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It moves at last! MacGregor, it moves!”

“Why not ? Let it move again, by all means.”

After a few moments’ silence MacGregor said in the same careless voice, which contrasted strongly with the quivering breathless accents of the first speaker:

Come out of that wizard’s cave, Barnett, and be social. Consider that it is more than three years since I have seen your profoundly scientific face. Let that thing, whatever it is, move as much as it likes, and let me have a look at you.”

From an inner room opening off that in which MacGregor sat, the excited voice came nervously:

“Hush, for mercy’s sake; just one minute more!.” Then, at the sound of MacGregor’s footsteps crossing the room, there was almost a scream: “Don’t come near me, MacGregor. Don’t stir for your life. Remain where you are at your peril.”

“I am not at all likely to visit you, I assure you,” Alexander MacGregor muttered. “I don’t want to blow up half the square by treading on the spring of one of your infernal machines, or by brushing my head inadvertently against some of your wires, knobs, buttons, or batteries—Beard a lion in his den! What’s a lion’s den to a scientist’s laboratory!”

With this reflection Mr. MacGregor settled himself comfortably on a low couch by a bright fire in the cosy little room, lit his pipe, and waited for his eccentric host to appear. It was pleasant enough to lie there and smoke, and listen lazily to the faint click—click—hiss—and anon a tiny explosion which sounded incessantly in the inner room, and watch with drowsy eyes the curious flashes of blue, red, or white light which sparkled through the curtained doorway. The reclining guest was neither surprised nor hurt at the cool reception he had received. In fact, he was rather amused. It was so characteristic of Barnett.

“What a strange creature he is!” came dreamily through the smoke wreaths. Here am I, just arrived in London from Tibet, where I have been exploring for three years, and have been reported as dead at least a dozen times. I enter the house of my oldest friend. He tells me not to stir for my life; not to come near him at my peril! Hospitable, certainly! But it’s all right; he is inventing something; he will have a lucid interval presently. Meantime, I am very comfortable.”

The explorer had almost dropped asleep, when a stifled exclamation, more like a sob than a sentence, in the laboratory aroused him. As he listened to the deep breathing of his friend, who was now oblivious of everything but his experiment, MacGregor said half sadly to himself:

“ Poor Barnett; what a splendid fellow he was at Cambridge long ago! That den of his will be his death!”

The “den,” indeed, was an excellent specimen of those factories incidental to civilisation, where you put in raw material, in the shape of human beings, at one end, and turn out an equal number of perfect machines at the other—excepting, of course, those brittle souls which go to smash in the process.

Henry Barnett had spent the best years of his life in this room. He had disappeared into it, some twenty years before, a straight, muscular young man, with a rather large head. He now emerged from it to greet MacGregor, a stooped and wasted middle-aged man, with a head out of all proportion to his shrivelled frame.”

“Whatever is the matter with you, Barnett ?” MacGregor asked anxiously.

The singular host did not shake hands with his guest, nor extend to him the slightest form of welcome. He trembled visibly, and his breath came in broken gasps as he said, without a word of explanation:

“MacGregor, you have arrived at an opportune moment.”

“Humph! It looks like it I have been here an hour.”

“Yes, MacGregor,” Henry Barnett went on, without noticing the interruption; “ I am grateful for your visit this evening of all others.”

“Don’t mention it, Barnett. Your instinct of hospitality is too keen,” the explorer remarked coolly, as he refilled his pipe.

Barnett went to a sideboard, poured out a glass of water, and drank it off. Then he mopped his forehead with his handkerchief and wiped his moist and trembling hands.

“He’s out of his mind, as sure as fate. I must carry him off to the seaside for a month,” MacGregor reflected. The scientist recrossed the room, and said impressively :

“Alexander MacGregor, come with me into my workshop.”

This new trick of ceremoniously addressing the companion of half a lifetime confirmed MacGregor’s suspicions.

“I—would rather not, Barnett. I am not much of a coward, but I—I don’t like those confounded wires and springs and things. I’ll be certain to blow up some of your electric devilries.”

“No, no, there is no danger. Come with me.”

“Ahem!—Well, I suppose I must.”

The two men entered the inner room together. To the casual observer their movements would have suggested burglary. Barnett walked unsteadily; his failing constitution had just received a severe shock. His limbs hardly supported him. And MacGregor, great brown-bearded, stern-eyed, leather-visaged traveller as he was—hero of a hundred fights with man and beast and natural forces, bears in the Rockies, blacks in the Congo, simooms in Arabia, and cyclones in the China seas—he wriggled along in a ridiculous tiptoe fashion.

The laboratory was not very terrifying in appearance. It was a dusty little chamber. “Cleaning up “ was unknown to it. The voice of the painter had not been heard in it for many a day, or year. Even the evidence of the more humble plasterer’s handicraft was sadly lacking. But what it wanted in decoration it made up for in the quaintness of its furniture. Here were tiers of little moth-eaten drawers. There lay great coils of wire. Wide-mouthed bottles, glass tubes of various shapes, air-pumps, chemical balances, crucibles, and spirit lamps were strewn about in great confusion. Electric machines of

novel design were ranged beside the types familiar to every student. Fragments of a curious grey substance were lying amid pieces of metallic leaf and little balls of elder-pith and downy feathers. The room was a medley of ordinary and extraordinary devices.

“Read that,” Barnett said, thrusting a paper covered with figures, letters, signs, and tokens, into MacGregor’s hand.

“It is very interesting—very interesting indeed,” MacGregor remarked with a wise look. The paper was as unintelligible to him as Egyptian hieroglyphics. But poor Barnett’s mind was evidently unhinged; it was necessary to be gentle with him.

“What do you think of it?” Barnett asked eagerly. Think of it!” MacGregor exclaimed, driven into a comer. “Oh, as to that, I dare say it is all right.” Then blankly, as he turned the paper upside down, looked at it on this side and on that: “What is it all about?” Barnett snatched the paper back impatiently. Do you see that ball?” he asked, with a shade of contempt in his voice which nettled MacGregor, in spite of his previous compassion. Whereupon the explorer declared, with some asperity, that his intelligence was equal to the moderate task appointed.

The ball, a tiny sphere, was lying in a tube of glass. This tube stood in an upright position on a plate of that strange grey material; whether it was vegetable or mineral, MacGregor could not decide.

“Watch it now!”

Barnett laid the end of a thin wire on the grey substance. The ball within the tube flew to its upper end and remained there, suspended, as it were, by a magnet.

The scientist literally shook in his shoes with excitement. The explorer politely pretended to admire the experiment, but privately thought it uninteresting. “Ha! Very pretty!” he remarked by way of compliment.

“Pretty, MacGregor! Think what you are saying!”

Well, I mean that it is———“ Barnett interrupted with a gesture.

“Listen to me,” he said in a voice that strengthened as he went on, while his bent frame straightened out, and his pale, deep-lined face flushed red. “In this room I have worked for twenty years.”

“More fool!” MacGregor muttered.

“Twenty years devoted, consecrated to a glorious work! You, my friend MacGregor, like all my neighbours, have, I doubt not, pitied me as a poor enthusiast—a mere theorist, whose dreary years dragged slowly by in a useless sequence of drivelling dreams.”

MacGregor made a deprecating gesture.

“You have pitied me because I rotted within these four walls while you climbed the snowy mountain peak, or sailed the heaving seas. You have wondered, I am Bnre, how slowly passed my lonely days in such a dismal den. Bah! My years were as days, and my days but moments.”

MacGregor became attentive. There may have been Borne strong purpose in this weak-minded dreamer after all. He listened intently as Barnett, carried away by his own thoughts, declaimed with unconscious dramatic force:

“Yon, MacGregor, have done good service to your country and, indeed, to your race. You have tracked many a mighty river to its hitherto unknown source; you have plunged into gloomy forests, impenetrable until your restless feet had gauged their depths; and you have your reward. I ask, do you now regret the lonely years spent in Africa, Asia, on the Pacific, Arctic and Antarctic seas?”

“No,” said MacGregor emphatically and with increasing interest. Barnett might be mad, but even a madman must be unconscionably silly to render his praise of one’s own hobby unwelcome.

Are yon better satisfied to stand here, the greatest explorer the world has known (MacGregor shook his head negatively, but not displeased), or, for the saving of a few streaks of grey in your hair and lines on your face, would you prefer to have passed your life in the sodden atmosphere of ignoble ease?”

“No!” MacGregor shouted fiercely.

“Then, do you pity me now when I tell yon that I have discovered——“

He sprang to the window, and tore the curtains aside. The night was clear. A white hoar-frost lay on the patch of trampled grass which the genteel suburban residents called a park. The sky glistened with starry brilliance.

“Look, MacGregor!”

Both men gazed up at that vast sidereal host of heaven, whose fearful immensity appals a finite mind. Barnett lowered his voice to a solemn cadence, and continued :

“Do you pity me now when I tell yon that after twenty paltry years of work, I have discovered the origin and essence of that law which, before me, never man did aught but name, or, at best, did but chronicle its known effects—the law which makes that universe of worlds a grand well-ordered army instead of a helpless mob of mutually destroying forces; when I tell yon that within this ragged room, there stands a man who—grant him but ten years of human life—could sway a star in its course, could hurl a planet from its path? Man, I have discovered the mightiest secret of creation!”

He stopped abruptly, his deep emotion had overcome his power of speech. He clasped and unclasped his hands nervously. His face worked convulsively. The man was overwhelmed by the majesty of his own discovery, now that the end—notwithstanding it had long been foreseen—was come.

“Barnett, Barnett, are you really mad?”

“Yes, mad enough, for I hold in my brain that which a human soul may hardly keep and hope to live.”

“To drop this rhodomontade, Barnett, what the devil is it you have discovered? You said my visit was opportune—I assume you mean to tell me.”

“I do.”

“Then out with it in plain English. In what have your experiments culminated?”

“I have discovered the origin———“

He bent lower, and whispered hoarsely:


“Come out, Barnett. This room is suffocating,” MacGregor exclaimed feverishly.

They sat down in the adjoining room. Neither spoke for some time. In a sense, the silence was oppressive, but each man was too busy with his own thoughts to break it. The fire burned low ; neither replenished it. A gas jet flamed and fumed. Neither attended to it. And yet both felt the room grow cold, and both were wearied by the persistent whistle of the gas jet. MacGregor spoke at last.

“Will you describe to me exactly, Barnett, how you expect to use this great discovery?”

“I am usable as yet to collect my thoughts sufficiently to be intelligible. I am still dazed, stupefied. Remember that, after twenty years of work, the actual. climax of the discovery is hardly an hour old.”

“Granted; but at least you can name some main tendency of the inventions which you will found on this knowledge.”

“Yea, I could name one.”

And that is———“

“The experiment with the glass tube shows that the law of gravitation may be diverted, directed, or destroyed. I can elaborate and perfect the mechanism necessary for the development of this discovery. The results must be such as would at present appear inconceivable.”

MacGregor leaped to his feet. It was his turn now... “Listen to me, Henry Barnett,” he said, unconsciously imitating the other man’s stilted style and melodramatic tones. “You shall develop that mechanism.” Here he brought down his great brown fist with a bang on the table near which Barnett sat. This table was not a costly piece of furniture, and that portion of it which met the impact of MacGregor’s fist was a movable leaf, not very strongly supported. The moth-eaten woodwork gave way and fell on the scholar’s slippered feet!

“Oh bother it! I did not know it was so flimsy. I beg your pardon a thousand times, Barnett.”

But the scholar would not be comforted—and he who could hurl a planet from its path confessed to corns.

It was impossible, MacGregor felt, to renew the heroic style. So he described in simple but vivid language, the scheme which had flashed into his active brain, whereby the grand discovery might be grandly used. Several hours passed in an eager discussion, and it was very late when the men thought of sleep. Before retiring to their rooms, they seized each other’s hands in a long and meaning clasp, and each man pledged himself to devote his life to the furtherance of the great scheme, to record the history of which this book has been written. Then, after some trivial remarks on current topics, they said “Good-night,” in the most conventional accents, and separated.

Thus simply ended the prologue to the strangest drama ever enacted by mortal man.

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