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ALTHOUGH it put London in a state of panic, Mirzarbeau's revolution did not make so much difference as some might have expected; and its influence was not very marked in the provinces. Save that Parliament was indefinitely prorogued, and all the Board Schools shut up, things, after awhile, went on outwardly much as usual. The Cabinet nominally ruled the country; measures were drafted by it and forwarded for the Royal Assent. Thence they went to Mirzarbeau, who sometimes tore them up; but more often returned them with a note that they might become law. No great changes were effected in the Constitution; as Landry had told the Premier, these things had to wait— there were other matters to keep the Government busy.
First of all there was Mirzarbeau's list of the proscribed. It was not a long one, but it was exceedingly catholic, including as it did some very inoffensive and insignificant men, as well as others who had achieved either fame or notoriety to a considerable extent. I cannot pretend to say upon what system he selected them, or by what means they had annoyed him; he may, as some suggested, have attempted to dispose of most of the people who could be called "faddists," or mere blind chance may have guided him.
At first the list was not taken very seriously; at least, various people were mightily indignant at finding their names not included, and jealous of the temporary glory conferred on those who figured in it— they would hardly have done this had they expected anything to happen. Indeed, there was a general hazy opinion that Mirzarbeau would be arrested somehow or other long before matters came to a head. Only the mob was thoroughly panic-stricken as yet.
Saving a couple of them, who succeeded in escaping, all the proscribed were arrested and kept in close confinement while preparations were made for their trial. A certainty that no jury would convict may have been a factor in the Government's speedy action; but whatever schemes they may have entertained were rudely thrust aside by a message from Mirzarbeau, to the effect that annihilation of the whole country would be the penalty, unless the executions took place on the morrow.
"Pardieu," he said brutally to a trembling deputation that he had permitted to approach him, "pardieu there will be more people glad than sorry. Adieu, messieurs."
A terrified mob, which took the matter in its own hands after that, hung the proscribed upon the lamp-posts of Trafalgar Square. No one attempted a rescue, the lesson of the Albert Hall was too recent and too terrible— perhaps, also, Mirzarbeau's cynical answer to the deputation was based on a knowledge of human nature, and of how little folk care for even their greatest men.
I do not know how the mass of the people must have felt in those days. Mirzarbeau— or the Beast, as he now insisted upon being called— might be a comparatively lenient tyrant to-day; but what guarantee was there for the morrow? Landry and I, protected by the green discs whose mysterious efficacy had been so terribly proved, might live without immediate personal qualms, but for the multitude there was no protection, save in blind and absolute acquiescence— impotence was too feeble a word for their condition. The terror spread to the upper classes, and a financial panic began : Mirzarbeau ended it with a threat of annihilation. A few desperate fanatics started to assassinate him— he never left his Bayswater laboratory, so that nothing seemed easier than to force an entry and shoot him down. They set out with all secrecy; but of those who passed the Forbidden Radius none returned. One man had lagged a little behind the others— he came back a babbling maniac; the rest had met annihilation. There was very blind subservience after that.
A terror, however, has its serious drawbacks, and Mirzarbeau found that, unless some drastic effort were made, he would soon be ruling a city, if not a nation, of idiots— it was not in human nature to stand the strain for long. And this was but seven days after the lecture in the Albert Hall.
Those seven days I had spent in my room, slowly getting over the shock to my nerves. At the end of that time I began to realize my own immunity from risk; and, with shame I confess it, no sooner did I fully grasp this than my terror in a great measure passed away. I rose and dressed, and then went to call on Landry Baker.
She, I found, had recovered far more quickly than I; either her woman's perception was quicker, or else— well, I prefer to adopt the first hypothesis.
"I hear," she said, "that the green corn-plasters are to be served out all round to keep people from getting so panicky. Let's go over and see the show."
I had no fervent desire to do so, but she had made up her mind, and we went.
The road outside the professor's laboratory was very full of drays, which seemed to be waiting for something. Inquiring from a bystander, I learnt that the mysterious green discs were now being turned out wholesale by Government factories, and thence sent to Mirzarbeau's laboratory. At certain hours barrels full of these discs were allowed to be carried inside the Forbidden Radius, and after standing there till impregnated with the mysterious Power, were carted out again when Mirzarbeau gave the order.
Thanking the man, we continued our walk, and presently came in sight of a row of barrels standing across the roadway, well within the forbidden district. Some little way off a large crowd watched curiously. These people called out to us to keep back, pointing as they did so to where the dusty roadway melted into a barren grey circle. "It is death," they cried, "to enter there."
"Not for me, I guess," returned Landry, ostentatiously ungloving her right hand and holding it up; "I've got on one of the green plasters. I'm expected yonder."
The people did not argue the point; at the sight of the disc they made off— to them it was invested with all the "Beast's" awful powers— a thing to be fled from lest worse might befall. It was pitiable to see the terror in which they fled.
The sight of this did not increase my own courage, which had begun to ooze away directly I saw the grey concrete-looking space; it occurred to me for the first time that the efficacy of our discs might not be permanent, that even now they might be useless. I urged a return on these grounds; but the obstinate Landry would not hear of it.
"I reckon," she said, "that the old boy has got a look-out of some sort. He'll see we're coming, and he's not so indifferent to me but what he'd turn off the machine if the corn-plasters are played out. Come on; don't be scared."
At this challenge I plucked up such courage as I could muster, and went on; but with my heart in my mouth. My fears were groundless : we entered the grey space and stood unharmed within it.
"I call this great," said Landry; "and I . . . where's my glove that I pulled off? Bother! I've gone and dropped it."
I looked about, and seeing it lying a yard or so behind, picked it up and returned it.
"That's queer," she exclaimed.
"What's queer?" I asked.
"If you can't see I shan't tell you," she returned. "I reckon there's something in which a woman's cuter than a man, after all. . . . Say, let's sample some of these barrels."
I vehemently begged her not to; but she paid no heed. She went up to one and drew out a handful of green discs exactly similar in appearance to those that we wore, saying as she pocketed a few— " They may come in handy some day. . . . The old professor isn't such a fool as I thought. I've got a notion, I tell you."
All this meant nothing to me; I should probably never have remembered the incident but for subsequent events that brought it back to my memory— my thoughts were just then too fully concentrated upon the laboratory which I longed to reach. Our present position seemed too much like playing with matches in a powder magazine.
I got her to move on at last, and as we reached the place, Mirzarbeau himself came to the door to welcome us. He looked just the same as ever, so fat and amiable; yet I trembled in his presence.
"I am enchanted, mademoiselle," he squeaked out, as he beamed on her through his glasses" enchanted. You do me great honour. And the gallant Monsieur Lester, I welcome him also to the temple of His Highness the Beast."
"You're a great man now, professor— you needn't scowl, for I won't call you anything else but professor, so there. You're a great man now," said Landry, "and we've come to pay our respects in style. So you might ask us in and show us the machines and other notions."
"Presently," he returned, "but first there is work to do. I must pray you to be patient till then."
He ran up a white flag on a little flagstaff that was nailed to the door-post of the laboratory; at the same time bidding us watch the barrels that we had passed as we came.
Directly the flag fluttered out above the low-eaved roof, a crowd of men ran to the barrels, shouldered them in desperate haste, and made off again beyond the grey border. Here we could see them pulling out some of the discs, fighting and struggling for them; then the barrels were thrown on to the drays and driven out of sight.
"Voilà, mademoiselle," he laughed, hauling down the flag, "they make great haste to obtain the Mark of the Beast."
"Yes," said she, "but I guess when they've got enough of them, and are safe from your machine, they'll all be round for your blood."
"It may be as you say, mademoiselle. It would not be polite in me to contradict. Mais, nous verrons. I have at present no fear."
"I see. The power won't last long in their corn-plasters, eh?"
"The wonderful perception of the ladies!" he exclaimed, holding up his hands as though in admiration. " Mademoiselle, it is impossible to conceal anything from you."
"About the size of it," she smiled.
And Mirzarbeau smiled also.
Then he invited us to enter the laboratory.
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