
While they were laughing at Vaughan, St. Peggotty’s rang him up. He replied: ‘Well, well! If it was coming, it was to be expected now. . . . One of my beds empty? . . . You can have it. . . . Send her over to me. . . . You must! . . I’ll warn my people to expect her? . . . Oh? That’s all right. . . . I’ll send the car. . . . Yes, and all other expenses. . . . Because I operated on her originally, of course. We’ll expect her at nine, then. . Righto! . . . Not in the least. Thank you, old man.’
He then telephoned his home to prepare for a patient, and returned to the still circle by the fire.
‘It’s one of those twin cases of mine,’ he explained. ‘One of ’em’s back again. Recurrence—in the scar—after eighteen months.’
‘That means?’ said Harries.
‘With that particular kind of trouble—three—five months’ reprieve—perhaps. Then final recurrence. The other one’s all right, so far, they say.’
‘She would be. This one is One-twenty-Eight,’ said Loftie.
‘How do you make that out?’
Frost had entered and was going through Vaughan’s indent with Ackerman.
‘Frost, what is One-twenty-Eight’s timing?’ Loftie interposed.
‘One-two-Eight, sir? Flood from midnight till four a.m.—ebb from four to eight p.m. . . Yes, sir, I can make the table-linen all right, and the jugs. But we’re short on bath-towels just now.’
‘Would it prove anything if she lasted out nine months?’ Harries picked up the thread of talk with Vaughan.
‘No. There are rallies and reserves.’
‘A full year?’
‘I should accept that. But I know who wouldn’t.’ Vaughan gave a great name.
‘Thanks for reminding me,’ said Ackerman over his shoulder. ‘Frost, the bathroom hotwater pipe has got arterial sclerosis, too. Operate on it.’
‘When shall you operate, Taffy?’ Harries held on.
‘To-morrow at a quarter to ten. I always feel fittest then.’
‘Think of the patient for a change. Suppose you stand-to at a few minutes to midnight tomorrow? I’ll telephone you zero from here.’
Vaughan seemed a shade taken aback. ‘Midnight? Oh, certainly,’ he said. ‘But I’ll have to warn my anaesthetist.’
‘And Ferrers ’ll swear you’ve taken to drink or drugs,’ said Ackerman. ‘Besides, think of your poor matron and the nurse who’s got to have her evening off? Much better let the woman conk out in Trades Union hours, Taffy.’
‘Dry up, padrone,’ said Loftie. ‘No need to bring in Ferrers. I’ll take his place—if you think I’m safe.’
Since this was as if Raeburn had volunteered to prime a canvas for Benjamin West, Vaughan accepted, and they sat down to eat.
When he and Loftie had refreshed their memories of One-two-Eight’s construction and arrangements, they asked Harries why he had chosen that time for the operation. Harries said that by his reckonings it should fall nearer the woman’s birthday. His guess at its actual date he wrote down and was passing it to Vaughan, when Vaughan’s Nursing Home reported the arrival of the patient, not unduly fatigued and most anxious to thank ‘Doctor’ Vaughan for the amazing kindness which had rescued her from the open ward.
The table listened to Vaughan’s reply, soothing and sustaining, and, by tone, assuming the happiest issue out of this annoying little set-back. When he hung up, he said: ‘She—wants it the day after to-morrow, because that’s her birthday. She thinks it ’ll be lucky.’
‘Make it midnight, then, of the day after tomorrow, and look at the date I wrote down. . . . No! The Devil has nothing to do with it. By the way—if it won’t cramp your style—could you set the table on——’ Harries gave a compass bearing.
‘Don’t be shy,’ said Ackerman. ‘He’d stand her on her head to operate now, if the Bull told him. Are you off, Taffy? Frost ’ll put all your towels and pots in a taxi. ’Sorry if I’ve hurt your feelings.’
Loftie’s account of the operation did not interest Frost so much as the samples he brought back. It took both of them three or four days to plant them out properly. In return, Frost told Loftie that ‘our end of the show,’ with Major Harries at the sidereal clock, waiting ‘till the sights came on,’ and Captain Ackerman at the telephone, waiting to pass the range to Captain Vaughan in Sloane Street, was ‘just like Jutland.’
‘Now, this lady of ours,’ he said after a busy silence. ‘How would she lie in her bed?’
Loftie gave a bearing which he had heard Harries give Vaughan.
‘I expect Major Harries knows, if anyone,’ was Frost’s placid comment. ‘It’s the same as ships’ compasses varying according as their heads lay when they were building.’
‘It’s crazy mad. That’s all!’
‘Which was what the Admiralty said at first about steam in the Navy,’ Frost grinned.
He put away a set of sealed cover-glasses and reverently returned some lenses to their velvet shrines.
‘Not to talk of that lady of ours—’ he straightened up as he spoke—‘some of my mice aren’t behaving as I could wish.’
‘Which?’ said Loftie. There were several types of experiments under way.
‘One or two of some that recovered after inoculation—since discharged and promoted to pets. But it looks as if they’d had a relapse. They’re highly restless—always trying to escape out—as if they were wild, not white. I don’t like it.’
‘Clean up, then,’ Loftie answered, ‘and we’ll go down to the boiler-room.’
In one of the cages there, a doe with a plum-coloured saddle was squeaking, as she strove desperately to work through the wires with semitransparent hand-like forefeet. Frost set the cage on a table under an electric and handed her dossier to Loftie. This gave her birth, age, date and nature of inoculation, date also when her system seemed to have cleared itself of the dose; and, of course, the times and strengths of her ‘tides.’ It showed dead-ebb for her at that hour.
‘What does she think she’s doing?’ Loftie whispered. ‘It isn’t her natural squeak, either.’
They watched. She laboured increasingly at the barrier; sat up as though most intently listening; leaped forward and tore into her task beneath the glare of the basement-bulb.
‘Turn it out,’ said Loftie. ‘It’s distressing her.’
Frost obeyed. In a few seconds the little noises changed to a flutter and ceased.
‘I thought so! Now we’ll look again,’ said Loftie. ‘Oh! Oh! God!’
‘Too late,’ Frost cried. ‘She’s broke her neck! Fair broken her pretty little neck between the wires! How did she do it?’
‘In convulsion,’ Loftie stammered. ‘Convulsion at the last. She pushed and pushed with her head in the wires and that acted as a wedge . . . and . . . what do you think?’
‘I expect I’m thinking pretty much the same as you are, sir.’ Frost replaced the cage under the leads and fuses which he had painted man-o’war fashion. ‘It looks like two tides meeting,’ he added. ‘That always sets up a race, and a race is worst at ebb. She must have been caught on her ebb—an’ knocked over! Pity! There ought to be some way of pulling ’em through it.’
‘Let’s see if there isn’t,’ said Loftie, and lifted out the tiny warm body with a needed droplet of blood on the end of the nose.
One-two-Eight (Mrs. Berners) made a good recovery, and since she seemed alone in the world, Vaughan said that, as payment, she must stay on in his home and complete it to his satisfaction. She was touchingly grateful. After a few months (her strength returning) she asked to do something for her benefactors. No one seemed to look after the linen at Mr. Vaughan’s. Might she repair, count, store, and, even, give it out—for she had had experience in that line as a housekeeper. Her prayer was granted, and the work of getting at the things Vaughan had started the Home with; had bought, but had never entered; had raided from Ackerman, and thought—or worse, was quite sure—that he had sent back; or had lost by laundries and through servants, did her good. It also brought her over to Simson House to return things to Frost, where Harries and Ackerman complimented her on her appearance, and Loftie asked her to administer his chance-bought body-linen. She was delighted. She told them that, when she had nothing to do, she mostly felt in people’s way, and as if she ought to go on elsewhere. Loftie asked her why. She answered that, when her troubles were on her, they kept her busy, if it was only at trying not to cry. But now that they had been removed and by such kind gentlemen—the busiest day was none too full for her. She had a trick of tossing her head sideways and upwards, sometimes in the midst of her overseeing, and would say: ‘Well, well! I can’t keep at this all the time. I must be off elsewhere where I’m wanted’—Loftie’s Home or Simson House as the case might be.
They discussed her at long and at large, one evening, throughout a film which—Vaughan and Loftie collaborating—was based on her more recent productions.
Vaughan was well satisfied. ‘You see! Nothing has struck back. I know that her strength—notice how the tides have steadied—and our new blankets weigh a bit, too—is above normal. She has covered seven months and twenty-three days, and—I tell you—her scar is simply beautiful.’
‘We’ll take your word,’ said Harries. ‘Now bring on your mouse-film, Loftie.’
And Loftie, while Frost slowed, speeded, or went back at command, spoke of mice that had recovered apparently from certain infections, but had fallen later into a characteristic unease, followed by nervous crises—as shown—culminating in what seemed to be attempts at suicide.
In every case where an attempt had succeeded, the vacuoles—the empty centres—which do not take stain—of the brain-cells over a minute area seemed to have blown out, apparently as(‘This’ll interest you, I know. I hired it from the Dominion Weather Bureau last week.’) asa house explodes through its own windows under the vacuum set up by a tornado. They then beheld a three-storey, clapboarded hotel vomiting itself outwards, while the black hook of a tornado’s tip writhed and fished above it.
Sometimes, Loftie went on, an affected mouse would recover, after nervous upheavals very like those of tetanus—as they had seen—followed by collapse and amazingly sub-normal temperatures, and then a swift resumption of normal life. They could draw their own conclusions.
Ackerman broke their stillness. ‘Frost, go back, please, to that bit showing the movement of their heads when the attacks are coming on.’ Frost began again.
‘Who’s that like?’ Ackerman called out suddenly. ‘Am I wrong?’
‘No, sir,’ Frost groaned out of the dark. Then they all saw.
‘“Well, I can’t stay here! I’ve got to move on elsewhere where I’m wanted,”’ Ackerman quoted half-aloud. ‘And her hands working! The forefeet—I mean her hands! Look! It’s her!’
‘That’s exactly her listening attitude, too,’ said Harries. ‘I never noticed it before.’
‘Why would you—with nothing to check it by?’ said Loftie. ‘What does it mean?’
‘It means she’s as likely as not to chuck herself under a lorry some day, between here and Sloane Street,’ Frost interrupted, as though he had full knowledge and right.
‘How do you know?’ Vaughan began. ‘She’s absolutely normal.’
The flexes of the camera had not been disconnected, so they were still darkling.
‘She’s not! She’s all astray. God knows where she’s straying; but she’s not here, more’n the dead.’ Frost repacked the camera and went out. They gathered round Harries.
‘As I read it,’ he laid down, after some preliminaries, ‘she has been carried yes, tided—over the time that her trouble ought to have finished her. That is two or three months now, isn’t it, Taffy? But, she wasn’t saved by the knife. She was saved by the knife at the proper time of tide.’
‘She has lasted seven months and twenty-three days. Most unusual, I grant, with that type of growth; but not conclusive,’ was Vaughan’s retort.
‘Hear me out. Qua Death, as created. or evolved, on this planet (He needn’t exist elsewhere, you know), and especially qua the instrument of decay that was to kill her, she’s some odd weeks owing to the grave. But, qua the influence—tide, if you like—external to this swab of culture which we call our world, she has been started on a new tide of life. The gamble is that, after crises, something like those we’ve seen in the mice, that tide may carry her beyond the—er—the demand of the grave. It’s beginning to be pull-devil, pull-baker between ’em now, I should imagine.’
‘I see your line, Bull,’ said Loftie. ‘When ought her crises to be due? Because—it’s all as insane as the rest—but there may be an off-chance of——’
‘The suicidal tendency comes first,’ said Ackerman. ‘Why not have her watched when she goes out? Taffy’s nurses can keep an eye on her indoors.’
‘You’ve been reading my sleuth-tales,’ Loftie smiled.
‘Make it so, then. Any decent inquiry-agency would undertake it, I suppose,’ said Harries.
‘I’ll leave the choice to Frost. I’ll only take the commission. We’re in for a wildish time. She’s a woman—not a white mouse!’ Ackerman said, and added thoughtfully: ‘But the champion ass, as distinguished from mere professional fool, of us all, is Taffy!’
Vaughan had ordered her never to go afoot between Simson House and the Nursing Home, and, also, to take taxis to and from her little ‘exercise walks’ in the parks, where she so often picked up the nice elderly lady’s-maid with the pom, the sales-lady from the Stores, and other well-spoken lady strangers near her own class (at ever so many shillings an hour). Of Mr. Frost she saw but little that summer, owing to the pressure of his duties and some return, they told her, of rheumatism contracted in the defence of his country. The worst that came to her was a slight attack of stiff neck, caught from sitting in a draught. As to her health, she admitted that sometimes she felt a bit flustered in the head, but otherwise could not be better.
She was recounting her mercies, a little fulsomely as usual, to Loftie one afternoon in the common-room of Simson House, where she had brought him some new shirts marked. Frost had taken them upstairs, and Loftie had hinted that he must get back to his work. She flicked her head sideways and said that she was busy, too. In the same breath, but in a whisper, she ran on ‘I don’t want to die, Mr. Loftie. But I’ve got to. I’ve reelly got to get out of this. I’m wanted elsewhere, but’—she shivered—‘I don’t like going.’
Then she raced, with lowered head, straight towards the wall. Loftie snatched at her dress, turned her, so that she struck the wall with her shoulder and fell—and Frost came down to find him grappling with her, not inexpertly.
She broke away and skimmed across the room. Frost ran and tripped her, and brought her down. She would have beaten her head on the floor, but he jerked it up, his palm beneath her chin, and dragged her to her feet. Then he closed.
She was silent, absorbed in this one business of driving to the nearest wall through whatever stood between. Small and fragile though she was, she flung the twelve-stone Frost clear of her again and again; and a side-pushing stroke of her open palm spun Loftie half across the hall. The struggle lasted without a break, but her breath had not quickened, when like a string she relaxed, repeating that she did not want to die. As she cried to Loftie to hold her, she slipped away between them, and they had to chase her round the furniture.
They backed her down on the couch at last, Loftie clinging to her knees, while Frost’s full strength and weight forced the thin arms over her head. Again the body gave, and the low, casual whisper began: ‘After what you said outside Barker’s in the wet, you don’t think I reelly want to die. Mr. Frost? I don’t—not a mite. But I’ve got to. I’ve got to go where I’m wanted.’
Frost had to kneel on her right arm then, holding her left down with both hands. Loftie, braced against the sofa, mastered her feet, till the outbreak passed in shudders that shook all three. Her eyes were shut. Frost raised an eyelid with his thumb and peered closely.
‘Lor’!’ said she, and flushed to the temples. The two shocked men leapt clear at once. She lifted a hand to her disordered hair. ‘Who’s done this?’ she said. ‘Why’ve I come all over like this? I ought to be busy dying.’ Loftie was ready to throw himself on her again, but Frost held up a hand.
‘You can suit yourself about that, Mrs. Berners,’ he said. ‘What I’ve been at you all this time to find out is, what you’ve done with our plated toast-rack, towels, etcetera.’
He shook her by the shoulders, and the rest of her pale hair descended.
‘One plated toast-rack and two egg-cups, which went over to Mr. Vaughan’s on indent last April twenty-eighth, together with four table-napkins and six sheets. I ask because I’m responsible for ’em at this end.’
‘But I’ve got to die.’
‘So we’ve all, Mrs. Berners. But before you do, I want to know what you did with. . . .’ He repeated the list and the date. ‘You know the routine between the houses as well as I do. I sent ’em by Mr. Ackerman’s orders, on Mr. Vaughan’s indent. When do you check your linen? Monthly or quarterly?’
‘Quarterly. But I’m wanted elsewhere.’
‘If you aren’t a little more to the point, Mrs. Berners, I’ll tell you where you will be wanted before long, and what for. I’m not going to lose my character on account of your carelessness—if no worse. An’ here’s Mr. Loftie. . . .’
‘Don’t drag me in,’ Loftie whispered, with male horror.
‘Leave us alone! I know me class, sir. . . . Mr. Loftie who has done everything for you.’
‘It was Mr. Vaughan. He wouldn’t let me die.’ She tried to stand, fell back, and sat up on the couch.
‘You won’t get out of it that way. Cast back in your memory and see if you can clear yourself!’ Frost began anew, scientifically as a female inquisitor; mingling details, inferences, dates, and innuendoes with reminders of housekeeping ritual: never overwhelming her, save when she tried to ride off on her one piteous side-issue, but never accepting an answer. Painfully, she drew out of her obsession, protesting, explaining, striving to pull her riven wits into service; but always hunted from one rambling defence to the next, till, with eyes like those of a stricken doe, she moaned: ‘Oh, Fred! Fred! The only thing I’ve ever took—you said so outside Barker’s—was your own ’ard ’eart.’
Frost’s face worked, but his voice was the petty-officer’s with the defaulter.
‘No such names between us, Mrs. Berners, till this is settled.’
He crumpled his wet eyes, as though judging an immense range. Then observed deliberately
‘’Ask me—I’d say you’re a common thief.’
She stared at him for as long as a shell might take to travel to an horizon. Then came the explosion of natural human wrath—she would not stoop to denial, she said—till, choking on words of abuse, she hit him weakly over the mouth, and dropped between his feet.
‘She’s come back!’ said Frost, his face transfigured. ‘What next?’
‘My room. Tell Cook to put her to bed. Fill every hot-water bottle we’ve got, and warm the blankets. I’ll telephone the Home. Then we’ll risk the injections.’
Frost slung her, limp as a towel, over his shoulder, and, turning, asked: ‘This—all these symptoms don’t need to be logged, sir—do they? We—we know something like ’em?’
Loftie nodded assent.
She came up shuddering out of the seven days’ chill of the cheated grave, and Vaughan’s nurses told her what a dreadful thing was this ‘suppressed influenza’ which had knocked her out, but that she might report for duty in a few weeks. Ackerman, who loved Vaughan more than the others put together, testified on their next film-night that Taffy was almost worthy to be called a medical man for his handling of the case.
‘Tacks,’ said Vaughan kindly, ‘you are as big a dam’ fool about my job as I was about Frost. I injected what the Lofter gave me, at the times that Harries told me. The rest was old wives’ practice.’
‘She always looked like a wet hen,’ said Harries. ‘Now she goes about like a smiling sheep. I wish I’d seen her crises. Did you or Frost time ’em, Lofter?’
‘It wasn’t worth it,’ was the light answer. ‘Just hysteria. But she’s covered her full year now. D’you suppose we’ve held her?’
‘I should say yes. I don’t know how you feel, but’—Vaughan beamed—‘the more I see of her scar, the more pleased I am. Ah! That was a lovely bit of work, even if I am only a carpenter, Tacks!’
‘But, speaking with some relation to ordinary life, what does all this lunacy of ours prove?’ Ackerman demanded.
‘Not a dam’ thing, except that it may give us some data and inferences which may serve as some sort of basis for some detail of someone else’s work in the future,’ Harries pronounced. ‘The main point, as I read it, is that it makes one—not so much think—Research is gummed up with thinking—as imagine a bit.’
‘That’ll be possible, too—by the time Frost and I have finished with this film,’ said Loftie.
It included a sequence of cultures, from mice who had overcome their suicidal fits, attenuated through a human being who, very obligingly, in the intervals of running the camera, described the effects of certain injections on his own rugged system. The earlier ones, he admitted, had ‘fair slung him round the deck.’
‘It was chuck it and chance it,’ Loftie apologised. ‘You see, we couldn’t tell, all this summer, when Mrs. Berners might play up for the grave. So I rather rushed the injections through Frost. I haven’t worked out my notes yet. You’ll get ’em later.’
He stayed to help Frost put back some of the more delicate gear, while the others went to change.
‘Not to talk about that lady of ours,’ Frost said presently. ‘My first—though, of course, her mother never warned me—drank a bit. She disgraced me all round Fratton pretty much the whole of one commission. And she died in Lock ’Ospital. So, I’ve had my knock.’
‘Some of us seem to catch it. I’ve had mine, too,’ Loftie answered.
‘I never heard that. But’—the voice changed—‘I knew it—surer than if I’d been told.’
‘Yes. God help us!’ said Loftie, and shook his hand. Frost, not letting go of it, continued ‘One thing more, sir. I didn’t properly take it in at the time—not being then concerned—but—that first operation on that lady of mine, was it of a nature that’ll preclude—so to say—expectations of—of offspring?’
‘Absolutely, old man,’ Loftie’s free hand dropped on Frost’s shoulder.
‘Pity! There ought to be some way of pulling ’em through it—somehow—oughtn’t there?’