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THE news of Mirzarbeau's death was at first looked on as too good to be true; but when at last it was realized, London went almost mad with delight. It was not what the Beast had actually done, so much as the dread of what he might do, that had so paralyzed the people, and now that it was proved beyond a doubt that he was gone, petrified into insignificance by his own appalling machine, the relief made people delirious. The Chinese terror and the plague were forgotten in the general self-congratulations, and this state of things increased when the story of the comet became known. The newspapers were full of Mirzarbeau and his sins. I was interviewed almost hourly; reporters lauded me to the skies as the man who had saved the world; and after all I had been compelled to go through this incense was doubly sweet. I had the field to myself, for Bentham was absolutely uncommunicative, and even denied that he had had any share in the matter at all.
"Dornton is still afloat," said he in discussing the matter with me. "He's the man I want to drop on. I'll crow when I've downed him— till then I'll lie quiet."
This hiding his light under a bushel was his own affair, not mine; so I made no protest, but took to myself what the gods sent in the way of popular adulation. I could see no use in going through unpleasant experiences without getting the kudos that was to be had for it. In fine, to "brief" the matter— as Landry would have said,— I had a very good time of it for a couple of days, and Bentham's self-obliteration added to my glory.
He— Bentham— went off somewhere almost immediately after we left the laboratory— hunting for Dornton I presumed. He, or the authorities, certainly began the business well enough, since they surrounded the Forbidden Radius with a cordon of police through which neither Dornton nor any one else could pass. But the laboratory itself was not entered or approached— even though its owner was dead the place inspired horror.
On the second day of my apotheosis as The Man who had saved the World I slipped out towards evening, in order to avoid the newspaper men. I had told them everything that I could recollect, and as much as ever I could invent, and the reiteration consequently compelled had grown wearisome.
I wandered aimlessly about, deriving a good deal of pleasure from the contents bills of the newspapers which met my eye at every turn. Any little baldnesses in my narratives had been deftly filled in by the reporters, who had made really excellent reading out of the affair, and it was grand to see the people rushing to buy "Our special interview with the Man who killed the Beast,"— " the up-to-date St. George,"— "the new Chevalier Bayard," or whatever else they chose to placard me as.
I had stopped outside a newsagent's to gaze at one of these announcements, smiling as I thought what the crowd around me would say, did they but guess that they were rubbing shoulders with the Man, when a familiar voice sounded in my ear—
"Ave salvator mundi. Are you too great to notice me now?"
"Dornton!" I exclaimed.
"It is your most humble admirer," he answered.
I began to stammer some sort of excuse for the posing with which I felt he was covertly charging me; but he laughed and said that I misunderstood him.
"Rather," said he, "I admire your skill in turning a fatal error to great advantage. For, I presume you know that when you and Bentham smashed up the machine in the underground laboratory you set free the comet which is now rushing to destroy the world. That machine kept it back!"
He laughed sardonically and disappeared in the crowd, getting out of sight before I realized that I had thrown away my chance of capturing him.
At the same moment a boy came out of the newspaper-shop and began to leisurely paste a new contents bill over one of the old ones.
I rushed into the shop and purchased a copy of the paper : this, on top of what Dornton had said, was something to excite one. I searched through the paper eagerly, till I came across a stop-press telegram, that ran—
"The well-known astronomer, Professor Bellairs, reports that just before dawn this morning he observed that the new star of the seventh magnitude, bright violet in colour, recently discovered in the twentieth degree of Taurus, had changed its position to an abnormal extent. This evening he obtained a brief glimpse of what is undoubtedly the same violet star, but now become of the first magnitude. Owing to the cloudy state of the atmosphere the observation was very brief, but Mr. Bellairs asserts that, on a hasty computation, the star, which is travelling at incredible speed, may be expected to approach the Earth very closely in the course of the coming week. The professor regards a collision as by no means improbable."
"And the professor's other name," I soliloquized, "is, I'll lay ten to one,— Dornton, practical joker."
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