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TRUE to his promise Dornton made all arrangements for my wished-for visit to the next meeting of the Finis Mundi; and after a little dinner with him and Bentham at the club, we set out for the building in which the meetings were held.
I found a good deal of anticipatory excitement in the expedition, not unmixed with a little nervousness. Although I attached no credence to the popular conception of secret societies as depicted in "penny dreadful" revelations, still I was certainly prepared to find risks in connection with a society having such an aim as this one had, if its title went for anything. Of its exact objects I was, as I think I have stated, in ignorance; the existence of the society was known to most people, but no one that I had yet encountered had been able— or at any rate willing— to do more than conjecture as to its object.
"Here we are," said our guide, stopping before a house in Duke Street, St. James's, on the portals of which we saw inscribed— "Humanity Club."
Absolutely no ceremony attended our entrance. We passed through the vestibule and on into a capacious room, in the centre of which stood a very long table. Around the table were seated a number of men and women, some reading, others scribbling on bits of paper— it looked more like a committee meeting than anything else.
"The Finis Mundi Society," said Dornton. They were not the sort of people that I had expected to see. I had thought to find either men of science, or else the "horny-handed sons of toil "; but as a matter of fact the most of the members could not be placed in either category. All, however, had one thing in common. Every man and woman of them— a full half were women— had curiously dilated eye-pupils which gave them a strange, half-idiotic, half-intelligent expression. The men, also, all looked to be habitual cigarette-smokers. And it was a curious thing that, although all sat together without precedence or order, I was at once able to single out their leaders, for in them this expression was intensified to a degree.
All that was said at the meeting I need not relate. First one, then another told in glowing language how the millionaires had burnt their golden curse deep into the world. They dwelt in lengthy periods upon the insufferable yoke that weighed their continental brothers into a slavery worse than death; they inveighed against their own country as standing in the van of the oppression.
One speaker in particular declaimed in passionate accents, swaying his hearers to the verge of tears. His peroration I remember particularly.
"Last century it was the Turk who blighted Europe, in this it is England who breeds the millionaires that batten on the agony of the world. And this— this . . ." Here he produced a British flag— "this is the vaunted banner of freedom under which these nameless sins are done. This emblem once so glorious; now so bestial and so foul. . . . Thus— and thus . . ."
I could not catch the rest of the sentence because his voice became inaudible— a shrieking, quivering sort of sound that meant nothing. But I saw him tearing at the flag, stamping on it, spitting on it, and behaving like a maniac generally.
Dornton and I watched him with an amused smile— a childish ebullition of this sort meant nothing that I could see, and besides one was used to it. Verbally, at any rate, the leading articles of some of the great London dailies had done this kind of thing for a long time.
Bentham, however, did not take the matter as we did. He rose angrily to his feet, ran across the room, and deliberately snatched the flag away from the speaker.
"You blasted fool," he cried, "what the devil has your country's flag got to do with your fads? Leave that out of the running."
He stopped and remained standing, awkwardly enough; conscious that he had courted more publicity than he would have cared to in more thoughtful mood.
I expected a desperate fight, an uproar at the least. But no such thing came about. The chairman rose and gravely reminded the sailor that his motion was not in order; the rest of the company, though they indulged in noisy comments, did nothing more. One or two, indeed, tried to act the peacemaker, but the most seemed to find Bentham's outburst amusing, and he looked very uncomfortable standing there under the jeers of the audience with the tattered fragments of the flag in his arms. He came back to us with them presently, looking very red and foolish— in verbal warfare he was a child.
Presently, the noise having subsided, the speaker took up his parable again, working up to the statement that only two courses remained. The first, war, was impossible; there was now only the other to fall back upon. Life had ceased to be worth living to many of them, and even the most sanguine had had to abandon hope of any change for the better. All that could now be done was to assert the solidarity of the race, to abandon to the millionaires the world which they had defiled : national suicide was the sole panacea. Life might be lost without any seeming gain, without even any vengeance upon the millionaires, but the dignity of the race would be saved. It was for the dignity of the race that he appealed. The millionaires had spoilt the world, let them have it now to themselves and fare as best they might alone.
From the chorus of approval which greeted this strange and vague proposition I gathered that the people were unanimous enough. Only one voice was raised in dissent, one from the background, a voice that was familiar. In another moment I saw the little ill-built form of Professor Mirzarbeau forcing a way to the head of the table.
"I am the man you want," said he. "I can give you vengeance. I control the stars and the thoughts of the planet of which you are but so many nerve-molecules."
I looked to see him howled down, but they did not do so. They were used to wild and flowery language, and merely took his talk as hyperbolical metaphor.
"I am the man," he went on. "I can destroy the whole earth, I can persuade it to fall into the sun. It is ill, diseased; the great tonic that I propose shall kill or cure it. I will be dramatic: I will bring down a comet to hit the earth and burn it up!"
He ceased, and finding that this was all he had to say, many of the gathering began to laugh, while some others frowned; a few at what was, to them, his blasphemous idea, but the most of them because they thought he tried to make fun of the meeting. And one way and another this view ultimately prevailed, so that the professor was shouted down when he began again.
"The next speaker, please," said the chairman, glancing round the room.
Dornton jumped up and asked leave to say a few words without interruption, and this being granted, he began to give them one of the most astonishing lectures I have ever heard.
"The world will end soon," said he, "and it is beyond your power to hasten or delay it. You amiable fanatics, with your chatter of the dignity of the race, are merely toying with the fringe of things. Deeper causes than any of you can wot of are at work— you are blind. Armageddon has been fought upon the Esdraelon Stock Exchange, and none of you had the sense to see it. The Beast of the Revelation is with us, and the mark of the Beast is on the foreheads of men. Such of you as have any religion to boast of look for the Beast just as the Jews once looked for their Messiah— figures of speech are lost on you. You look for a Beast crowned and triumphant. The Beast, the real Beast, is living now. He is here in this room! And his mark is on the eyes of every one of you: look at your faces and see it."
They tried to shout him down then, but he raised his voice, so that he was audible above all their yelling.
"The Beast is Hysteria, and Hysteria has set its seal on you all. And there is the Beast personified, the. . ."
They made a rush at him now, and in the mêlée the rest of his words were drowned. For a few minutes there was something very like a free fight; at the end of it, torn and hustled, he and Bentham, who had come to his assistance,were thrown out from the room. I remained; I wished to hear the end of the talk.
The professor rose again. "Peste," said. he, " why is it that you will not listen? "
"We cannot believe your assertions," said the chairman.
"But if I prove them to you?"
"If you can prove them— then— then let the comet come!"
"Let the comet come." The cry was echoed through the room. Neither then nor now do I think it necessary to analyze their sentiments. So far as words could carry it they were unanimous in this one thing; that the only cure now left was to end the whole world— the days for reform, for progress, had passed as it seemed for ever.
It did not trouble me overmuch. A patient at Colney Hatch once told me that he was a teapot, and I had listened to him exactly as I listened to-day. Grave as I might outwardly appear, inwardly I laughed uproariously as the hysterical members of the Finis Mundi shouted again and again—
"Let the comet come! Let the comet come!"
And the fat little professor, standing proudly at the head of the table, seemed to swell to larger size, as he bowed to them and answered—
"Messieurs, it shall!"
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