The Germ Growers/Chapter 9
THE SEED BEDS.
As I lay awake the events of the last few days passed and repassed before my mind, and the more I thought over them the less I felt myself able to give any satisfactory account of them or to see any way of escape. I could make up my mind to no plan of action, to nothing except passive but obstinate resistance.
But although I did not see any way of escape I did not feel as if we were going to die. I suppose that youth and a sanguine temper enabled me to keep hoping. Anyhow I found myself again and again reckoning upon a return to civilisation.
But what kept my thoughts busiest was the fact that Jack and I were to be separated next day, and I asked myself over and over again, what could be the purpose of such separation. And here, after a while, I thought I saw my way a little. Such and such at least I felt I could say is not the purpose. Foul play is no doubt what our host is quite capable of; but what is to be gained by foul play? Why not kill either or both of us openly if he wishes? And when I had gotten as far as that I began to see, clearly enough, part at least of his purpose in separating us. And the revelation was greatly more flattering to Jack than to myself. Then I fell asleep and slept quite soundly for some hours, and I got up quite refreshed.
After we had dressed and refreshed ourselves there still remained an hour before it would be time to keep our appointments. For Jack had arranged with the man who had been told off to keep him company to meet him at nine o'clock, the same hour at which I was to meet Signor Davelli. And here I may as well mention that these men or whatever they were, understood our way of reckoning time. But they did not, as far as I could see, make use of it themselves. They had a method of reckoning time but I was not able to discover exactly what it was. I have sometimes thought since then that they were able to measure the earth's diurnal motion directly. But they used no clockwork nor (as far as I could see) any observation of the altitude of sun or stars.
In some of the cars which were fitted for long voyages there was fixed an instrument about a foot long, and this consisted of a hand moving along a graduated scale. I made sure (so far as my very brief opportunity of observation permitted) that this hand did not move by clockwork, but I was quite unable to discover by what power it did move.
I told Jack very briefly about the light I had seen last night, and then we held a brief conference before we parted.
"Jack," said I, "you thought yesterday that Signor Niccolo had given his man instructions either to kill you or to put you in the way of killing yourself?"
"Yes," he said, "under certain circumstances. If I attempt to make my escape the fellow is undoubtedly under orders to compass my death. But not otherwise; certainly not at present. And I need not say that I am not going to attempt my escape without you. If you and I agree to force a crisis, good and well; then we shall both run the risk of our lives. But you seem to think, and I am disposed to agree with you, that we had better for the present keep on the watch and let things take their course. Very well, then, I shall not be in any special danger to-morrow."
"Why do you think so?"
"Because, as I have said before, this man, or call him what you will, has got some design upon you. What that design is will probably appear shortly. And he will not hinder the success of it by allowing anything to happen to me."
"And if it succeeds?"
"Then it will depend on circumstances not now evident what will become of me."
"And if it fails?"
"Then I think that you and I are certain to be put to death unless we can manage to make our escape from this place."
"Which appears hardly to be expected."
"Yes, hardly to be expected, but the unexpected happens."
"And now, Jack," said I, "I agree with you in all that you have said; but do you know why he is sending you away?"
"Well, no, I don't.""I'll tell you why: he fears your influence over me. I came to that conclusion as I lay awake last night. And he means to try on some new game to-day or to begin to try. But as I thought over all that I couldn't but go on to ask, why does he want me and not you, and why is he shy of you? What do you think?"
"I can't say, Bob, unless it be that I am not clever enough."
"Clever! you're a modest man, Jack, I know, but if I did not know you to be genuine I should say now that some of the modesty was put on. Not clever enough? You've seen through this fellow sooner and farther than I. You might better say too clever, but that is not it either."
"Well, what is it, then?"
"You are too good for him. You have too quick and clear a perception of what is right, and you are not ready enough to let the lust of knowledge blind your conscience. But, please God, this fellow will find that I am not after all quite the sort of man he takes me to be."
"My dear Bob, I am just as likely as you are to have dust thrown in the eyes of my conscience, only a different sort of dust. Your turn has come first, that is all. You'll baffle him and then my turn perhaps won't come at all. Let us both keep our eyes open to-day. If I can learn how to manage those cars of theirs, and if they give us half a chance, we will make a run for it."
"Do you forget the light last night?""I forget nothing, but we will give them the slip somehow."
"Well, perhaps we may, for one thing is clear me, Jack: those fellows once they come among us have to work under the same conditions as we."
"Did not Dr. Leopold say something of that sort?"
"Yes, and he was right; all that we have seen proves it: everything that they do is done by some chemical or mechanical or other contrivance, they have to get round their work just as we have; they know more of nature than we do, and so they can do more. But if we knew as much we could do as much as they."
"Well, all that is so much in our favour."
We were now at the foot of the stairway, and it was within a few minutes of nine. So we shook hands and parted. Jack went up the stairway, and I made my way to the square.
I saw in the centre of the square a car somewhat smaller than that in which we had travelled previously, but, like it, visible throughout. It was just alighting as I came up. Signor Davelli was standing in the square, and the man in the car was the same whom he had assigned yesterday to Jack, and as he alighted he addressed him with a few words and signs as before, and the man went away towards the stairway.
Signor Niccolo turned to me, and, after the usual salutation, he said shortly but civilly, "I have had a car prepared like the other. As we use them ourselves, you might find them awkward and even dangerous. I have left the larger car for your friend."
"Thank you," I replied. "I daresay we shall both do very well."
I was glad to know that Jack would have the opportunity that he wished for, and I felt sure that he would make the most of it. I felt confident now that we were on the verge of a desperate effort for freedom. It was likely enough, indeed most likely, that the issue of such an effort would be immediately fatal to us, but, if not immediately fatal, then I thought that we might escape. Meanwhile I was determined to observe as closely as possible every person and thing that should come under my notice to-day.
There was no difference between this car and the other except in respect of size. This one was a shade smaller. Also this one was furnished with some instruments which I had not observed in the other. There were two good field-glasses and a very powerful microscope. There were also some instruments whose use I did not recognise, but they seemed to suggest spectrum analysis. In addition to these there were some glass instruments that looked like test tubes, and other chemical apparatus of apparently simple construction, but quite unfamiliar to me.
We got under way just as formerly, and we moved rapidly towards the western end of the valley. I reckon that it was two miles, or perhaps a little more, from the eastern to the western extremity. The valley was bounded all round by hills. But I seemed to see to-day more than ever before an air of artificial construction about these. From some points of view this disappeared altogether, while from other points the evidence of it was all but conclusive. I made sure sometimes that I could detect the junction of a great embankment with the hills on either side, but in each case after I had got another view I was not quite so sure. Just the same impression, as I have told you, was produced on me by the view of the hills when I first approached them from the east; but the appearance or impression of artificial construction was very much stronger now.
I had on this day a very full view of the arrangement of the valley from end to end. You remember the large square in which on the second day we had seen the men drilled, and in which on the day after we had witnessed our host's wonderful disappearance and reappearance. You remember also the broad walk which led from the eastern stairway to the square. Very well; at the further end of the square that walk was continued. It was the same breadth all the way through, and it was planted with trees and with flowering shrubs, mostly of a kind which I had never seen elsewhere. On each side of it narrower ways branched off, leading to houses of the same style as those in which Jack and I were lodged. There was an air of trimness and regularity about the whole but no beauty. I can imagine one looking at the scene and pronouncing it stiff and formal and nothing more. But as I looked I felt that if there was no beauty there was at least an eerie suggestiveness that took the place of beauty. Seen from above, as we saw, even trimness and regularity have an odd look. But after all the trimness and regularity of the scene were its least remarkable characteristics. The frowning hills with rampart-like ridges between them that might be walls or that might be natural embankments; the silence broken only by the whirr of our motion through the air, for there was no bird in the valley from end to end, and indeed no living creature of any sort except its human (if they were human) inhabitants, and I think a few snakes; the uncouth aspect of the chimneyless and smokeless houses; the absence of every object that might remind one of the cares and pleasures of life: no garden, or orchard, or playground, no child or woman;—all this formed altogether a picture as unearthly and inhuman as the barren surface of the moon. The odd-looking trees and shrubs which, as I have told you, were planted along the roadway, made this worse and not better. Their approach to naturalness made the unnaturalness of all the rest only the more apparent. Besides, their very presence made you feel that it was not nature, as on the surface of the moon, which caused the silence and desolation, but some foul and maleficent influence which was external to nature. The broad walk and the rows of houses both ended abruptly, abutting upon a belt of timber artificially planted. The trees were like the blue gum, they were so close together that no passage between them was possible, and as far as I could judge the intervals from tree to tree were quite equal and regular. This plantation extended a good way up the cliff on both sides, and it was a hundred yards across, or more. Beyond it was a space of about twenty feet, and then another row of trees of quite a different kind, and like nothing that I had ever seen. But as far as I could guess from such a height the leaves were as thick as the gum leaves, but in other ways much larger. This row of trees was nearly of the same depth as the other, and extended like it high up on either side of the cliff. I have little doubt that all these trees were intended as a defence against the vapours which were generated by certain works which were carried on beyond, and of which I must now try to tell you what I saw.
From what I have said it will be clear to you that there was only one way from the eastern part of the valley to the western, and that was through the air. No one could pass through either belt of timber. And as we floated over them I noticed that Signor Niccolo at once raised the car several hundred feet, and kept well away to the south. Then he stopped; then he lowered the car a little and asked me what I saw.I saw several very unequal belts of what seemed to be cultivated ground. But it was a very queer-looking sort of cultivation. There was almost no green from end to end of it, and what green there was looked like the scum that you sometimes see floating upon the surface of a stagnant pool. And even this was only to be seen at the southern extremity of the cultivated ground. As you looked north the growth was more and more foul and offensive, and thick, filthy looking vapours floated over it here and there. I thought of Shelley's ruined garden, where—
"Agaric and fungi with mildew and mould
Started like mist from the wet ground cold."
Only that here certainly it was not lack of care that produced all the foulness, for there was plenty of evidence of care everywhere. The beds were divided according to a well-marked plan: they were six in all. The bed on the southern extremity must have been over two hundred and fifty feet wide, and it had several narrow pathways through it, well formed from end to end. Then there was a wide pathway, say about eight feet in width, separating it from the next bed. The next bed was only half the width, with about half as many narrow pathways through it, and then a walk twice as wide as that which separated it from the first bed. Then the third bed was only half the width of the second, with a separating walk of about thirty-two feet across. And so on, the width of the beds decreasing and the width of the walks increasing in geometrical progression, so that the last bed was only about eight feet wide, while the walk beyond it was about two hundred and fifty feet wide.
All the beds and walks were the same length. As I was making these approximate measurements mentally, with the aid of a powerful field-glass, I observed another fact that seems worthy of notice. The foul growths and vapours which, as I have told you, increased from the southern extremity of the ground northward, came absolutely to an end with the last bed but one. But the last bed, which was the narrowest, with the walks on either side of it which were the widest, occupied more than a third of the whole extent of the cultivated ground. The true extent of the foul growths and vapours was about this: they covered rather more than a third of the ground, and the space which they covered was rather nearer the southern end than the northern end. I had reason to believe before the close of the day that these vapours were deadly; but I had reason also to believe that there was something in the bed to the north beyond them which was deadlier still.
There were many men employed at all the beds, much the greater number at the first bed, but the work at the sixth bed seemed to be far the more important; certainly it proceeded, as far as I was able to judge, with far more care and deliberation. Not, however, that there was anything slovenly about any of the work or of the workers.
I first turned my attention to the first bed, and there I saw a number of men at about equal distances on each of the walks, each provided with an instrument like an elaborate sort of hoe, and having a box slung round his shoulders, and hanging directly under his face. Looking along these rows of men to the far edge of the beds, I saw that the valley ended at the west end with a platform, and on this platform several men were standing who were evidently working in concert with the workers at the beds. This platform was not so high as that at the east end, but, unlike that, it extended the whole width of the valley. It consisted of two terraces connected by steps, and on the lower terrace were the men whom I have mentioned who were working in concert with the workers at the beds. One man stood at the end of each walk, and handed to the nearest man on the walk a parcel, and then another and another. He took these parcels out of a little box on wheels that stood beside him. These parcels were marked and numbered. At least so I concluded from the manner in which the man on the walk received each parcel, glanced at it, and passed it on. This distribution of the marked parcels had commenced before I began to observe.
Looking to the boxes on wheels, I saw that they were standing on rafts, and were constructed so as to run on the same principle as the little waggons at the eastern end. Following with my glass the course of the rails on which they ran, I saw on the upper platform whither the rails led several machines in general appearance not unlike some of those at the other end. The glass which I was using was very powerful, much more powerful than any field-glass I had ever seen. Still, I could not observe with any such exactness as if I were standing by the machines. The car that I sat in, although there was not a breath of wind, was not absolutely still. I should not perhaps have noticed this if I had sat still and talked, or even read, but the moment I began to observe closely some object not on the car, I became conscious of a motion such as would be felt at sea on a calm day if there were a long but very gentle swell.
I saw with enough exactness, however, to conclude that the processes which were being carried on here were not mechanical, but most likely chemical. I could see many jars and retorts and instruments of similar aspect, and I thought I could make sure that electricity was being largely applied, and that some strange use was being made of light. It seemed as if there were some substances in certain small vessels on which now and then light greatly magnified was being thrown. These vessels were arranged in order within the machines in such way that they could be subjected at the will of the worker to the various light, magnifying, and chemical and electric processes which it seemed to be the function of the machine to keep in action.
I did not feel sure at first whether the substances in the vessels were being simply examined, or whether they were being treated with a view to effect some change in them. But I soon saw that the latter was the more likely purpose. For I perceived on further observation that they were subjected to a very severe and exact scrutiny before they were placed in the vessels. At one end of the row of machines was a very long table along which, near the middle, a trough ran from end to end. A man stood at the table who seemed to be examining something in the trough with a microscope, or at least with some sort of magnifying apparatus. Then he laid aside the magnifying apparatus, and poured from a little bottle either some fluid or powder, I could not tell which, on the objects which he was examining; then he would apply the magnifier again, and so on. Last of all, from this trough he would take up something or other with a little shovel or trowel, and place it in certain tiny waggons or boxes on wheels which communicated, apparently by automatic means such as I have before described, with the different machines, emptying their contents into the small vessels of which I have told you. All the machines appeared to be of the same sort, and engaged in the same work. I concluded that the man at the table with the trough in it was examining certain substances, and that these were being treated by the men at the machines with a view to some modification of their nature. And I had no doubt that this work, whatever it was, stood in some direct relation to the work at the seed beds.
If I had had any such doubt it would have been removed by what I observed at the other end of the row of machines. There I saw a table just like an enormous billiard table, only there were no pockets, and at this table stood four or five men busily at work. This table was connected with the seed beds by the rails, along which ran the boxes on wheels. Indeed, it was to it that my look had first been directed when I followed, with my glass, the course of these boxes. But the more curious aspect of the machines had attracted my attention, and I had observed the whole row of them to the other end and the table with the trough in it which stood there, before observing this end more particularly. I now saw that the substances which had been examined in the trough and treated in the machines were carried, still by automatic machinery, to this enormous table and emptied upon it. There they were very rapidly sorted and distributed into parcels by the five or six men at work there. These men must have had great accuracy of eye and touch, and their way of working reminded me of the man in the Mint who rings the coin. The parcels which were so made up were distributed among the workers in the seed beds in the way already described.
It was clear to me now that some substances, probably germs of one kind or another, were being examined and treated by scientific methods, and were being subjected afterwards to some sort of discriminating culture. I began to guess at the purpose of all this, and quite suddenly a suspicion broke upon me which almost made me drop my glass with horror. And I may as well say here at once that knowledge which I obtained later on confirmed this horrible suspicion.
Recovering myself, I turned my attention to workers at the seed beds. The men engaged at the first bed went slowly along the walks taking every now and then something out of the boxes which were slung one over the shoulder of each, and planting it in the ground and covering it over. I saw that they examined also something already planted, and sometimes took it up and put it into the box. I could not tell, owing to the distance and the motion, whether or not what they took up exhibited any visible growth. The substances, whatever they were, which were thus taken up, were placed in a little waggon which ran at the eastern end of the bed at right angles to the walks, and conveyed its contents to the walks which separated the first bed from the second, and were dealt with by the workers there. If you ask me how I knew that it was the substances exhumed and not the substances in the parcels that were thus passed, I can only say that such was my conclusion from the whole aspect of the movement, for I could not accurately distinguish small objects at the distance.
The way of working at the next four beds was not so different from what I have described, as to make it worth while attempting a detailed account. It will suffice to say that the mode of procedure was to sow something in each bed, and to take up something which had been down in order to transfer it to the next bed, and this latter process evidently involved much careful examination and discrimination. I should also mention that at the third bed and onward the workers wore masks, apparently wire masks of some elaborate construction. They wore them, not continuously, but whenever they stooped to the ground or examined very closely the substances with which they were dealing. At other times the masks hung at the girdles. At the fourth bed the workers wore the masks more frequently, and at the fifth they only removed them occasionally. The way of working at the sixth bed was different and will need a fuller description.
But before attempting to describe it I should say that just as I was beginning to observe the sixth bed, a slight change came in the weather which made two considerable changes, each in a different direction, in my opportunities of observation. It had been quite calm and at the same time cloudy. Now a light breeze began to blow and the sun shone out. The effect of the breeze was, at first, so to increase the motion of the car as to make very close observation impossible. But Signor Davelli presently applied a sort of ballasting machinery, which had the effect of greatly steadying the car. I was so much interested in what was going on below that I did not very accurately observe how this was done. But I think that it was somehow in this way. He moved, by mechanical contrivance, certain weights in the car, so as to change the centre of gravity in such manner as to render the part of it which we occupied subject to less motion than the rest. I have not much skill in such matters and I hardly know if this is possible, but so it seemed to me. But even after this was done the car was not by any means as steady as before.
At the same time, however, the sunshine which now appeared disclosed some features of the scene which I should otherwise have missed. For now, at the northern end of the beds, on a platform at right angles with the western platform, I saw several shadows which indicated to my now skilled eyesight the presence of several of the invisible cars. They were standing all still when I first saw them, but presently one moved, rose quickly from the earth, and passed gradually out of sight to the northward. I followed its course with my glass for several minutes, till it was nearly out of sight. I then turned again to the seed-beds. The men at the sixth bed were very few, only five in all, and each was working apparently on his own account. But they were all doing exactly the same kind of work. They were, as I thought, making a final selection of the germs which had undergone so careful a process of cultivation. Each of them had three boxes, instead of one, slung in front of him, and a long instrument in his hand with which he extracted certain substances from the ground. This instrument was constructed so as to hold in a little receptacle what was lifted from the ground. Each of the workers, also, had slung over his shoulder what looked like a small frame. I selected one of the five at random, and watched his proceedings more particularly. Now and then he would unsling the frame and place it on the ground. Then he would give it a little twist, whereupon it would assume a form very like that of a lady's work-table. I saw him do this many times, and each time he took something out of the closed receptacle which I have just mentioned, and placed it on the table, and observed it carefully with some kind of instrument that might have been a kind of microscope. After a more or less minute observation each time, he placed the substance observed in one of the boxes at his girdle, which he opened each time and carefully closed again. By-and-by he seemed to discover some substance which challenged his attention specially, for after a longer observation than usual, he took another instrument from his girdle and observed it more carefully and for a longer time. Then I could see that he called his neighbour, for he looked, and I almost thought that I could see his lips moving, and immediately the other looked up and came towards him. Then the first man handed his observing instrument to the second, who examined very carefully the substance on the little table. Some discussion seemed to follow, an animated conversation as I thought, with certainly a rapid pantomime accompaniment.
Then a very strange thing happened. As the first man stooped towards the table his mask fell off. My glass was so good that I saw it quite plainly come loose at one side, and I saw the man's hand lifted up to catch it. But before he could reach it, it fell off as I have said. Then in a moment the man's body became a mass of rapidly seething fluid, and the fluid became a dark cloud of smoke, which spread into the air and disappeared. Just so I had seen Signor Davelli's body transformed and disappear the day before. The second man at once caught up the mask and stood apparently waiting. Presently a diffused vapour appeared. This became denser and denser, until it assumed the appearance of a seething fluid, as before. This quickly became consolidated and assumed the form of a body, the body of the man who had just disappeared. Then the other man, who was standing ready with the mask in his hand, fitted it again upon the first man, and both men proceeded to examine the substance before them, and to converse, as if nothing had happened to interrupt them. All this time (which, however, was a very short time, although the change was by no means instantaneous, as the like change seemed to be yesterday) the other men worked away without, as far as I could see, taking any notice whatever of what was going on.
I exclaimed slightly and started, and this attracted Signor Davelli's attention. He had been, I think, examining and preparing some instruments. "What do you see?" he said. I answered without taking my eyes from the glass. "A man over there disappeared and appeared again just as you did yesterday."
"Careless wretches!" he said, looking towards the place that I was observing.
"I suppose," I said, "that these substances which they are examining must be very deadly, for his mask fell off just before he disappeared, and I remember you said yesterday that what would kill us only drove you back into space."
"And you infer, I suppose, that if you had been in his place you would have dropped down dead."
"That is what I think," said I."Then you see if you become one of us you escape death." He said this with a strongly persuasive manner, and as he spoke a slight shudder seemed to pass over me, and I expected him to say more. But he said no more, and he returned to the task in which he had been engaged.
I then turned my attention again to my examination of the workers at the sixth bed.
You will understand that a very broad walk lay between the bed and the northern platform. This walk was to all appearance formed of some hard stuff like flags or asphalt, and I now perceived by the aid of the sunlight that some of the cars had alighted upon this pathway and were standing there.
I could see that there were five of them, and presently the five workers went over to the cars, one to each car. There was a man in each or beside each, I could not say which. For as you will remember I could only see the shadows of the cars, and the sun was now very high, and very near the zenith, and the shadows were proportionately small. The five workers took the boxes, each one from his girdle, one after another, and handed them, one after another, each worker to one of the men in or beside each car. Then the workers went back to the bed, and the cars rose from the ground. I could see that they rose almost perpendicularly at first for the shadows hardly moved, but became smaller and smaller; then they lengthened and passed away to the north-east, and rapidly disappeared. I looked up in the direction which seemed indicated by the lengthening shadows, and I could see distinctly for a few minutes something like a queer little cloud, and another and another until I counted the five. Then I lost sight of them.
If the north platform was the port of departure for the cars it seemed as if the south platform was the port of arrival. For now on looking straight below I saw that many cars were standing there, and some arrived as I looked. The bright sunshine enabled me to count them as they stood and to see them coming; and my position in respect of them enabled me to estimate the size of these cars by their shadows much more exactly than that of those which I had been just observing at the other end. A little further observation showed me that the cargo they were laden with consisted of the same sort of substances as those which were so carefully treated on the platform, and in the seed beds, and, finally, in a modified condition exported for use elsewhere. I had evidence already of the care which was given to the preparation and final distribution of these, and I now had evidence that the same kind of care was given to their first selection. Signor Davelli lowered the car to the platform, alighted, and called a man to his side. I alighted at the same time. The man came at once, and it was clear that he knew what he was called for; for he brought with him something that looked like a little glass case or tray, in which were a multitude of little matters which proved to be germs of some sort, part of them of animal and part of vegetable growth, and these, as I gathered, had been selected from a great number of similar matters which had just come in, and they were now submitted to Signor Davelli for his examination and approval. He examined them carefully in some ways that I understood, and in some ways also that I did not understand at all. As an instance of the latter I may mention the following. He extracted one of the germs from the case and placed it on an elliptical piece of opaque ware which was very slightly depressed in the middle. The germ was so small that he had to work with a magnifying-glass of enormous power, and with instruments of extreme delicacy. He showed me the germ through the glass. It was egg-shaped and colourless, with a tiny dark spot under a partly transparent substance. Without the glass it was to me absolutely invisible. Then he got a little glass tube into which he put something out of a very small bottle, which he took from a number of others which lay side by side in a little case which he took out of a pocket in the side of the car. Whether what he took out of the bottle was powder or fluid I could not tell, though I was now so near what I was observing. But I noticed that when poured into the tube it seemed to change colour. Then Signor Davelli handed the tube to the man who had come in answer to his call, and this man, who appeared to know exactly what was expected of him, took the tube and blew through it upon the germ. I could not see that anything came through the tube, but in a few seconds a kind of cream-coloured spray began to rise from the germ, and Signor Davelli observed this, not the germ but the spray, very carefully through the magnifier. He seemed highly pleased; he selected a few more germs which he said were of the same sort as this; he spoke of them as particularly "promising," and he indicated, as I thought (for just here he began to speak in a tongue unknown to me), the treatment which in his judgment they ought to receive.
When I could no longer understand him I looked again to the workers at the beds. There were now a great many more workers at the first bed, and the work all through was proceeding in a very rapid and orderly manner. I followed quickly the whole process from first to last: the gathering in of the germs, their preliminary examination, the treatment which they underwent on the platform, the tests to which they were subjected before and after that treatment, their gradual passage through the several stages of cultivation, and finally their dispersion, in their cultivated condition, whither I could not certainly say, but presumably to the ends of the earth.
One thing especially puzzled me: I could not estimate at all the amount of time which the process of cultivation consumed in the case of each germ. There were germs constantly going into cultivation and frequently coming out; but how long it was from the time that each one went in until the same one came out again, whether they took different periods of time or uniform, or nearly uniform periods, I could not at all guess. The rapidly decreasing size of the beds implied certainly that the process of cultivation was a process of elimination. It seemed that not one in a hundred of those which passed through the first stage could ever have reached the final stage. And I think also that it might be inferred with much probability from the same fact that the process of cultivation lasted in most cases for a long time. For otherwise they might surely have made up for losses during culture by an increase of the numbers put under cultivation. For what I saw left me no room to doubt that such an increase in quantity was at their disposal. Making a rough estimate, I should say that hundreds of germs cultivated up to the highest pitch were sent away every day, and that hundreds of thousands went under cultivation.
While I was making these calculations, I became aware of a disturbance at the first bed. Turning my glass hastily to the spot I saw that one of the men had fallen down, and it struck me at first that there was going to be a repetition of the sort of disappearance and reappearance which I had already witnessed, and which I now understood. But I very soon saw that this was quite a different matter. There was a panic, and the men ran in all directions away from the man who had fallen. I followed for a moment with my glass the course of some of the fugitives. Turning the glass back towards the spot where the man had fallen, I could perceive nothing at all. Every trace of his body was lost. Then I heard a long and loud whistle, and in almost as little time as it takes me to tell it the panic had ceased and the men were working away just as before. Just then I heard what seemed like a deep and desperate curse from Signor Davelli, and looking towards him I saw him standing with his arm half way up, holding the glass. He seemed to have just taken it away from his eyes, and a scowl was passing over his face, made up as it seemed to me of malignity, ferocity, and fear. It reminded me at once of the expression which had passed over his countenance on the second day when the men were gathered in the square and when one or two of them proved to be missing, and I remembered also Jack's words, "Depend upon it his damnation has got something or other to do with the loss of these men."
To conceal my horror I turned my glass again to the workers, but I really observed nothing more, and presently at a signal from Signor Davelli I resumed my place in the car. He raised the car just as before, made a curve to the south, and then turned the prow of the car towards the east end of the valley. We alighted at the same point whence we had started, and then he spoke—
"Mr. Easterley, you know something of my power now."
I looked at him, I suppose, interrogatively, for he went on to say—
"Among your kings who is the most powerful? Is it not he who possesses the deadliest weapons and can use them with the most facility and precision?"
I said nothing for a moment, for I knew he was misleading me, or perhaps I should not say I knew, but I felt so, not indeed because of any opinion that I had formed about the purpose of the cultivated germs, but because of the profound distrust with which he had inspired me. Then, as he seemed to be waiting for my reply I said briefly, "I have no doubt at all of your power."
"Very well," he said; "we shall see to-morrow if you are worthy to share it."
I said nothing. The words that formed themselves in my mind were, "I hope that I am not sufficiently unworthy," but for obvious reasons I kept silence.
Then he said, "We meet here to-morrow two hours before noon, and now you can return to your friend; I can see him coming towards us on the stair."
I could not see, for I had left the glass in the car; but I exchanged a parting salute with my companion, walked slowly to the stair and began to ascend it. Before beginning the ascent I had seen Jack standing half way up the stair, looking towards me.After a hearty grip of the hand we turned back and walked slowly towards the pathway that we had taken on the second morning of our stay here. We spoke almost in whispers. I gave Jack a brief account of what I had seen. He said that it indicated something of which we could hardly guess the whole import, but he agreed with me that such import was probably as bad as it could be.
"We must try to escape," he said, "as soon as possible. I know now exactly how to work and steer the cars, and I know, too, how to lay my hands on a second battery."
"What do we want with a second battery?" said I.
"Well," said he, "I don't know what these batteries are made of; they are of solid stuff, not fluid, and yet they all waste very quickly. I doubt if any one of them will carry us as far as we may want to go; indeed, I am not sure that any two of them will be enough."
"But how are we to get away," said I; "we are so closely watched?"
"I'll tell you what I propose," he said. "We shall not retire to-night until an hour after dark, nor the next night, then we may hope that they will take it as a matter of course that we shall not retire on the third night until the same hour. But on the third night, immediately after dark, we shall make a bolt of it, and so we may hope for an hour's start."
"In the car?"
"Well, so I propose. I am aware that there is much to be said in favour of an attempt to escape on foot. These lozenges of theirs are meat and drink. We have had nothing else for several days, and we want nothing else, and we know now how many of them we should require, and it is certain that we could easily carry enough to last us three weeks or more. And if we make a bee-line for the wire we ought to reach it within three weeks or less. Besides, if we escape on foot they will not know where to look for us. We shall have cover among the trees, whereas in the air we shall have no cover."
"Not even if we escape in an invisible car?"
"There is none of the cars invisible to them."
"Ah! so I was beginning to think."
"I am quite sure of it."
"Well, go on."
"Still, three weeks may not be enough. We may not be able to make a bee-line. Probably we shall meet with some impassable scrub, or other obstacle, and so our food may run out, and we may die miserably after all. But if we escape in one of the cars the whole risk will be over, and our fate will be decided one way or another within twenty-four hours."
"Very well," said I, "we shall try it the night after next."
Then I told him of my appointment next day with Signor Davelli.
He looked very grave. "That's the biggest risk of all," he said. "If you give in to him we're both done for."
"I won't give in to him."
"Good; but if he knows for certain that you are resisting him, he may take immediate action, and then also we shall be done for."
"He will give me more than one trial."
"I think he will, but, any way, we are not likely to have as much time as we thought. I would say, let us try to-night, but we are watched so closely, that it is not possible. We had better say to-morrow night."
"So be it," said I.Then we went to our quarters and had some food and a little rest. Then we walked backward and forward on the same path again. About an hour after dark we retired for the night, and when we had passed into the inner room we could see the bright light already shining before the doors. The watch upon us was close and constant.