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INSIDE the laboratory we found Dornton, who welcomed us no less effusively than the professor had done. I think they were both really glad to see us; the past week, for them, must have had a good deal of monotony in its excitement — even annihilation by wholesale can lose its novelty. I suppose that really, the utter indifference to human life with which one or both of these men had pursued their ambition ought to have filled us with disgust and loathing; had I been writing a story, I should certainly have made a great point of its doing so : since, however, this is only a bald narrative I may as well confess that I felt none. I felt unbounded awe, a good deal of fear, a certain amount of admiration— that was all. Power in an appalling form was before me; I bowed to that, and forgot the rest. It was only human so to do.
Dornton did not remain long. He went out saying that a walk would do him good; and I was glad to see him go— he was a rival to fear with a vengeance now. But he was not the only one : Mirzarbeau seemed in a fair way to become enamoured of my companion, and as I sat listening to the duologue between them I grew horribly jealous. I had not, it is true, yet avowed my sentiments, but being a woman she must have been fully aware of my feelings towards her. I looked upon her as good as engaged to me; and here I had to sit and listen while she, if not making deliberate love to the professor, did the next nearest thing.
"This corn-plaster, professor," she was saying, "I can't get it off. Now there must be some way; how's it done?"
"It is better kept on," said he, "far better. To remove is easy though" . . . He put his hand to his forehead and removed it, almost immediately, with the disc loose in his palm. But neither of us could see how the thing was done.
At her request he repeated this two or three times, laughing uproariously at our painful failures to imitate.
"I give it up," cried Landry in a bantering tone. "You're one too many for me, professor. You must tell away the trick; I'm just dying to know the secret."
"There is no secret, mademoiselle; but you shall know how to do it, if you promise never to take it away without first informing me. Else, something very dreadful might befall you; and I should be desolated indeed!"
She promised, and he went on—
"Like all my leetle inventions it is hard to comprehend, only because it is so simple. Parbleu, to unfasten, it is but necessary to press. See— voilà!"
I tried the experiment, and the disc came off easily and immediately. I cursed my stupidity at never having thought of such a simple thing before; then, as I remembered from what fate it had saved me, I thanked Heaven for my previous ignorance.
Landry was florid in her expressions of admiration, and insisted on taking off Mirzarbeau's disc as well as her own. He submitted with an ogling smile; and as I saw her shapely fingers playing about his forehead, I longed to be able to put him under his annihilating machine. I ground my teeth in a paroxysm of helpless jealousy; I cursed all American women from the first to the last; I composed some withering sarcasms upon the way in which they would sell themselves and make any sacrifice for power. But I did it all inwardly : Mirzarbeau's eye was on me now and again; I dared not do anything to offend him. Even the green disc upon my forehead could not give me courage to risk his anger,— I was a mass of abject cowardice before the fat little professor's smile.
Presently he began to talk; he loved to expatiate upon his inventions. He told us that the laboratory was roofed with the green material of which the discs were made, and that the machine which we had inspected upon our last visit, was always on at full power upon the Forbidden Radius, except when he diverted it so that men could enter to bring or remove the barrels full of discs. He pointed out a telephone, the same, he said, at which Dornton had stood waiting for word to make that demonstration at the Albert Hall lecture.
I conjured up a vision of Dornton standing there, calm and impassive, holding the receiver to his ear, one finger toying with the rod. I could fancy that cold smile of his as he gave the minute turn that annihilated a thousand of his fellows in a breath. I shivered at the thought. I remembered my early suspicions of the man, how completely they had passed; and now he had done the very thing.
"Yes," said Mirzarbeau in answer to some question from the girl, " it was a thing most delicate. But he regarded the scale with a great magnifying glass, and he turned the handle to the millionth of a millimetre. . . . Ah, you laugh; why is it that you always laugh? It was really all so simple! There was no vulgar turn of a hand, but a little ray of colour guiding the revolution of an engine. It is because I know that light and sound and force are all échangeable that I do my wonders. Ouf! it is so simple, so facile."
"When you know how," she said, giving him a look of admiration that won my sincere hatred. "And that's the trick of the corn-plasters— green being complementary colour to violet."
He looked up sharply. "You are so clever, mademoiselle. That is the whole secret. But I did not ought to have told you. Hèlas, that I cannot resist a lady."
I glared my hardest at her, but she did not look my way.
"Parbleu," said the professor, we do ignore the gallant young Monsieur Lester. He shall be jealous if you talk only to me, the old men must give place to the young ones when they compete for the smiles of beauty. . . Mon Dieu, though, I have gone near to be without you as a rival, monsieur. It is well for you that I regarded your Mark; vraiment, it is almost impotent. Give it me one moment."
I took off the disc and handed it to him. He drew my attention to a slight fraying at the edge. " A leetle thing," said he, " is it not? Yet enough to destroy if it spreads. But I will replace it; it may be no long time before I need all my friends— who can say?"
He went to a drawer in which lay a number of discs. Into this he tossed mine, and selected another for me from a second drawer.
"Why d'you keep two lots?" asked Landry the ever curious.
"You are insatiable, mademoiselle," he laughed. "Would you keep the failures with the good ones? . . . Now then, monsieur, if you will turn your head— so— I will do myself the honour of affixing my Mark with my own hands."
I thanked him and turned my head into the required position. I noted that while he was fixing it, Landry, behind him, seemed to be wrapping something up in her handkerchief. "This place is so dirty," she said, catching my eye, and carefully flicking some dust off her dress. I was minded to tell her that she need not trouble to smarten herself up in order to captivate Mirzarbeau, but I abstained from doing so.
"Voila," said the professor to me, "I have marked you most neatly. And now I shall have to tear myself from you— for I have work that will not delay. Au revoir to you, monsieur. . . And to you, charming mademoiselle, must it be that I say the same? I kiss your hand."
She held her hand out to him with a little laugh. "It is yours," she said.
He took her hand and kissed it, fondling it a moment, drawing her nearer to him. " Must it be," I heard him whisper, " that you always come with that young man? My heart is tender. Come alone."
She put her finger to her lips, and nodded slightly.
"Au revoir," she said aloud.
And I listened powerless.
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