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THE next time that I called on Landry, I found Dornton with her. He was talking quite earnestly about something, and she was listening with a mocking smile.
"At least you might do it to humour the poor old man; it is sad, you know, that he should have given way to such a delusion."
"Why, you," she said, "are rubbing it into him."
"No, no. But I'm humouring him because I want to see him come round all right. . . . Good-afternoon, Lester, perhaps you'll be more amenable than Miss Baker here."
"Yes," said she. "P'raps he will. It's easier for a man."
"What's easier?" said I, all in the dark.
"Why, to dress yourself up like a guy to oblige Mr. Dornton."
"To oblige Mirzarbeau," Mr. Dornton corrected. "The fact is, Lester, I hear you and Miss Baker are going to attend the old fellow's lecture. It's very kind of you to do so, because I don't suppose there'll be many people there, and a small audience is a curse. Now, you remember his machine— the thing he claims to have destroyed Waterloo station with?"
"I do. But I thought you believed in it," interpolated Landry.
"Did I? Well, if I liked to appear to do so, that was my own affair. To tell the truth, I hardly know myself what I think."
"I know," I said. "It's about as ridiculous a fraud as could well be. You remember when I turned the machine, all that was supposed to happen, and what a fiasco it was."
"I remember," he replied. " I also recollect that I superintended the aiming. In that connection this extract may interest you."
He produced a copy of that afternoon's Globe, and read from the "By the way" column—
"News comes to-day, viâ America, that a tract of 140 kilometres recently disappeared somewhere up country in China. 'Considerable astonishment' is said to prevail in the surrounding districts. It is not stated whether a Mandarin Li Mir Zar Beau performed the operation."
"My God!" I exclaimed. A chill ran down my backbone and I trembled with horror; my hand had done this thing. Unintentional or no, I was still the perpetrator. It came upon me as a sudden revelation that Mirzarbeau was no charlatan, but a maniac possessed of diabolical powers. Life, death, the very existence of the planet, of the Universe itself, depended solely upon the momentary freak of a fat, smiling, little man, whose mere appearance made people titter! It was more than awful, more than appalling— no words existed that could describe it. My brain seemed to buzz round; I stared vacantly in front of me, twiddling my thumbs, unable to think.
Dornton laughed. "You are of the material from which converts are made," said he. "Why, man, the whole thing is only a joke I put in."
I turned upon him angrily, barely suppressing a furious oath. Miss Baker lolled back in her chair, laughing till she cried.
The sudden revulsion of feeling was too much for me; my brain was all muddled; I could neither believe nor disbelieve anything. I heard Dornton making some apology; I heard Landry speak and laugh; but the spell of the picture that my brain had conjured up was too strong for me to comprehend what was said. I was temporarily an idiot.
It passed presently; my good-humour was restored, and I laughed loud and long. But I laughed like a drunkard; I could not shake off the horrible question, "Suppose it should be true?"
It was, I think, this question and this dread which made me acquiesce so readily when Dornton returned to the subject that he had been discussing with Landry on my arrival.
He produced a couple of green discs, little things about the size and shape of corn-plasters.
"It was Mirzarbeau's curious fancy," he explained, "that you should wear these at his lecture. They are adhesive, and you can fix them to your foreheads very comfortably."
"I draw the line at that," said Landry Baker. " I'm naturally of an obliging disposition, but a green spot on my forehead wouldn't suit my complexion anyhow; let alone that 'twould be altogether too ridiculous."
I took one of the discs and examined it. It was a most ordinary-looking contrivance, made of felt, or something like it. The only noticeable feature was its yellow-green colouring. About this there was a peculiar intensity, a strange iridescence.
Miss Baker, who had been examining the other meanwhile, looked up now with an exclamation.
"Why, everything looks spotted," she cried, "spotted with violet, just the same magenta shade as the purple I saw in the professor's laboratory that day he tried to hoax me with his planet machine. It's rather a pretty shade— a cross between magenta and petunia."
"You see the complementary colour of the disc," explained Dornton with a slight smile. "I remember when I was a boy some soap-makers created quite a sensation with advertisements run on the visualization of complementary colours. This green being rather intense, you see the complement vividly. . . . Well, here is your disc, Miss Baker, the Mark of the Beast if you like to call it so!"
"Guess green is an appropriate colour," she laughed.
"You will wear it, however, to oblige our poor friend."
"Not I. Might bring my forehead all out in horrid pimples if I stuck it on. Besides, as I said just now, it's too ridiculous. . . . Let's see how you look with it on, Mr. Lester. I'll fix it for you."
"Certainly then," I acquiesced.
"Sit where you are, so." She rose and came over to me, a roguish smile in her eyes. . . . " Now then, Mr. Dornton, how's the thing done?"
He told her to breathe upon it for a minute or so, it would then be adhesive.
She followed his instructions, laughing the while, then affixed it to my forehead. It was pleasant to feel her touch. That or the disc gave me a slight tingling sensation through the head, but it was momentary only.
"My!" she said, walking backwards and looking at me. "My! you do look smart!"
"Are you going to wear yours?" I inquired, laughing.
"You can fasten it elsewhere if you prefer it," said Dornton. " It is quite immaterial that it should be exposed to view. . . . Allow me.
He took her right hand in his, and fixed the plaster to her palm. " You can wear it there," he went on.
"'Tis a silly idea. However, 'twon't hurt on my hand. I'll keep it and remember to wear it if I can, though I don't see how he'll know whether I do or don't. . . Here, I can't get the thing off! How d' you unfix it?"
"You can't," said he. "Once on always on, without a surgical operation."
"What!" she exclaimed angrily. "D'you mean that? Because" . . .
"It's a fact."
I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. I cannot describe how supremely ridiculous this green patch upon the forehead made me look. I tried to snatch it off, but I could not, and the attempt was exceedingly painful. The thought of having to go about so absurdly disfigured annoyed me immensely, and I turned upon Dornton in a towering rage.
"If it weren't for Miss Baker's presence," I hissed, "I'd thrash you within an inch of your life. And if this thing isn't to be got off, I'll make things warm for you, I can tell you."
"Don't be a fool," he said coolly, looking me up and down. "I could knock you into a cocked hat inside of two minutes, so your wisest course is, I should fancy, to grin and bear it. Besides, you'll thank me for it, both of you, before another twenty-four hours. You'll find by then that the Mark of the Beast means a good deal more than idle fancy."
I took a half step forward, then paused, measuring him with my eye. He smiled sardonically as I did so; he was right enough in his estimate of how a settlement by fists would end. I was absolutely no match for him, and I recognized my humiliating position with an inward curse.
"Mr. Dornton," said Landry icily, as she rang the bell, " I'll trouble you to clear out of the room. You can settle up with Mr. Lester as you please; but I reckon you played the wrong card when you fooled with me."
He bowed, still smiling, and withdrew, leaving us staring at each other.
"Damn him!" I said. "I beg your pardon, Miss Baker, for swearing, but" . . .
"You needn't. My sentiments to a T. And now, what's to be done?"
"What indeed?" I echoed.
Yet I extracted some slight pleasure from the fact that we were together in misfortune. She was a fascinating young woman; and I did not quite forget that she was a millionairess— a thing that might well be a compensation for far graver defects than any she possessed. Now we had a common interest— a ridiculous one, certainly, but. . .
She began to laugh. "I can't help it," she apologized, "but you do look altogether too funny with that green patch on you!"
"Which you were good enough to fix," I said, feeling rather injured.
"I did so. But how was I to know it wouldn't come off again?"
That was true enough, and I had to admit it.
"I am going to a doctor," I went on. "I fancy he'll fetch it off quickly enough. I'll sue Dornton for pretty heavy damages if he can't— I know that much."
"Right. You go and test results; and, if he don't hurt too much, send the physician round here to see to my hand. But, you may bet one thing, I'll be square with Mr. Dornton over this game."
Old Lady Yarcombe came sailing into the room as I was about to go. She looked very hard at me as I bowed to her, doing my best to conceal the Mark.
"Landry, my dear," I heard her say as I was leaving, "I really must request you to draw the line somewhere. Is that young man a maniac or an idiot? He was waving his hand over his forehead every time I looked at him."
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