The Day of Uniting/Chapter 18
Five minutes after Ferdie had left the vicinity of Welton Street, Tom Elmers had joined his companion of the morning, and found him pacing his room nervously.
“Who was that?” he asked.
“A fellow named Ponter. He's a friend of Blake's. He chased me once out of Blake's garden.”
“Did he recognize you?” asked Mr. Palythorpe quickly.
“Of course he did,” snapped Tom.
Mr. Palythorpe's genial face was puckered in an expression of thought.
“Then the best thing we can do is to get away from here as quickly as we can,” he said, diving for his hat. “This will mean bad trouble for me.”
They found a wandering taxi, and Palythorpe gave the driver an address in Actor. Up a side street was the little printing shop which the man had bought for a song after his release from prison, and which was the foundation of his new activities.
It was no more than a grimy, dilapidated shed, with one press, and cramped accommodation for the half a dozen compositors whom he employed. In the language of the trade it was a “rat house.” Mr. Palythorpe employed only this type of labor, for reasons not unassociated with certain profitable side lines which he ran. For he was a great printer of surreptitious lottery tickets and illegal sweepstake prospectuses.
He unlocked the discolored door and ushered Elmers into the stuffy interior. Tom Elmers looked round with the supercilious contempt of one who had worked under ideal conditions in a well-conducted office.
“Not much of a shop!” he said.
“It's good enough for me,” said Mr. Palythorpe shortly.
At one end of the building a small cubbyhole of an office had been run up.
“Come in here,” said Palythorpe, switching on a light. “Now, let me have a look at this paper.”
It had been Mr. Maggerson's boast that his summary was understandable to the meanest intelligence.
It is a reproach which has often been leveled against the scientist that he is the only man who has anything worth saying, and yet does not know how to say it. In this case, however clear the summary might be to him and to his friends, it had been more or less gibberish to Tom Elmers. Tom had been told to discover papers and bring them to his principal, and he had obeyed, but a perusal of the summary had disappointed him.
“It's about a comet,” he said as he took it slowly from his pocket.
“About a comet?” repeated the other incredulously.
“I told you there wasn't much in it. Old Maggerson has been making calculations for days and days. I used to watch him through a hole in the floor.”
Mr. Palythorpe was chagrined and displayed his disappointment.
“Then all they've been doing is making astronomical calculations,” he said with a curse. “And I have wasted all my time. I thought there was a woman in it. But why was Van Roon killed? You don't know anything about that?”
Tom Elmers shook his head.
“Ask me another,” he said sarcastically “Here is the paper.”
Mr. Palythorpe adjusted a pair of rimless glasses and began to read. As he read Tom Elmers saw his face go white, and before he had finished, the hands which held the closely written sheets of manuscript were shaking.
“My God!” he breathed as he put the papers down.
“What's up?” asked Tom, alarmed.
Mr. Palythorpe did not answer him. He sat with his chin in his palm, staring at the discolored blotting pad.
“He doesn't want anybody to know. That is it,” he said aloud, though he was speaking to himself. “He doesn't want anybody to know! It would break his heart——”
He looked up suddenly. His eyes were narrowed and shone beyond the swollen lids bright and hard.
“It would break his heart,” he said slowly. “By God, that's what I'm going to do! Get your coat off!”
“What's the idea?” asked Elmers in surprise.
“Get your coat off and go to that case. You'll find a couple of fonts of pica type—I want you to set something.”
Mr. Elmers did not display any enthusiasm.
“This is supposed to be a holiday,” he said. “What's the idea? I've been working hard for you, and all I get out of it is——”
“Do as you're told,” snarled the man and, taking some paper from the rack, he began to write.
Tom Elmers had no intention of working that day, and it was with the greatest reluctance that he slipped off his jacket and, rolling up his sleeves, sought for and found the cases of type which Palythorpe had indicated.
Presently the stout man came out and laid a sheet of paper in front of him.
“Set that,” he said, and gave instructions as to the length and spaces between the lines. “Make it a twenty-six-em line and double lead it. I only want to fill one little page.”
“Is this all that has to be set?” said Tom, brightening up.
“While you're doing it I'll be addressing envelopes, and after you've finished you can come and help me. I have three thousand addresses, and I think they'll do the trick.”
“All right,” he said,
“No, by the Lord!” cried Palythorpe. “I've got over three thousand addressed envelopes ready for the next issue of the paper. They will do—they're pretty evenly distributed.”
Tom did not answer. His eyes were staring at the first few lines of the copy:
- To-day, May sixteenth, the world will come to an end at four-thirty-three Greenwich mean time. The unnamed comet which has been visible for three weeks will strike the earth at a point six hundred and thirty miles north of the south pole——
He read the lines again and then turned to Palythorpe.
“What's this?” he asked huskily. “Are you putting up a scare?”
And then it was that Palythorpe made a mistake. He himself had read and accepted the news, if not with equanimity at least with courage.
“It is true,” he said; “this is the gist of the summary you brought me. Now you understand why they've been working near the observatory.”
The steel “stick” in Elmers' hand dropped with a crash to the floor. He staggered back, his face livid.
“It's a lie, a lie,” he shrieked. “I tell you it's a lie!”
“It's true enough,” said Palythorpe shakily, for some of the man's terror had communicated itself to him, and then without warning a raging lunatic leaped at him and gripped him by the throat.
“You're lying, you're trying to frighten me! The world is not coming to an end, you devil! You devil!”
Palythorpe struck out at the madman. Twice he hit the bloated face, and then, with superhuman strength, Elmers flung him away and darted to the door. It was locked, but he tugged at the handle, whimpering in the high, clear note which Jimmy had heard when Stope-Kendrick came flying across Blackheath to his death. He released his hold of the handle, and springing on a bench, kicked out the window and, struggling through the broken glass, dropped into the street.
A policeman saw the wild figure, his face streaming with blood from the glass, and sought to intercept him. Elmers flung him aside and raced down the main street. An empty taxicab was pulling away from a rank and he leaped upon the running board.
“There! There!” he said, and pointed ahead. “Go fast, faster, faster!”
The frightened driver tried to fling himself from his seat, but Tom's hand gripped him by the collar and wrenched him back.
“I'll kill you, I'll kill you!” he sobbed. “Take me away from this, do you hear?”
“Where do you want to go?” gasped the driver.
“To a church, any church——”
It was at a little Catholic chapel of the Sacred Heart, on the Barnet Road, that the sweating driver brought his car to a standstill, and Elmers, springing off before the taxi had stopped, flew up the steps and into the cool interior. A priest was standing near the altar rail in the deserted church, giving directions to some workmen who were repairing the mosaic floor. He heard the clatter of the man's feet and faced him.
Elmers staggered up the aisle, his arms outflung, making a queer and eerie noise that momentarily turned the blood of the priest to ice. For a second they confronted one another. The calm, the serene, frocked figure, the uncouth, half-mad printer.
Tom looked past him, and the priest saw the man's breast rising and falling and heard the shrill wail of mortal terror in his voice.
“God! God!” Tom Elmers' voice rose to a scream, and he stumbled forward and, gripping the altar cloth convulsively with his grimy hands, he fell.
And the world ended for him in that second.