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FOR some while after that inspection of Mirzarbeau's laboratory things went on quietly enough, and I soon ceased to think of the professor's wild theories. Practical enjoyment of life was good enough for me, and in one way or another I manage to get my full share of it. Amongst other things I got an invitation for a week's trout-fishing with an old school-fellow who lived on Dartmoor; a chance that I accepted with some pleasure, and a few afternoons later saw me at Waterloo station, en route for Devonshire. As luck would have it, I missed the train, and in consequence, had to spend a couple of hours in waiting till there should be another. For a long time I amused myself with watching the bustling crowds about me; it was holiday time, and the place very full of people. Great stacks of luggage were piled everywhere; and the "By your leave; by your leave, please," of the porters rose incessantly above the hum of talking, as train-load after train-load was despatched.
I had waited for an hour or more and my interest was beginning to pall, when I fancied I saw Dornton on a distant platform. Pleased at the prospect of some one to chatter to, I raced across the bridge intent on meeting him.
As I ran along I saw him disappearing out of the doorway; but determined, now that I had pursued so far, not to have my chase for nothing, I followed, and caught him up just as he reached the cross-road below the station— Stamford Street, I think, was the name of it.
"I'll come back and wait about with you," said he, when I had pantingly explained my situation. " Two at a refreshment-bar can while away time pretty rapidly. I. . . why, where have we got to?"
I echoed the question. There was no station visible!
"This is ridiculous," said he, after looking about him. "We must ask the way."
"Waterloo station," said a policeman of whom we inquired, "is, as you might have seen, unless yer ain't got no eyes, right slap-bang in front. And if ... "
He stopped suddenly and stared vacantly before him, opening and shutting his mouth like a fish. " Well, I'm damned," he muttered. "Why, I can't see it!"
"Where is the station?" I demanded; for he was now silent, gazing stupidly at a great space of blank ground, across which distant signals and trains were visible.
"It ought to be there," he said. "Ought to be. It is, in course; but I can't see it. I must have got 'em, though I sees no snakes. And, my Gawd, here's the inspector coming 1"
The police inspector seemed to have lost his bearing also. He, too, stopped and stared blankly in front of him.
"Higgins," said he to our man, "do I look blind or paralytic? "
"No, sir; not at all, sir," returned the constable trembling.
"Then where the how the— why the— where is Waterloo station?"
"Dunno, sir," the policeman answered helplessly.
"Something unusual this. Better investigate and report," said the inspector. Then the two of them set off up the roadway, to where the station had certainly seemed to be a moment before.
"This must be some extraordinary optical delusion, Dornton," said I. "Come on."
He made no answer. He looked to be puzzling about something.
The two policemen were just ahead of us. I noted the inspector's back and how stout he seemed to be. I was about to call Dornton's attention to him, with a rather neat remark upon the ratio between adipose tissue and promotion in the police force, when the man suddenly and absolutely disappeared! Disappeared! The next instant the constable did the like.
There was no fading or anything of that sort; one moment the man was distinct and within touch of me, the next he had absolutely vanished!
"My God!" I cried. "Am I mad, or what?"
Dornton pulled me violently backwards. "Stop," he almost screamed, "stop! Back— back! I guess what has happened now! Run for your life!"
He dragged at my arm. A mad, unreasoning terror seized me, and I ran down the hill like a hare, not stopping till I had reached the roadway. Here a crowd was rapidly collecting, half a hundred people or more, all staring stupidly at the spot where Waterloo station ought to stand. There was no smoke or fog hiding the station, the blank space in front of us was absolutely clear and level, and away over its monotonous greyness we could see quite plainly the distant houses, and the black line of a gathering crowd. To the right the great signal-box, bridging the permanent way, stood out against the sky-line, distinct enough, except where the steam of a halted train blurred it: everything was just where it should be except the station.
There was a heavy rumble overhead as a train crossed the bridge leading to the junction-station. It, too, disappeared, instantaneously as the policemen had done.
There was silence in the crowd. A few curious folk walked up to try and solve the mystery. They did not come back, but vanished like the others.
Then, suddenly, there was a panic, a mad, wild rush to escape from some unknown terror that seemed to be in the air.
Dornton and I fled with the rest. I don't know how he felt; but I seemed to be perilously near to madness; and so, I think, were many others in that panic-stricken crowd. We ran for a considerable distance, tumbling over each other in our haste, trampling each other under foot without pause or thought, until the stampede gradually worked itself out, and we began to ask ourselves what we ran from. And since each man's answer to this was Nothing, first one and then another dropped out of the race and began to retrace his steps, each a good deal ashamed.
Every one now began to grow curious, so that presently there was quite a crush in the opposite direction, and borne along in this, Dornton and I gradually found ourselves struggling into York Street again. Here a cordon of police had in the meantime been drawn, so that the wildest rumours were afloat as to what had happened, the general one tending to a theory that the Anarchists were in some way involved, and that a diabolically powerful new explosive had annihilated the station. So far as we could see no one was anywhere near the affected area— some terror seemed to overhang it— no one was anxious to do more than stare at it from afar.
A very big crowd had by now collected; it was just about five o'clock, and the people who lived down the line, city men silk-hatted and carrying hand-bags, city girls dressed in black, with huge gaily-coloured hats, were collecting. It was a curious gathering this crowd, its members all so much of a type.
Mostly they were very cross, asking indignantly how they were to get home. Whatever might have happened to the station was no immediate concern of theirs, they were almost indifferent about that; the great idea seemed to be to lynch the station-master because of the inconvenience. Gradually, however, this feeling gave way to one of levity; it amused them to see the faces of fresh arrivals as they heard the news.
Dornton and I stood with the crowd. I eyed him curiously more than once; it had suddenly occurred to me to connect him with the affair in some way, though I had really no cause for so doing beyond the fact that he had left the station just before its disappearance, and that he was supposed to be a member of the mysterious Finis Mundi society. I was thus watching him, keenly anxious for some sign that might enhance or alleviate my dread suspicions, when a hansom came galloping into the crowd. It was brought up sharp by the police.
"No good, sir," I heard one of the policemen say— "there's no more trains to catch."
"I do not want to catch a train," replied the occupant of the cab. "I want something else."
I knew the voice: it was Professor Mirzarbeau who was now alighting, extremely angry at being stopped.
Dornton nudged me. "The man who did it! " he whispered.
"Rubbish," I answered. "Why, he has only just come."
Mentally I added that my suspicions of my companion seemed in a fair way of being proved.
The professor forced his way through the police, saying that he was a man of science come to investigate.
"You won't investigate up there, though," said a mounted officer, shivering as he looked to where the station had been. "Not unless you're intending suicide. In which case " . . .
"Peste!" exclaimed the professor. "You are ignorant. There is no danger. I know there is no danger. It is an accident, now over."
Then as they still restrained him he appeared to acquiesce, till, an opportunity occurring, he suddenly wrenched himself free and ran off up the roadway.
No man dared follow. A policeman flung a truncheon after him, but the aim was bad, and the professor went on. Below, the crowd watched breathless.
Seeing that he was not followed he went at a more leisurely pace, beating the ground with his stick as he walked.
"Keep back," he cried, turning round, "keep back, you people, till I have been everywhere, and can certify that it is safe. I am a man of science, and know the cause."
No one interfering, he walked about the whole space, beating continually with his stick and stamping all the while. I can still recall the picture— it would have been ludicrous under any less terrible conditions— the fat little professor dancing on the hill, the silent crowds afraid to move, watching on in horrible suspense, waiting there to see him vanish.
For a full half-hour this continued. Then the professor called out that everything was safe, and a mad curiosity seized the crowd. The police were swept aside and thousands of people rushed across the vacant space, cheering the professor as they ran. Dornton and I went with the rest; and we tramped across the site, which looked like a great roadway of cement.
We made for Mirzarbeau— he deserved congratulation for his courage. I was also anxious to see whether Dornton would try to cast more suspicion on him.
"Voilà, it was an accident," said the professor. "My interest is gone— I go."
He turned; and the people made way for him almost respectfully— he was the hero of the hour.
Something fell out of his pocket as he went, a little stone image of a man it looked like. I picked it up and returned it to him.
"Merci," he said. " A memento that I mean to keep. A box of toys must have been in the cloak-room, and alone has survived. Is it not curious? Merci."
"See that?" exclaimed Dornton, a minute or two later. He pointed to the professor, who, a little distance off, was crushing something under his foot.
He searched about carefully when we reached the spot, and presently picked up the head of the identical image which I had handed back to the professor a short while before. I recognized it because it was carved like a policeman in miniature, a fact that I remembered because I noted at the time how absurdly like it was to the fat inspector who had vanished.
"There is a clue here for a clever man," said Dornton thoughtfully.
"Clue to what?" I asked.
He did not answer. I smiled to myself at what looked to be a very obvious attempt to put the perpetration of this appalling crime, if crime had been done, on to the cranky professor. It heightened my suspicions of Dornton; but what could I prove against him? Nothing.
In some way or other suspicion did fall upon the professor when the admiration for his courage had had time to cool, and people began to ask how he had dared to do what he had. But this suspicion never led to anything, since a little investigation showed that Mirzarbeau had not been near Waterloo for months. Yet so curious were the police, that they insisted on knowing why he had come there in such haste; everything was a "clue" in those days.
For a long time the professor refused to speak, then it gradually came out that he had some theory of cyclonic voids which recurred at regular intervals, and that he had been watching for this one.
It is needless to say that this explanation of the mystery was scouted by every other man of science in the world; but as no substitute, other than the theory of a new explosive, was forthcoming, the public generally gave credence to the professor. Absurd as his theory might be, it, after all, required no greater effort of imagination than did the suggestion of a new explosive capable of absolutely and instantaneously obliterating an appreciable extent of the earth's surface, and doing so more effectually than even the fabled vril of the "Coming Race " could have done.
One thing alone was clear; by whatever agency the disaster may have been wrought, it was a stupendous and appalling power. The professor claimed to know all about it, and his explanation might have satisfied me. But it did not; I could not rid myself of the idea that Dornton knew more of the reason than he chose to give.
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