I HARDLY know how and where to begin this history; I have already made and destroyed a dozen attempts. I had ideas of beginning it in some grand way; but the wish is stronger than the power. I must make a beginning somehow. The best I can think of is to mention my name and the names of any other people who may be wanted, and then trust that chance will start my narrative for me. A bald way, but I can think of no other.
My name is Lester. I had, at the time I write of, plenty of money, plenty of friends, and nothing much to complain of in life. One of my friends was a man called Dornton. He was a strange man; one never knew whether he really meant what he said, whether enthusiasm or irony gave the glitter to his steel-blue eyes; to this day his character is a riddle to me. He had a trick of saying things that at first hearing were innocent enough, but which left a nasty sting behind them, and one never learnt whether or no the sting were intentional. I used to hate him now and again for these sayings; but, for all that, we passed as friends.
One evening in particular he annoyed me intensely. I do not now recollect what was the cause of offence—it would not be worth mentioning if I did; I only allude to it because it chances to give me a starting-point for my narrative. I was due that same night at a reception given by old Lady Yarcombe, who acted the duenna to a Miss Baker, an American girl whom I had met once or twice before. She was—well, she was Landry Selina Baker, millionairess from Chicago; a statement which may be as good or better than pages of description.
From the little that I had seen of her I had no great regard for her, but I was attentive enough on this particular night. I had an idea that Dornton rather admired her, and the hope that finding us in close conversation might annoy him kept me by her side the whole evening. However, no Dornton came; my energies were wasted so far as he was concerned. For myself it was otherwise; I became gradually fascinated with her.
That night I first met Professor Mirzarbeau, a quaint little Anglo-French scientist—something in the astronomer line he was; the untidiest and most disreputable-looking little man I have ever set eyes on, and this, which gave him a grand reputation for eccentricity, coupled with the fact that he was well off, made him a considerable "lion" whenever—which was rarely—he honoured Society with his eccentric presence.
He waddled up to the magnificent Miss Baker with the cheeriest of airs; she and he seemed acquaintances of some long standing, and for a good half-hour he treated her and me to his views upon science. Startlingly radical and original views they were, too,—there was scarcely one generally-accepted theory but what he fell foul of it; so that I should have been little astonished to hear him announce that the world was flat. This, however, he spared us; it would hardly, perhaps, have consorted with his pet theory, which was that our planet and all the other members of the solar system were living things; and we human beings merely so many molecules upon the surface. He was not quite sure, he said, whether the Earth was a living creature per se, or merely a part of a greater being, the solar system itself.
I fancy that Miss Landry Baker had hard work to suppress a yawn once or twice during the monologue. Had she been an English woman she would possibly have found ways and means of changing the conversation, but being an American, the insatiable desire to know all about everything, characteristic of her nation, kept her comparatively attentive.
For myself there was something irresistibly fascinating in the little man's theory; it was so gigantic, so immense. I am, as I may have remarked, singularly unimaginative; but this idea gripped me; I could see its endless speculative vistas and get some gauge of the sublimity of the view.
The professor was no ironclad where admiration was concerned; by the time his monologue was over he had become very gracious to me, and was kind enough to invite me to come and see his laboratory—workshop, he called it.
"Any time," said he, "you come. I am always chez-moi-at home. I will show you things of all sorts that you would never expect to see."
"Wish he'd asked me," said Miss Baker, after he had toddled away. "If the old boy isn't a ramping fraud, I guess you'll see things there that'll whip creation for crankiness. Just you go, and tell me all about it after."
I went the very next day.