Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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ERLE COX (1873-1950) was a Melbourne journalist, book and film reviewer who wrote three novels and a number of short stories for his newspapers, The Argus and The Australasian.
His first novel, Out of the Silence (1919), was for many years listed as one of the classics of the genre. Its lustre has faded now, but its status as the first Australia science fiction novel to stride the world's stage remains.
First published as a serial in The Argus, a Melbourne daily newspaper, in 1919, it subsequently made it into book form (Vidler, Melbourne), (Hamilton, London) and (Librairie des Champs Elysées, Paris), all in 1925, and Henkle, New York in 1928. It was turned into a comic strip serialised in The Argus in 1934, and the same year adapted to an Australian radio serial. The novel was reprinted several times in the 1930s and 1940s and has recently been revived both in print and e-book form.
His second novel is Fools' Harvest (1938). This seems to be science fiction in the "alternate history" mode, but really its roots lie in the "awful warning, wake-up" novels which abounded before World War 1, postulating various forms of the invasion of Britain. William Le Queux, Edgar Wallace and several others wrote on this theme. This book, published as Japan was tearing through China and aiming south, tells of the rapid, Blitzkrieg conquest of Australia by the Japanese (lightly disguised as "Cambasians") from the viewpoint of fleeing refugees from the cities, some of whom become resistance fighters.
His third novel is a comic take on the "Faust" theme, entitled The Missing Angel (1946), in which a henpecked, downtrodden man accidentally summons the Devil, with farcical complications. The devil assumes the guise of a suave man-about- town named Nicholas Senior (from the euphemism "Old Nick"), rather than the cloven-footed horned version.
COX's short stories are equally varied in theme and type. The Mendax stories tell of an abrasive scientist and his mad schemes; they are comic, and sometimes a little cruel, in tone: Grimm's fairy tales for grownups.
The others range from straight romance through social comedy to fantasy. The short stories are mostly set in or around Melbourne and all reflect a pre-war, and even pre-first-war, Australia that is long lost. Some of the colloquial language and references used will be unfamiliar even to modern Australian readers, never mind non-Australians. The very first story in this collection was, after all, published a century ago.
I have included brief above-the-title teasers in the manner of pulp science fiction and detective story magazines of the period. They are unique to this collection and not part of the original stories as published.
The first-publication credit is included under the story's title.
—Terry Walker, May 2018
A shaggy dog tail...
HE lives a retired, misanthropic life, in spite of his big income. Partly, I think, because he is without exception the vilest-mannered man in the Commonwealth, and partly because of his undisguised contempt of the rest of his fellow- creatures. At any rate, I believe I am the only person with whom he retained even an approach to friendship, and, if the truth be confessed, I kept up my connection with him more as a wholesome but disagreeable tonic, rather than from admiration for his personal qualities. Although the name of Major Mendax may not be well known in Australia outside a chosen few, scientists all over the world regard him with unbounded admiration, probably because they have only met him in writing, for he corresponds with half the learned societies in the world, and liberally insults the other half on paper.
Some kind of mental kink has made him an all-embracing scientific genius, and has given him the right to a score or so of letters after his name, which he snorts at and never uses. When any problem has tangled the brains of the thinkers beyond all hope of unravelment Mendax is usually called on as the last court of appeal.
"I expect you over this afternoon, as I suppose otherwise you will be wasting your time in some idiotic way. M.M."
This is a fair sample of his usual form of invitation. The mere fact of his having taken the trouble to write, however, indicated something passing strange; so in this instance I pocketed my pride and obeyed the summons.
I found him working about some machinery in the great garden that surrounds his laboratory, and his sole acknowledgment of my presence was a grunt as he went on with his occupation. I wandered round, curiously inspecting, but without understanding. There were four or five coops, containing a variety, of domestic fauna, chiefly cats, dogs, and poultry, watched over by Mendax's own cross-grained Newfoundland, "Savage," whose manners were a fair copy of his master's.
The objects which chiefly attracted my attention, however, were two structures standing side by side that rather resembled sentry-boxes with doors. On the top of each was a porcelain insulator, with wires attached, that disappeared amongst the trees of the garden. Each sentry-box, too, was connected by thick, curly wires to the machinery on which Mendax was working. While I stood, surveying them he came over to me.
"Well, what do you make of it?" he snapped.
"Private telephone?" I ventured.
He repeated my words with a scornful expletive added. "That, you idiot, is an organic transmitter."
I tried to look intelligent, but under his searching gaze failed miserably.
"I'll show you what I mean," he raid, shortly, and, opening one of the crates, he drew forth a loudly protesting brown Leghorn rooster and approached me.
"See that bird? Well, mark it somehow so as you will know it again." I took my penknife and cut a nick in one of its wing pinions. Then Mendax opened the door of one of the sentry-boxes and, after dropping the fowl in, he smartly locked it again.
"Now!" he said, indicating the two structures, "this near one with the bird is the transmitter, the other is the receiver; and they are four miles apart."
As a matter of fact, they were only six inches apart. and I said so, pointedly.
"I mean electrically, you jackass. There are four miles of wire run in and out of the garden connecting them. Electrically they are as far apart as from here to the G.P.O. See?"
I nodded comprehension.
"Now watch," he went on, walking over to the machinery. "This is a motor," he said, pointing to one part, "and this, is a dynamo, indicating another, "and I start it so."
Here he performed certain evolutions, and the whole contraption woke into angry, buzzing life, that, even in the daylight showed evil blue sparks. For about three minutes it hummed savagely, while Mendax watched a hand on a dial move slowly over its face, then he shut off the current with a snap and, with an expression of triumph, opened the door of the transmitter. I gasped. The bird had disappeared.
Then he opened the receiver and on the floor stood the missing rooster, looking as astonished as I doubtless did. In fact Mendax made a caustic comment on the similarity of our expressions.
"You see what happened?" he asked.
"I'm shot if I do," I answered.
"Well, this old bird," he said, taking the still dazed victim up by the legs, "has been dissolved, for want of a better expression, and sent along those four miles of wires and reconstructed in the receiver, and that, my friend, is what an organic transmitter is. It's my own invention."
There was an inventor's pride in his voice.
"Why organic?" I asked, as that seemed to me to be an intelligent question.
"Speaks for itself," he answered scornfully. "It can only transmit substances of organic structure, of animal or vegetable origin, generally speaking. I can't send along any things of inorganic origin, such as minerals."
The possibilities were staggering and moved me to inquire how the miracle was accomplished.
"My dear fellow," came the characteristic answer, "You haven't the intelligence to understand me, and if I thought you had the intelligence I wouldn't explain."
I swallowed the tribute for the sake of my unsatisfied curiosity.
"Just think," he went on, after seeing that I wad properly humbled. "With a proper plant it will be possible to send from here all over the world all the produce we now export by water, and in a few minutes instead of weeks, and if we can transmit living animals, why not human beings."
Here a suspicion crossed my mind, but I kept it to myself.
"A man could step into a transmitter in his own home, and his wife could switch him into his own office in three minutes. Great, isn't it?"
I didn't feel so sure on that point; I had a lively recollection of one or two previous experimental inventions of his and their results.
"Look here. Mendax!" I asked as severely as I could; "Have you had any accidents with this contribution to culture yet?"
He grinned broadly. "I had one about a month ago. l found a stray fox terrier, so I put him through and somehow I got a short circuit."
"What happened to the pup?" I put in.
He thought for a while. "Well to tell the truth. I'm hanged if I know. About a week after the electricians at the G.P.O. called me to investigate a trouble in the telephone wires down this way that had floored them. The subscribers could not hear themselves speak for a sound that resembled the howling of a dog. I couldn't help them, but I had my suspicions. Still, accidents will happen, but I've fixed that trouble now, so there's no danger."
I looked up and found him staring at me with an expression I didn't like, and my suspicions of his intentions, became a certainty.
"Suppose," I asked, "that the door of the transmitter opened while the dynamo was working?"
"Humph! Can't say, but I've guarded against that. You see it locks automatically, and can't be opened until the process is complete. Anything else?"
"Yes!" I spat but savagely. "If you think you'll get me to risk my life in that blame machine, it's the biggest mistake you ever made."
He didn't try to hide his contempt as he looked at me. "Pshaw! you miserable cocktail! Why I put through a sheep the other day, and it came through safely. You haven't the pluck of that old rooster there."
The argument waxed warm and painfully personal, but my resolution was adamant, and I wound up by asking him why he didn't try it on himself. He explained, with vitriolic comments on my intelligence, that he would be glad to do so if he thought I had sense enough to work the dynamo.
I could see that he was on his mettle, and for half an hour he explained to me just what I had to do. It was simple enough; I was just to lock him in the transmitter, start the machinery, and keep it going until the hand on the dial pointed to zero, and then to shut off instantly. Also, I was to move quickly, as the transmitter had no ventilation, and he didn't want to be suffocated by an idiot of my calibre. I remembered afterwards that "Savage," his dog, with all his master's love of a row, was standing by, apparently enjoying our discussion.
After making me send through a rabbit and then a cat as an experiment, Mendax placed himself in the transmitter, giving me fair warning of his vengeance if I bungled the operation.
Then came the catastrophe.
Just as I threw the door shut, "Savage," who had been intently watching his master, sprang in beside him, and the door slammed. I knew it was automatically locked until the machine had done its work, and he might suffocate before I could break it open. A dozen horrible possibilities flashed through my mind, but I jumped to the dynamo and jerked over the lever. The thing buzzed and spat viciously as I watched the hand creep over the dial, scarcely daring to breathe, and trying to collect my paralysed wits.
At last the moment came, and I switched off the current and flung open the receiver.
He was standing there, but the first glance I had I scarcely restrained a semi-hysterical shout of laughter. To begin with, he was absolutely dishevelled. His clothing was hanging loosely about him, his collar was at his feet, and the eyeglass that he was never without was missing. But that was not the worst. On either side of his face hung the two long silky ears of "Savage," —and from his shirt-cuffs protruded unmistakably, and hung dejectedly, that worthy animal's two forepaws.
And the dog! Try and imagine a well-bred Newfoundland with two very red oversized human ears projecting from his head, and with forelegs terminating in two large red human hands, set plantigrade-wise. I have as much sympathy for the sufferings of human beings as the next man, but, try as I would, the laughter came uppermost, and I sat back on a chicken-coop and let it come.
He looked at his paws and he looked at "Savage," and, hanging clumsily to his falling garments, he ramped and raged in the broad light of day, a figure unspeakable, for when he turned I saw protruding from underneath his coat the bushy tall of the astonished dog—the dog who was lying down and licking his new-found hands in dazed amazement.
Never in my life have I listened to anything approaching the heights of florid abuse and reckless denunciation that Mendax hurled at me as he stamped savagely before me. It was an Homeric tirade, and since all the joy was mine, I bore him no ill-will.
In the end he had to stop for want of breath, and I, too, managed to choke back my mirth, that came to the surface every time I looked at that nightmare figure.
"When you've finished your asinine cackling perhaps you'll tie something round my waist for me, I can't hang on to my togs all day like this," he said, glaring wildly.
"What the dickens has happened to them?" I asked.
"Oh! you silly cuckoo! Haven't you sense enough to think that all the inorganic stuff about me has been left behind in the transmitter. Buttons and all. Open it and look, you blithering jackass."
Sure enough, there was a queer collection on the floor when we examined it. We found his watch and chain, three studs, and his sleeve links, together with his eyeglass, and all his trouser buttons, mixed with the brass eyelets of his boots and sundry nails. Also there was, all the small change and metallic objects from his pockets. Moreover, and this made him renew his eloquence, several small pellets of gold turned out to be the stopping from his teeth.
Apart from his anatomical peculiarities I will allow that Mendax had some cause for annoyance. I improvised a belt from two handkerchiefs, and we sat down with as much calm as we could muster to discuss the crisis, although I nearly wrecked all hope of an amicable settlement, by giggling hysterically when those two unspeakable ears suddenly pricked up straight beside his cap when he thought he heard someone coming.
It was a serious business. Mendax had to allow that the only hope he had of regaining his normal state was by being put through again with the dog, but against this we had to face the possibility of the change becoming worse instead of better, and then where would it end. At last he refused absolutely to take the risk, and in language, as he, looked at those awful paws, that was absolutely unprintable.
But it was "Savage" himself who finally altered his decision.
In his excitement, Mendax recklessly kicked at the coop on which he was sitting, and broke the door, from which immediately bolted a terrified cat. This was too much for "Savage," and, in spite of his disadvantages he raced madly after it, and cornered it against the fence, in full view. Puss fought a short, desperate, but hopeless battle, but before the end left her marks scored across the hands and ears that didn't belong to the dog, in a dozen crimson fur rows.
"See what that infernal brute's doing to my hands and ears," Mendax shouted wildly. "Oh, you—"
The rest was pure, or rather impure, profanity. I think in his rage he would have killed the dog if he had not been prevented by his obvious helplessness. Then he decided that, come what might, he would be transmitted again with "Savage," making me swear, most unwillingly, that if the next change were for the worse I would keep on repeating the operation until I had got him back to his normal shape.
I captured "Savage," and Mendax took his place in the transmitter, but the dog had soured on the proposal, and it took a wild tussle before I could drag him to his master, and even then in my excitement I came in for a special volley of abuse by jamming Mendax's tail, or the dog's, whichever you please, in the door. I expect it was Mendax's, for he felt the pain; at least, so I judged from his remarks.
At last, I had them locked in. The dynamo woke into life at my touch, and the pointer moved slowly to zero.
It was with trembling hands I opened the receiver, not knowing what I would find, But the relief was almost worth the anxiety, for both dog and man stood intact with but one slight departure from the normal. Mendax was still wearing the bushy tail, and "Savage" a somewhat cut-off appearance.
I offered to repeat the operation, but my erstwhile friend threatened, such a variety of physical violence at the suggestion that I did not press the point, and was told to mind my own qualified business when I asked him how he would manage. Indeed he became so abusive that, even allowing for everything, I walked off and left him, vowing I was finished with him so long as I lived.
A few days later I met his housekeeper, who informed me that Major Mendax had gone to a private hospital to undergo a slight operation. I guessed what it was.
ABOUT twelve months later I was paying an unprofessional visit to a well-known surgeon. In his study over the mantelpiece I saw hanging on the wall the tail of a Newfoundland dog. As an experiment, I asked what use he had for it.
"My dear fellow, if I told you the history of that, you'd say I am mad, so I'll say nothing."
But I knew.
As for the transmitter, well, Mendax and I pass as strangers now, so I am not aware of his intentions, but he may put it on the market yet.
"Anything H.G. Wells can do, I can do better..."
LIKE my former friend Major Mendax, his housekeeper, Mrs. Verjuice, was a woman of strong character. An impartial judge would have had difficulty in deciding whether she or her employer had the more objectionable characteristics. Anyone who lived in daily association with Mendax needed a disposition resembling his own in order to exist. He and Mrs. Verjuice blended as naturally as nitric and sulphuric acid, and at every meeting one or other added the glycerine necessary to form a perfect detonating mixture. It was a household that any sane person would give a good deal to avoid, although it was worth an occasional visit, if only to realise how thankful one ought to feel that one did not form part of it. Just as the visitor always felt that some woman had a fortunate escape in Mendax's being a bachelor, so he felt that no human being, even her husband, would wish to have Mrs. Verjuice other than a widow.
It was the lady who rang me up early on one Sunday morning, and at the first syllable that assaulted my ears I recognised the voice.
"Is that you?" came the question, and from the snap in the tones I judged that things were as usual in the Mendax ménage. I admitted that no one but myself was speaking.
"Oh! Well you're wanted over here at once, but you'll be a bigger fool than I think you are if you come."
The receiver at the other end went on the hook abruptly, and prevented any inquiry into the Sibylline utterance. Even Mendax himself, I thought, could not have issued the invitation less cordially.
My first thought was to disregard the message, but the reflection that Mendax never issued an invitation unless there was something unusual in the wind shook my decision, and after a while my curiosity got the better of my injured feelings. Crossgrained to the verge of brutality as he was, I was obliged to admit to myself that I had never visited him without seeing or hearing something that compensated for his almost intolerable manners.
For instance, as far back as 1898 be had shown me a more nearly perfect aeroplane than any in use at the present time, and I saw him ruthlessly destroy it, on the ground that mankind was murderous enough without his putting worse weapons into their hands. At the outbreak of this great war he had taken me into the country, and, with an instrument small enough to rest on the palm of his hand, I saw him shatter to matchwood an immense red- gum over 1,000 yards away, and afterwards I saw him destroy that instrument as he had destroyed the aeroplane.
When once he had succeed in perfecting an invention he lost all interest in it. His income was immense, and far more than sufficient for his needs, and he would never bother himself to make commercial profit out of his work.
When I reached his house the front door was wide open, and no attention was paid to the bell against which I kept my finger pressed. From somewhere in the direction of the laboratory I heard sounds, subdued by closed doors, that indicated that a lively verbal riot was in progress.
After hesitating for a while I entered and stood in the vestibule, and as I did so the door of the laboratory at the far end of the passage was flung open. Nothing but sounds issued from it for a few minutes. There came the steady, uninterrupted rattle of Mrs. Verjuice's file-like tongue, and breaking in on it, and momentarily drowning it, crashed the sound of Mendax's voice, I could tell, although no word was distinguishable in the din, when one of the master's heavy guns got home on his lighter opponent. Her voice seemed to catch for a second, and when it came into action again its note was a shade higher than before. Presently, she backed into view, still spitting venom. Her words drifted down the passage.
"I works for yer, and I cooks for yer, but I tell yer this, me fine bird, ye'll whistle a queer tune before yer get me rubbin' yer all over with a basinful of nothink. I'm a respectable woman, though no one would believe it that knew!— 'Old fool' yourself! Rub yerself down, yer wicked old devil. Nice goin's on, I must say. Where's my cat with yer unchristen doin's?"
Mendax's voice broke in at this moment, and his words, that I couldn't catch, seemed to ruffle the lady's feelings.
"You're a grinnin', sneerin' lump of lyin' wickedness" she screamed at the top of her voice, and came hurrying down the passage muttering to herself.
She pulled up when she saw me waiting.
"Oh! So you did come, did you! More fool you to be humouring that ruffian. Me cat's gone and he swears he don't know where, and that's the fifth cat that's disappeared on me since Christmas. Him and his doin's! Why he might be me 'usband by the way he swears at me! Then he asked me to rub him down with a basinful of nothink. Wants a nurse and 'ousekeeper for five quid a week. I'll let him know!"
"I'm afraid that Major Mendax's scientific work must be rather trying at times," I said, by way of conciliation.
She sniffed openly and with intention.
"I'd sooner 'ousekeep for a man with brains in his head instead of pictures of theirselves like some fools I know of."
I accepted the implication and bowed ceremoniously. Then, head in air, I walked past her down the passage, followed by a well- delivered "Stuck up coxcomb!" from her ladyship.
When I entered the laboratory I found Mendax seated in an armchair, robed in a dressing-gown, below which his long, attenuated legs protruded. One of his feet was bare, and the other, sockless, was thrust into a bath-slipper.
"Just pick up that slipper of mine, will you," he asked when saw me.
I found it lying beside the door and handed it to him.
"That old demon," he said as be wriggled his toes into it, "tried my patience too far, and I shied it at her."
"Why on earth don't you get rid of the fiend?" I asked, for her manner had somewhat ruffled me.
"Because," he answered, grinning his twisted grin, "she's the only person I ever met who would live under the same roof with me for more than 24 hours, and besides," he went on after a moment, "I think I'm the only person in the world who would put up with her for half that time. What was she saying to you? I think you overheard some of her observations to me." He grinned again.
I repeated Mrs. Verjuice's remarks without dilution.
"Humph!" and Mendax laughed outright. "She has got a deadly eye for one's weak points, hasn't she?"
"Oh!" I said, acidly, "if you wished to call me a fool by proxy it's a wonder you took the trouble to send for me."
"Well," he sneered, "since you have brought up the subject, I'll be honest and admit that there was no one else to send for. However, don't let that worry you, as the service I wish from you does not require a vast amount of intelligence. Honesty, my dear idiot, is what I require in this case, and I have reason to know that you possess that attribute."
I eyed him with no friendly glance. "Look here, Mendax, if you start being complimentary you'll strain something. Your system's not used to it."
"Well you are honest, are you not?"
There was something in his voice that seemed to bracket the virtue with imbecility.
I swallowed hard. "If you want me to help you in any way, you had better try, for the time being, to be less of a beast than usual, or you'll do without my assistance." I will say this for him; that he never resented being spoken to as he spoke to others.
"Very well," he answered, coolly, "go if you like, but if you do you'll miss seeing something you'll never forget."
For once, as it turned out, he spoke a mighty truth.
"All right," I answered, irritably, "come to the point then, and don't let us stay here snarling, all day."
"Good!" He waved his hand towards a chair, which I took. "Tell me, have you ever read Wells's Invisible Man?
I nodded. "I remember reading it when it came out."
"Wells," went on Mendax, "is, I think, the only one of your scribbling gang who ever showed a grain of sense."
"Thanks," I answered with, cold politeness; "for myself and a few thousand others."
He disregarded the interruption. "Wells gave me the idea, and I found it absolutely practicable. I've proved it."
I sat up straight "Do you mean to tell me—?"
"Precisely," he went on, "and that is why I sent for you. The honesty that I require of you is that you keep your mouth shut."
"Pooh!" I said, "no need of that; no one would believe me if I told."
"Just so," he nodded; "I was relying to some extent on that factor also."
"But look here, Mendax," I protested, "what's the good of it anyway? It would be no practical use to humanity if people could make themselves invisible; and besides it would be a devil-sent aid to criminals."
"Your argument is perfect," he answered. "Wells's man came to grief, but—" he paused, "I shall not. And I intend that no one but myself shall know the secret."
"But what good can you make of it?" I persisted.
"I intend to benefit humanity. A man protected by invisibility and speaking every European language, as I do, can penetrate the most secret councils of the statesmen of the world. I intend to do this, and then publish the rotten intrigues of every chancellery in Europe, side by side with their public utterances. I'll publish the book simultaneously in every country in Europe and America, and the people will be so pleased that they will kick every plotting ruffian but of power, and run the show themselves. It will be the end of war."
"It looks to me, Mendax," I said, when he had finished, "like a morbid bid for popularity with the Diplomatic Corps. They will be delighted with your programme."
"Just so," he grinned. "Love of popularity was always my weak point."
I looked him over for a while doubtfully, for I knew, from experience that if he said he could do a thing he would do it.
Then, "How do you start fading away?" I asked.
He got up and went to a bench on which stood two large basins, one of which was covered with a board.
I stood up and walked over to him.
"That," he said, pointing to the uncovered one, "is full of water. Lift it!"
I did so, and looked to him for enlightenment.
"And this"— here he took the cover from the second basin—
"It's empty," I interrupted.
"That's just where you make the mistake, my dear fool," he snarled.
"I'm not blind," I said, "Unless you mean it's full of air."
"I mean nothing of the kind," he said shortly. "Lift it too, but gently, or there'll be trouble."
I took the basin in both hands and raised it carefully. It weighed rather more than the one full of water. The sensation was curious.
"Now perhaps you have a glimmer of understanding?" he asked sourly.
"I'm shot if I have," I retorted.
"Might have, known it," he grunted. "Well my dear, wise, intelligent being, that basin is full of fluid that is invisible, and I have sent for you with the express purpose of asking you to bathe or anoint me all over with that particular fluid to complete the experiment."
Enlightenment of several kinds came to me. "By Jove! Mendax," I laughed, "did you ask Mrs. Verjuice—"
"I did," he cut in, "and discovered that to her many other vices she added prudery."
I knew that in the cause of science he held that any action was justifiable,. and that he was utterly incapable of understanding the good lady's point of view.
"So that," I said, "accounts for her remarks about a basin full of nothink. Perhaps it accounts, too, for the discussion I heard when I came in?"
"Pooh!" be answered, "The old harridan must be 60 if she's a day. Enough to make one sick to hear her carrying on like a school-girl."
"Did you tell her that?" I asked.
"That and a few other things," he replied, dismissing the subject. "Will you do it, or are you too shy?"
"As you please," I answered, "It's your funeral. I suppose you've weighed the pros and cons."
He went to a drawer and produced a pair of gardening-gloves and a gossamer veil.
"Better put these on," he said; "If you get any of that stuff splashed on you you'll look rather unusual."
It isn't often I agree with Mendax, but I did on this point.
"Now," he said when I had donned the armour, "take this brush and get to work. It must be done quickly. Start, on the head and work down. The stuff will take effect as soon as it dries."
"How am I to see what I'm doing?" I asked. "I may paint you patchy."
"Use your brains, man. You'll have to do it by touch. I can help. That stuff's a cold fluid, and I can feel if you miss anything." He was throwing off his garments as he spoke, and in a few seconds stood ready for the fray. Mendax is built on most perfect gas-pipe lines. He is about six feet four tall, and not much more than twelve inches through, anywhere. I doubt whether nature ever turned out a less graceful specimen from her workshops. I must confess I was burning with curiosity as to the result of the experiment, and since he was prepared to undergo the operation I was prepared to perform it.
With Apollo standing in front of me, I dipped the brush into the apparently empty basin. An odour more evil than anything that had ever before offended my nostrils sent me back gasping for breath.
"Holy wars! What are you gaping at?" he asked savagely, "get to work man. I'm cold."
"Gaping!" I retorted. "Is that the perfume of the unseen fluid or of an unseen dead cat— Mrs. Verjuice's for instance?"
"It's just the fumes you can notice when you stir it up,", he replied. I found that there was more in my painting contract than I had bargained for; but if Mendax was content to be decorated with the concentrated odour of ancient eggs, who was I that I should say him nay? So, taking my nose and my courage in one hand and the brush in the other, I set to.
It was a weird proceeding. I could feel the fluid in the basin, and could almost see its flamboyant odour, but it left no trace on the shrimp-pink hide of Mendax, and when I rubbed it into his hair it gave no appearance of moisture. Indeed— during the whole operation I was guided almost entirely by his language, and that, to use a colloquialism, was "no violets."
It appeared from his comments that the brush tickled, and that the mixture was cold. Though he minded these troubles less than my amazing clumsiness. I learned, amongst other things, during the few minutes I worked, that I was not competent to whitewash a fowl-house and that for delicacy of touch I compared unfavourably with a rhinoceros. However, when at last I grabbed his ankles and carefully painted the soles of his feet he was satisfied that I had completed my task thoroughly, if not skilfully.
It was a relief to stand back a few yards from the amazing stench and wait further developments. "None of your beauties seem to have evaporated," I said, pulling off my veil and pressing my handkerchief to my nose.
"Wait a jiff," he answered, superciliously: "it will dry in a moment or two, and then you will see something, or rather you will see nothing."
I watched carefully, for truth to tell, though I had seen Mendax perform some amazing scientific stunts, I had my doubts about this one and I was considerably more than half convinced that he was riding for a fall. Presently I gave a gasp of amazement; his ears, which were his least beautiful feature, grew suddenly shadowy and faded from sight and were followed his nose. I had not thought it possible that anything could disfigure Mendax's face, but the absence of his three most, salient features worked fearsome havoc with his appearance: I choked back a wild desire to laugh, and a moment later the desire for laughter vanished with the rest of the scientist's features.
In a space of time less than it takes to write these lines his face faded. In a few moments more the outline of his body blurred and disappeared. Within a minute from the time his ears had melted into thin air all that was visible of Mendax was the skeleton that had supported his ungainly body.
Not all though, for the sandy hair and the straggly moustache remained, and, although they toned down the crude part of Mendax in the flesh, they added nothing to the beauty of his skeleton. I suppose my feelings were visible in my face; out I almost yelled with the nervous jolt I got when the bony jaw commenced to wag and the voice of Mendax came from the fleshless mouth.
"What on earth are you glaring at? Didn't I warn you what would happen?" There was a note of triumph in his voice.
"Look at yourself! Look at yourself!" was all I could get out.
The skull bent forward on the bony neck; then the hands were held before the eyeless sockets.
"Great Scott! Mendax," I gasped. "Suppose, the bones won't disappear. What will you do?"
"Look almost a bigger fool than you do," he retorted. He reached out a bony right hand, and clutched the brush I had put down, and began rubbing more of the mixture vigorously on his left arm, but rub as he would the polished white bones only showed out more clearly. He flung the brush aside with a blistering expletive, and commenced to stride up and down the laboratory.
Now, it has fallen to my lot to see many skeletons and it had never occurred to me that there was anything objectionable about the human framework divested of its flesh; but the original owners of all the skeletons I had come into contact with had ceased to have any use for them, and, moreover, their bones would "stay put," so to speak. But the sight of an oversized set of fully articulated human bones in active motion was quite another thing, even though one knew that the original owner was in full possession. My nerves are as good as the next man's. But I am free to admit that I found the spectacle disquieting, to put it mildly.
Try to imagine that portent striding furiously from end to end of the great laboratory, waving its arms, and tugging at its amazing moustache with its bony fingers, and all the time pouring out language. The things that Mendax said about H.G. Wells during the next five or ten minutes were both original and remarkable. He commenced with simple slanders that were not worth much more than ordinary damages, but it was not long before he was going strong with compound-criminal libel.
I just stood and gaped; but for the time being he took no notice of me. I said nothing, for the situation was beyond words, besides, big as the laboratory was, there was no room in it for any remarks of mine; Mendax filled it, completely. I could only judge his feelings by his movements and his language, for I never realised until then how absolutely devoid of expression the human countenance is when bereft of its surrounding meat. If a man could only divest himself of the outside covering of his face at will, it would be a great boon to poker players.
Then I noticed an alteration in the behaviour of the raging spectacle, his steps became uncertain and his language faltered. Though what there was left of it lost nothing in force, an entirely new note crept into it, but it could hardly be called an improvement. Presently I gathered sufficient courage to inquire the cause, and for the first time since Mendax had started his career as a skeleton he deigned to notice my existence. He came to a halt before me, and then, though he remained in one spot, he certainly went through some surprising contortions. His hands made wild passes all over his unseen body, and at times he tried to reach over his shoulders to claw at the middle of his back.
Shorn of unnecessary verbiage, his statement was to the effect that the fluid, since it had dried, had commenced to sting and smart in an entirely unforseen manner, and I think, from his procedure, that the irritation increased rapidly in intensity. He did not know whether the effect would pass off or whether it would increase, meanwhile his wriggles would have been highly diverting had they arisen from any other cause.
Then I asked if there were no reagent that would counteract the sting, and gathered that though he knew of one, for some reason or other which he was disinclined to give, Mendax did not wish to use it.
The next fifteen minutes were interesting to look back on afterwards, but at the time I found intimate association with a half-demented skeleton rather trying. At length, after prancing and clawing wildly at himself, his endurance gave way, and he howled to me to call Mrs. Verjuice.
Wondering what effect Mendax would have on that lady I went to the door and bellowed her name down the passage, and a moment later she appeared. Now, while there was nothing in his appearance to shock the most modest of women, there was enough to try the strongest nerves, and I expected developments.
Mendax pranced, up to her, squirming as he came.
"Get a bucket of hot water. Hurry! Don't stand gaping!" he shouted.
Mrs. Verjuice ejaculated "Lor!" and stared at all that was visible of her employer with wide-eyed astonishment for a few moments. Then she turned to me. Nodding her head in the direction of the portent, she said, "Is that him?"
"Yes," I answered, "there has been a slight accident and he is in pain. Bring hot water quickly."
Instead of obeying, that graceless woman leaned against the doorpost and commenced to giggle, and from giggling went off into a fit of uncharitable mirth. Let me put it on record that I strove hard with my feelings, but I admit with regret, I joined in her laughter, while Mendax stormed at us.
"Get hot water, you old idiot!" he yelled, "Can't you see I'm in pain. My skin's burning."
"Pain! Pain in yer skin!" gasped Mrs. Verjuice. "Why yer couldn't even have a pain in yer stummick. Yer haven't got none," and she relapsed into helpless cackles. Then suddenly she remembered her latest grievance, and pulled herself together and faced him. "It's hot water yer wanting. Well, not a drop do yer get till yer tell me where me cat is— Not a drop!" and she shook an unclean finger before the gibbering skull.
In swift, clear-cut phrases he described both his persecutor and her cat as they appeared to him at the moment, then disclosed that puss was in a box at the end of the room, and was alive and well.
What scientific end had been reserved for the unfortunate animal it is just as well not to speculate. Mrs. Verjuice trotted to the box and raised the lid, and out shot her pet.
Tom seemed excited about something, for he eluded his mistress, and made endeavours to climb on several cabinets without much success. Then, not having human intelligence, puss tried to climb Mendax. Perhaps he mistook the scientist's framework for a new kind of tree.
He was partially successful in this endeavour; indeed he managed to claw more than half-way up before Mendax flung him off, with remarks appropriate to the occasion.
Unfortunately the flying body of the feline struck the bench that held the basins, and upset the one "full of nothink." I was standing fairly close to the bench at the time, but did not recollect until afterwards that I felt something strike against my legs as it fell.
Tom bounced off the bench and made for the door. By this time Mendax was in a state bordering on dementia, and Mrs. Verjuice evidently realised that he was in no condition for a debate on the subject. She followed her cat, returning in a few minutes with a bucket of hot water. With frantic haste the dancing skeleton seized on various bottles and jars from his shelves, and measured out, with bony fingers that shook, quantities of chemicals that he dashed into the bucket, and I stirred the mixture furiously, spurred on by the tongue that scarcely ceased for a moment. "
Finally he flung himself on the floor, and bade me get to work with the mixture from the bucket. To me chemistry is a sealed book, but I never cease to marvel at its powers. I had ample reason to marvel now, for with the first smear of the steaming concoction on his chest the vanished anatomy of Mendax commenced to reappear.
As I proceeded with my task it became more and more difficult to conceal my feelings, for I understood now why Mendax had hesitated to use the only reagent that would counteract the invisible fluid. Instead of the pinky white skin that had disappeared, the new Mendax showed blue—not sky-blue, or any of the finer shades of the most beautiful of colours, but that cross a between indigo and slate grey, known as Prussian blue. I think if I were choosing a new colour for my body Prussian blue would be the last that would enter my mind. It did not suit Mendax. Even the tints which Nature, had given him could not make him handsome, but his new colour scheme was atrocious beyond words. That my ministrations gave him relief from pain was the only consolation I could find, and I prayed that my desire to laugh would not get the upper hand, but it did eventually.
When, my work being completed, he donned his dressing-gown and slippers and subsided into a chair. I think his explanation alone saved me from punishment, for as I laughed he merely sat still in his chair and glowered, saying no word. Once or twice a twisted grin appeared on his face, and he appeared about to speak, but changed his mind.
At length I found sufficient gravity to inquire how long he would remain discoloured, and he broke the grim silence by remarking that he had not the slightest idea, but he supposed that the blue would, work off in time. His one trouble was that he had an important engagement for the following evening, which he would be obliged to cancel; as for my giggling, only a mind of my calibre would see anything humorous in a perfectly natural chemical reaction. Even my suggestion that he could break his engagement by pleading that he was feeling somewhat blue failed to draw him, so I lefts him to his own devices.
My house is about half a mile from that Mendax, and while I made my way homeward the recollection of the morning's proceedings cheered me as I went, until I commenced to meet folk on their way from church. The first was the mother of a certain young lady—well, never mind; but that matron, who usually greeted me so charmingly, gave one stony glare and cut me dead. The shock sobered me somewhat, but the unrestrained mirth of the new couple that passed me caused me to take stock of my appearance. Then I recollected. the splash of the basin "full of nothink," and the twisted grin of Mendax.
Down to my knees I could claim to be a well-dressed; citizen; below them my legs were inadequately covered by a fringe of ragged trouser ends, and my feet were displayed by patches of leather that appeared to hold in place only by a miracle.
The remainder of that walk was one of the most unhappy experiences of my life. I think I met everyone in the neighbourhood with whom I was acquainted, and each seemed more amused than pleased to see me. Be it remembered that I had won, not unjustly, the reputation of being the local dandy. To explain that I was as truly clothed as themselves, only a part of my clothing was invisible, was obviously impossible, so I scurried on and reached the sanctuary of my roof with burning cheeks and fury in my heart.
I had scarcely entered my door when the phone-bell rang. I snatched up the receiver.
"Say, old man," came the gravel voice of Mendax, "did you meet anyone on the way home? If you hadn't been so funny I'd—"
I slammed the receiver on the hook. I'd had enough of Mendax one day.
"There is gold in them there waves..."
THE trouble commenced with Merton. He invented a new process for treating low-grade gold-bearing soil. It was more simple than the cyanide process, and, according to Merton, would give payable results if applied to crushed bricks. His enthusiasm and Rashleigh's carefully reasoned arguments induced me to invest rather more than I should have in purchasing an interest in a syndicate to exploit Merton's invention.
It was this business that brought Merton and Rashleigh to my house one afternoon to settle some final details; and I think it must have been some devil of unreason with a warped sense of humour that urged Mendax to choose the time for one of his rare visits.
The inventor and the promoter were deep in their discussion, to which I was listening with all the intelligence I could muster when Major Mendax arrived. He came through the open French window, unheralded, and so left no opportunity for evading the infliction.
That he was intruding on a private conference must have been apparent even to Mendax, and an ordinary man would have apologised and retired, but Mendax had a code of social decency that was, praise be, peculiarly his own; he included the three of us in a general bob of his head, and strolling to the table at which we sat, he leisurely lowered his long, thin, body into the only vacant chair.
I had no course but to introduce him to my friends, who, in spite of their politeness, could hardly disguise their surprise at his inopportune appearance. If he noticed his rather frigid reception, Mendax chose to ignore it completely.
"Having a confab? Don't mind me. I'll just sit here and have a smoke until you have finished."
The position was awkward, but I turned to the others. "Major Mendax is not interested in business matters," I said. "He will not mind in least if you go on talking!"
"Not in the least," echoed Mendax, pulling his pipe from his pocket, and settling himself back in his chair. The others looked rather upset, but, in response to a covert glance from me, commenced rather haltingly to take up their debate at the point where it had stopped so abruptly.
I had more than one reason for discomfort at the moment. First there was Mendax's intention of smoking. It was purely characteristic of him that he affected a tobacco that belonged to the dark ages, known as "Navy Twist," of appalling strength and odour. Rashleigh and Merton were both drawing at "Perfectos" that probably cost a florin apiece. My second cause for uneasiness was that while he hacked up his abomination with a blunt pen-knife Mendax's eyes were riveted on the blueprints of the gold-saving plant that were spread on the table. I knew he could no more resist the lure of the blueprints than, a cat could resist cream. Presently he struck a match (on the leg of my table), and sent a cloud of poisonous gas into the atmosphere that blotted out the aroma of the "Perfectos" in one horrible spasm; and at the same moment his long, bony arm reached out and gathered in the blue prints.
Merton and Rashleigh paused in their talk, and the latter flung his half smoked cigar into the fireplace in disgust. I think it was only the imploring look in my eyes, and their recognition of my embarrassing position as host, that prevented an outbreak from both, but they resumed their talk with evident difficulty.
Meanwhile the culprit himself was obviously unconscious of having in any way offended. In justice I will say this much for him, that I do not think that the word of the business talk reached his understanding. We might have been a thousand miles away for all the interest he took. He just humped his ungainly body into a heap and pored over the prints, bearing a remarkable likeness to the well-known sketch by Furniss entitled, "Since when I have used no other."
For quite half an hour he sat sending out clouds of abomination. We took no further notice of him beyond opening another window and holding our handkerchiefs to our noses. Politeness had to make that much concession to Navy Twist.
Suddenly Mendax looked up, and his voice jarred into our talk. Circular saws might have been sharpened on his voice. "Who is Gordon Essex Merton?" he asked, tapping the blueprints with his knotty forefinger.
"I am," answered the owner of the name.
"Are you the same man who wrote an article on 'Static Electricity' in the March number of The Engineer?" went on Mendax, with evident interest.
"Yes," replied Merton, so briefly that it evident that his politeness was fast reaching its limit of perfect elasticity. Mendax ignored the very patent snub.
"Urr—You're doubtless then an interested amateur," he said smoothly (for him).
Merton stiffened in his chair, and Rashleigh ever a mail of action, watched him carefully through half-closed eyes.
"I am," spoke up the outraged inventor with crushing dignity, "the managing director and superintendent of the Vulcan Power Company, the latest concern of it kind in the Southern Hemisphere. I hold three scientific degrees, and I am a Fellow of the Royal Society."
Vendax's lopsided smile showed one yellow canine tooth: "Urr. That may account for it. However, I merely asked because it so happens that I wrote a criticism on your article in the following month's issue of the same journal."
Merton grabbed the edge of the table in front of him, and with chin out-thrust he glared at Mendax with murder in his eye.
"Did you sign it. "M.X.?" he spat out.
Mendax nodded. "That was my nom de plume."
Merton breathed hard for a moment, then: "Let me tell you, sir, you're a damned insulting ill-bred scribbler of egotistical hogwash."
I knew Mendax too well not to know that he was enjoying himself thoroughly. He looked at me maliciously.
"Really, I can't help observing that your good friend's manners are almost as elementary as his knowledge of static electricity."
"And your methods and manners, sir, stink almost as vilely as your pipe," thundered Merton.
Rashleigh flung himself on Merton and pinned his arms, while I pushed Mendax back into his chair before be had time to uncoil himself properly. Merton's blind reference to his pipe was about the only tender spot on which he could have flicked Mendax.
It took ten minutes wrangle before the meeting regained some semblance of order, but the two men eventually subsided into a sort of armed peace that it would have taken very little to terminate. Mendax had gone as near to an apology as I had ever heard from him, which made me suspect that he had something to gain thereby. When the atmosphere became a little less electrical (the storm, had not, unfortunately, affected the thickness of it) Mendax said, "Sorry I hurt your feelings, but it was your signature on these blue prints that attracted my notice. If you hadn't been so thin-skinned—"
"Thin-skinned be hanged! A man would have wanted a chilled steel hide to put up with your—"
Here Rashleigh cut in. "What were you going to say, Major Mendax?"
"Merely," replied Mendax, "that these drawings strike me as being very remarkable. A gold-saving device, I take it?"
"My invention, sir," said Merton truculently, "and my plans, sir. The patents belong to a syndicate of which we three are members. They are remarkable," he went on with a bellicose air. "It's the most effective system that was ever invented," and his tone carried a challenge to Mendax to deny it.
"Urr—My dear sir, I find them very remarkable because the inventor has circled round and round and trampled over and over a very startling theory without having sufficient intelligence to discern it." He spoke as a much-tried headmaster would to a rather thick-headed boy. It took five minutes to induce Merton to take off his hat and resume his seat, and another five for their gross personalities to cease. Thank goodness, daring the interlude Mendax pocketed his pipe.
It was Rashleigh who poured oil on the troubled waters. Mendax's statement had roused his business instincts. "Do you mean to infer," he said, "that the system is capable of improvement?"
Merton had subsided into sulky silence, but he eyed his tormentor malevolently.
"Nothing of the kind," grated Mendax. "I do say, However, that the drawings contain the germ of an idea that is worth millions—"
"Fiddlesticks and flapdoodle!" This from Merton.
He might have said more, but Rashleigh quietened him with a gesture. He was a bloodhound on the trail how. I had heard Rashleigh say that he would sell churches to the Devil had there been any financial benefit accruing.
"Here," he said, "could you prove what you say?"
"Never say anything I can't prove," snapped Mendax.
"Well," went on Rashleigh, "here's a proposal. We want some more money in the syndicate." (That was true.) "Come in with us, and we will make you an offer for your work as well."
Mendax scowled at the blueprints, and then said, "I've made it a rule never to make commercial profit from my work. I like to keep my hands clean."
"But in this case I will make an exception. My sole reason for doing so is to bring home to your interesting friend," here he looked at Merton, "what an absolutely futile mind he has."
Now Rashleigh knew as much of science as Mendax did of high finance, but he was a faultless judge of character, and had summed Mendax up to a nicety. "Would you be game to back your opinion to the extent of £500," he asked with a nicely toned hint of doubt in his voice,
For answer Mendax drew a cheque-book from his pocket, and spread it before him. "To whom shall I make it payable?" he asked, grabbing a pen; and when Rashleigh had told him he filled in the form with his awful scrawl, and then ripped it put and tossed it across the table.
"Hold on," said Rashleigh, "how long will you want to experiment?
"A week or ten days," grated Mendax. "I want these plans too," he said, gathering up the blueprints. Rashleigh nodded. Merton had reached a stage at which cold rage had left him speechless. When Rashleigh passed over a stamped and signed receipt. Mendax promptly tore it in pieces and dropped it on the floor. Then he relit his pipe and put on his hat and, wonder of wonders, he shook hands with me, a courtesy I had never before known him offer anyone.
"Thanks, old man," he said, "for a very pleasant afternoon," and with scarcely a glance at the other two, he departed, leaving behind an evil odour of Navy Twist.
"A very pleasant afternoon," repeated Merton, softly. "May the good Lord spare me from being round when he's having an unpleasant one," he added, piously.
Rashleigh turned to me. "By Jove, that is the Grand Master of the Order of Horrible Hogs. Is his cheque O.K.?"
"Good for another two noughts after it," I answered,
Merton glared at the ceiling, "Is that the Mendax who wrote the treatise on the ultra-violet rays?" And when I answered in the affirmative, he said, "To think that such a beast could have written such a book."
EXACTLY one week afterwards Mendax rang me up and asked me—no, I had better be precise—ordered me to be at the Port Melbourne town pier at half-past two, and bring those two friends of mine as well. In answer to a question, I admitted that I was capable of managing a boat. He said he had secured a suitable one, which would be in readiness for us. He also mentioned that he did not care much whether the commercial animal turned up, but at all costs I was to have Merton at our meeting.
We arrived slightly before the appointed time, though I had had some difficulty in persuading Merton to make one of the party. I was obliged to admit that our outing included a boating expedition of some sort, the reason for which I could offer no explanation. Merton, whom I could hardly blame, contended that he didn't relish the prospect of the society of Mendax in a rowing boat even for a short period; indeed he claimed that he would feel cramped if he were on the Aquitania with him. Rashleigh shied at first until I pointed out that it would not be safe to allow Merton and Mendax to come into such close proximity without some controlling influence. I explained to Rashleigh that he would, soon get used to Mendax's peculiar manner, and would not notice it. Rashleigh said that, while I might be right, he had never heard of anyone getting used to the toothache.
Exactly on time Mendax's big touring car stopped at the foot of the pier. As usual, he drove himself, because he could never get a man who would stay in his service longer than 24 hours. In the back of his car were a suitcase and a wooden box about the size of a kerosene case. He lifted out the suitcase himself and consigned the other to my care. It nearly broke both my back and Rashleigh's by the time we had carried it to the waiting boat. Mendax remarked that it contained storage batteries; had he said a battery of artillery I would have credited it.
I will pass over our embarkation. Mendax did nothing but stand on the jetty and criticise. Merton, with wrath in his heart and vitriol on his lips, answered him nobly, so nobly indeed that Rashleigh confided to me that be left nothing for anyone else to say. When we pushed off Mendax and Merton were in the stern, I was rowing with my legs straddling the heavy case, and Rashleigh was in the bows. The boat was down by the stern a good deal, which did not add to my comfort.
We rowed to a spot about midway between the railway and the town piers, at the former of which lay the long black hull of R.M.S. Malabar, and there at the order of Mendax I ceased rowing and let her drift.
Then Mendax commenced his explanation to his audience of three, who heard his amazing address with very mixed feelings. To begin with, he stated that sea water contained on an average .06 of a grain of gold to the ton in solution, and that Merton's gold-saving scheme had given the idea by which it would be practicable to deposit this gold in a pure state on copper, in fact; roughly speaking, he had evolved an apparatus that would attract gold as a magnet attracts steel.
"If," he went on, "by using the apparatus I have brought with me I can procure, say, six or eight ounces of gold in the afternoon, then perhaps you will agree that I am not the fool of the party."
"If—" said Merton with undisguised contempt.
"We'll give it a flyer, anyway," said Rashleigh. "We owe it to the syndicate not to turn down a possible chance," but his words did not sound enthusiastic.
Mendax got to work. From the suitcase he produced what appeared to be a copper frame, from the edge of which, and from some bars which crossed it, depended some dozen pieces of copper tubing, about the length and thickness of candles, to all of which were run wires that were connected with two thick insulated wires, that were in their turn hitched up to a black box in the suitcase, and afterwards to the box containing the storage batteries.
After much adjustment the copper frame was securely lashed to a strong hemp-line, and under Mendax's directions Rashleigh and I lowered it overside to a depth of about thirty feet. After that we drifted, while Mendax and Merton wrangled over the storage battery, and performed rites from which we two ignorant ones were excluded by common consent. One point I gathered from the riot in the stern was that the current Mendax was using would be effective over a radius of about two thousand feet.
Presently I noticed that we were drifting rather quickly, and were making straight for the Malabar, and just about the same time Rashleigh drew my attention to the behaviour of the line. Instead of the dead weight of copper at the end of it, it might as well have had a lively and sizable fish on it, from the way it ran taut from the cleat to which it was fastened to an angle of 45 degrees with the surface.
I was directing Mendax's attention to the phenomenon, when the pull on the line swung the bow of the boat round, and before we could get the oars out our craft rammed R.M.S. Malabar amidships, with a jolt that sent Rashleigh sprawling, and bumped Mendax and Merton together in a manner which gave me intense satisfaction.
I expected to bear some remarks on our performance from the mail steamer, but, strange to say, the incident passed unnoticed, and in the few minutes that ensued we became aware that something was causing unusual excitement on board; sufficient, indeed, to cause even Mendax to notice it, even during the trouble we had to pull clear of the steamer's towering flank.
Eventually Rashleigh took one oar and I the other, and it was like pulling a barge to get the boat back to our first position between the two piers, for she had gone down by the head as much as she had been down at the stern before.
That the experiment was not going according to timetable I could judge from the scowl on the unlovely face of Mendax, and when Rashleigh suggested that the line had fouled something he agreed to an investigation.
An investigation was not such a simple matter after all. I found that I could not haul in unaided, and it took all the united strength of me and Rashleigh, and a large amount of advice from Mendax, before we drew the "fixin's" to the surface, and then we almost dropped it in our excitement when we saw what we had hauled up.
However, with a final heave, we landed the whole concern in the suitcase in the bottom of the boat. Then we sat back, and for a while the four of us stared into the suitcase and then at each other without being able to find words to fit the situation. It was an unforgettable sight. The whole frame with its pendant tubes was one mass of gold, not a mere coating, but an almost solid mass. It was gold that seemed to live, for it twisted and wreathed in festoons round the bars with that peculiar bristling appearance that iron filings have when magnetised.
Mendax was the first to speak.
"Switch off that current," he snapped to Merton, and in a moment the whole brilliant, glittering, mass subsided, leaving the copper bare and free from its glorious mass of wealth.
Then our tongues were loosened. Merton so far forgot himself as to pat Mendax on the back. and Mendax had so far forgotten himself as not to resent the familiarity. While we gabbled and shook hands joyfully, Mendax sat frowning at the mass of gold before him, occasionally running his fingers through it thoughtfully. Then he stooped suddenly, and before we could interfere he took the suitcase in his octopus-like arms, and, with a heave of his shoulders, he cascaded the whole glorious mass overboard. That he didn't upset the boat was a miracle.
To our howl of indignant protest he only grunted that we could easily get more when we wanted it, but that at present it behoved us to get back to the shore, and to lose no time in the going. No other explanation would he give, and there was nothing for it but to obey his orders and pull back to the pier.
He piled us into his car with the suitcase and the box of storage batteries, and drove in grim silence, with a twisted grin on his face, while we three excitedly spent large fortunes and indulged in mutual congratulations.
It was when we had pulled up at the Flinders Street station, where we had asked him to drop us, that he spoke for the first time on the subject of his invention.
"If you men will take my advice, the less you have to say about today's work the less you will have to regret. You may get congratulations, but unless I'm mistaken you are more likely to get five years quod apiece, me included."
The car slipped a way and left us mystified and upset.
I KNEW next morning what he meant when I opened my paper at breakfast. I read that a case containing 5,000 ounces of specie had been dropped between the pier and the boat while the Malabar was being loaded. Between the time it had been dropped and the time the divers had gone to retrieve it the case had been broken open, and its entire contents had been stolen. The police were trying to obtain a clue that would lead to the capture of four men in a rowing boat whose actions at this time were extremely suspicious.
I went to the telephone.
"Urr," grated Mendax in answer, "So you know now do you? I knew at once that it was all alluvial gold, and that we had tapped the wrong line. I suppose that case was smashed in the fall and the magnet did the rest. Anyway I've proved what an ass Merton is."
He rang off and that was the end. He point blank refused to let us into the secret of his invention, and said we'd value money more if we worked for it honestly, for his part he had enough for his requirements. Rashleigh stormed and raged and pleaded, and even threatened him with an action to force him to hand over his invention to the syndicate. Mendax only laughed uproariously and derisively, and asked Rashleigh how he would explain the incident of the Malabar gold when he was putting his case before the Court. Finally he relinquished all claim to the £500 he had paid into the syndicate, saying that it was worth that amount to settle with Merton.
Rashleigh summed up the situation.
"I said he was the Grand Master of the Order of Horrible Ham, and I withdraw the statement and apologise; the hogs have done nothing that I know of to warrant such an insult."
Merton is dead, and Rashleigh is, I believe, a munitions millionaire in the United States, and I am not very particular about the feelings of Mendax. Therefore I give the true story of the Malabar gold robbery, especially as the lapse of time would make it somewhat difficult for the police to work up a case, even by producing my narrative in court. I could always swear that it is founded strictly on fiction, and defy the law to prove otherwise.
Dr. Victor Frankestein sought to animate the dead. But why wait until they're dead?
I HAD not seen Mendax for several months, and at our last meeting I had registered an oath that not even the prospect of being thrilled by some of his latest magic would in future induce me to be the butt for his vile and vitriolic tongue. I had told him so frankly, and in his calm "The benefit will be all mine," the arrogant insult was more in the inflection than the words, but it rankled. And now I had allowed myself to be taunted (over the telephone) into visiting him again. As I walked towards the house I consoled myself by the reflection that I need not stay should he overstep the bounds of decent behaviour, and I determined that the standards of what constituted decent behaviour should be mine and not his.
The long drive from the gate to the house was overgrown with weeds; and the 30 acres in which the house stood were a wilderness that bore witness to its owner's contempt for appearances. It was all part and parcel of the cussedness of Mendax, for I knew well that he had the means to keep 20 men employed in maintaining it if he wished.
It was not until I had hammered three times at the great paint-blistered doors, and sent hollow echoes booming through the house, that they were opened by Mrs. Verjuice, his housekeeper, and sole domestic. I have never been able to decide whether I disliked Mendax or Mrs. Verjuice the more. While talking to the one the balance always seemed in favour of the other. "Where is Major Mendax?" I asked. "I wish to see him."
She was standing as though to bar my entrance. Her very look was a quite unnecessary defiance. "Rummy thing to wish," she snorted.
"Will you kindly tell him I am here," I said coldly, disregarding the truth of her comment.
She stood aside. "Let him know yourself," she said belligerently.
I knew I would be lost if I attempted to retaliate, and replied, "Very well, if you will kindly tell me where to find him."
"If you will kindly wipe your boots, and kindly not muddy my floors, you'll kindly find him out at the back talking to my father."
I let the provocative mimicry pass; in any case safety lay that way. Her announcement that she possessed a father; and that he was on the premises, took my breath away. Mrs. Verjuice had undoubtedly left 60 years of a disagreeable life behind her, and the thought came to me that her proud parent must be fairly elderly.
"Your father, Mrs. Verjuice!" I allowed curiosity to get the better of my discretion.
"Well! what about it?" she retorted acidly. "He used to be Slogger Binns, and a better man than you ever were, or will be." Then she turned on her heel and flounced down the wide empty hall. Halfway she halted and shrilled back at me, "Any'ow I'm one of them persons that knows who my own father is." Her tone left no doubt in my mind that she classed me as one of those who did not, and could not.
She disappeared in a dim side passage and left me, boiling, to find my way for myself. It was no easy task in that desolate mansion, but I finally succeeded by finding a door that opened out on to a wide asphalted yard, bounded by the wilderness of the garden. In the middle of the yard was a packing-case, before which stood Mendax, his back towards me, engrossed with a figure that was using the case as a seat. Mendax acknowledged my presence with the barest of nods, and indicating the figure before us with his eyes, grated out "What do you think of that?"
I took at the object slowly and distastefully before I answered. It was a man, or rather the remnants of what had once been a colossal specimen of humanity. Unwarped. I should say he measured six feet six in height, with corded, hairy, gorilla-like arms of amazing length that hung idly beside him. The arms terminated in two of the hugest and ugliest hands that it had ever been my misfortune to see. The short, thick neck supported the wickedest-looking old head that ever disfigured a human body, even such a body as the one to which it belonged. It was bald except for a wispy fringe at the base of the round skull that slanted back at an angle of 45 degrees from the bushy eyebrows. It had enormous cauliflower ears and a flattened, twisted nose that told of his past profession. The slack mouth worked incessantly. This was all bad enough, but the dim red-rimmed eyes that moved furtively from my face to that of Mendax gave him an absolutely repellent expression. I suppose he was about eighty, but he looked older. Only Mrs. Verjuice could have boasted of possessing such a relative, and on inspecting him carefully I arrived at a better understanding of that lady than had previously been possible.
I looked at Mendax. He was positively gloating over the wreck.
"Good Lord, Mendax, where did you get it?" I asked in wonder.
He grinned his twisted grin: "What do you think of it? You won't hurt its feelings by being candid; it's deaf."
"Horrible!' I said with, a shudder. "Where on earth did you get it?"
He spoke without looking up. "From the Benevolent Asylum originally. It's mine, too."
Had the pitiful object been a unique work of art there could not have been greater pride in his, voice. I reminded him that Mrs. Verjuice claimed the specimen as a father.
"Oh, does she?" he said shortly. "I'll allow her that much honour, but no more. I bought him from her for £50." I passed the legal and ethical aspect of the question. Mendax was a law unto himself, and he indulged any fancies he had without restraint. All I answered was, "Well, you've been had. He's not worth fifty bob."
"Mrs. V. could have stuck me for £500 if she liked—"
Here the object interrupted.
"Slugged him with a bit of lead pipe, I did. No one ever copped me for it either," he croaked, and then stopped and chuckled wickedly.
I glanced an inquiry at Mendax. "Oh, he's always talking like that—dwelling on his glorious past. Man, that's the most perfect example of senile decay I have ever come across."
"I'll admit that," I said, "but it's infernally repulsive. What are you going to do with it?" I was certainly curious.
He turned on his heel. "Come inside," he said, leading the way through the house to the great laboratory that was at the same time his living-room and the centre of his existence. "Wait a moment," he interrupted as I was about to speak, and seating himself at a table he glued his eyes to a microscope. I stood by fingering the cotton-wool stopper of a test-tube absently. Without lifting his eyes he spoke: "I wouldn't fiddle with that if I were you."
I drew back swiftly. "Why?" I asked.
He did not appear to notice the question, but presently he spoke in disjointed sentences.
"Don't know exactly what it is. I'm cross-culturing germs. That's anthrax, bubonic, and smallpox. One hundredth of a grain killed a horse in eight minutes. Interesting to find out how much it would take to kill an ass. Beastly coroner would get nasty about it, though, I suppose."
I ignored the innuendo. Presently he straightened up.
"I believe Backford, the surgeon is a friend of yours?"
"Well," Mendax went on, "I want you to ask him to come and give me a hand with some work I want to do."
I spoke emphatically. "I value Backford's friendship, and I'll see you jiggered before I make myself responsible for his meeting you."
He contented himself with getting back. "The fact that he is your friend is a slur on his intellectual attainments. Nevertheless I want him," he grinned.
"Well, get him yourself," I answered shortly. Decency and politeness would have been wasted on him.
"Fact is," went on Mendax, crossing one stick-like leg over the other. "Fact is, someone appears to have been distorting my character to him. He's quite shy about coming. Said he'd sooner call on Mollie at the Zoo. Who's Mollie?"*
I let the question pass.
* Mollie was a popular gorilla at the Melbourne Zoo at the time the story was written.
"Then you have met Backford?" I said.
"Only over the telephone. A stiff-necked and high-stomached earl. However, I want him still."
I was interested, for Backford was the most genial of men, and worshipped Mendax on the scientific side. It occurred to me that the interview must have been worth hearing. I thought for a moment. I asked abruptly, "Why do you want him?"
"Well," he answered, "it's hardly your business, but I want him to operate on our friend Slogger Binns."
"Great Scott!" I shouted, "surely you don't want to prolong a life like that."
Mendax nodded his head like a mandarin. "I do. Not only prolong his life, but rejuvenate him."
"What? Dr. Voronoff business? Interstitial glands and that sort of thing?"'
"Interstitial mules," grunted Mendax; "I wrote to Voronoff three years ago that he was barking up the wrong tree. Phoo! The man's an infant. Corresponded for months to put some sense into his head. He threatened me with a libel action in the end. Quite interesting."
"It must have been, especially for Voronoff," I replied. "Anyhow, you think you can do what he can't, and you want Backford to help?"
He sneered back. "Strange, but I find if I talk to you long enough you get a glimmering of what I mean. You have this time, anyhow."
I stifled my irritation. To show it would only encourage him. "What an absolute beast you are," I said after a moment.
He lifted a corner of his mouth. "I'm one of the few people with the courage to speak the truth. Well, what about Backford?"
"Why pick on Binns as a subject?" I returned. "Is it a sort of fellow feeling?"
He laughed. "Not bad for you. Fact is that Binns is an absolutely perfect model of senile decay. Success with him would be proof positive. And then again the treatment might kill him. so it wouldn't be altogether wasted."
That seemed reasonable enough, but the thought of giving a new lease on life to that wreck on the box outside did not appeal to me.
"Do you know anything of his past?" I inquired.
"Not much, except that he appears to have been a prize-fighter by profession and a criminal by intent. I gather from his conversation that he has been guilty of at least one undetected murder, and I suspect a second."
Binns might have been a pillar of the Church for all Mendax cared.
I wanted to get away. Mendax in anything but tabloid doses did not agree with me, so I stood up. "Well, here's what I'll do," I said; "I can't see Backford, as I am leaving town tomorrow, but I'll write to him tonight: I'll explain as well as I can, and try and persuade him to see you, but he'll do so with his eyes open."
The untidy head bent again over the microscope. "You can find your own way out, I suppose," he raid without looking up.
"Gladly," I raid, shortly, as I turned away. I had reached the door when his voice came after me.
"Say he can name his own fee, and that he need not recognise me afterwards."
"He won't anyway, if he has any sense," I retorted, closing the door.
I wrote the letter as I had promised, extenuating nothing, naught setting down in malice, and took my trip to the country, and it was a month before I met Backford at the club. He did not open the subject himself, but in answer to my inquiry whether he had seen Mendax, Backford paused, with a whisky half-way to his lips.
"If I knew," he growled, "that Mollie at the Zoo even contemplated marriage with that beast of a friend of yours I'd forbid the banns. By Gad, Sir! I would. She would be infinitely superior to him in everything but scientific knowledge. It would be a terrible, mésalliance for Mollie." I gathered therefrom that he and Mendax had met.
"Look here, Backford," I said; "if it's not trespassing on your professional secrets, what happened ?"
He thought a moment; then, "That man is absolutely—oh! I don't know. Genius or lunatic?" A long pause. "I operated on a human ape for him, and I'm ashamed of it." He lowered his voice. "If he's right he'll revolutionise medical science. I could get no details from him, but I found out between insults that he has an unholy knowledge of biology. Don't know where he picked it up. Never took a course, so far as I know."
He was about to say more, but two men we knew came over to us. One was Carter of the Taxation Department, a neighbour of mine. He had a grievance, evidently.
"It is a disgrace to the State," he was saying, "twenty-two burglaries in the month in the one neighbourhood, and two of them with violence. Not a chance of getting the man. My place was opened last night, and he got away with £100 of loot. I've been raising Cain up at Russel Street about it."
Backford grinned. "You're lucky, old man. The jewellers seem to be having the time of their lives. I see by the papers this morning that their total loss in the three weeks has been £12,000."
Carter grinned back, "It seems to be a more lucrative profession than surgery."
I had been far enough from town to lose interest in the papers, and their talk did not affect me—until I arrived home. Then it did. For I found that my flat had been wrecked, and pretty well everything valuable that was small enough for easy transport had vanished. The visitor had used a nice discrimation in his selection, and a method of making it.
I borrowed a neighbour's telephone (the wires of my own had been carefully cut), and called the police; and while I waited I read my accumulated letters. There was one, a brief one from Mendax, demanding my immediate presence. It was a week old. There were two others, the latest of which had come that day, reiterating the demand. While, the first two were couched with characteristic rudeness, the last was worded with such politeness that made me think that something unprecedented had arisen in the life of Mendax. There was a postscript that made me thoughtful. When you come, as I trust you will, you had better bring a revolver (loaded), if you have one." Moreover, the latter itself enjoined the strictest secrecy.
I waited until the police had inspected the sacrilege towards my household gods. The representative of the C.I.D. who accompanied the uniformed men pointed out undoubted indications that the incursion had been made by the expert who had more than a score of similar enterprises to his discredit. While his comments revealed a certain amount of reluctant admiration, I had no reason to doubt that his desire to meet the genius in person was genuine. It appeared that be had chosen a number of people, influential socially, officially, and politically, as subjects for his professional attentions, and the kick they had given to the chief commissioner of police had lost nothing in force in being passed along. The representatives of the law departed, giving me little consolation, and taking with them an inventory of my losses.
Now, I did have a revolver— or, to be more accurate, I had had a revolver until my unknown visitor had departed, when, I assumed, it had also departed; so in visiting Mendax I was unable to comply with his request, but I took with me a walking-stick that I had never used since its donor, an enthusiast in Australian timbers, had presented it to me. It was made of polished red gum, and, while it was not only presentable but handsome, its weight was against everyday use.
Although I knocked long and loudly, my demands for admittance had no effect, and for a time I debated my best course of action, for I was seriously uneasy. I must either obtain assistance immediately, in spite of my instructions as to secrecy, or continue my investigations myself, and this was not inviting. I visualised a rejuvenated Slogger Binns whom I should not care to meet alone unless I were armed with a repeating rifle, and even then I doubt if I should have voluntarily intruded on him.
Then suddenly I heard voices; and one of them bore the unmistakable snarl of Mendax. From the other I should have thought he was holding converse with a bull. I hurried round the house. They were not at the side, and then came a cry—a woman's—from the direction of the yard where I had first seen Binns, and I broke into a run.
Clearly and indelibly photographed on my mind is the tableau that met my eyes as I turned the corner of the house. On the asphalt, in the middle of the yard, lay Mrs. Verjuice, an unlovely sight— with a thin streak of blood on her face and evidently unconscious. Not ten feet away from me, backed into an angle made by a window-bay, was Mendax. His face was towards me, but his eyes were fixed on a colossal, gorilla-like figure before him. There was only one such figure in the world, and although its back was towards me I recognised it immediately. But where before I had seen it bent and warped with age, now it stood erect, mighty, and horrible. Mendax held up a futile arm, while the other, in the act of swinging an axe, poured out an unparalleled volume of profanity.
"You'll call no police, you!" he shouted. Indeed, it was a moment for swift action, for I saw clearly that Slogger Binns would not regard with anything but disfavour an inconvenient witness. Much golf had trained my eye, and pure funk lent me strength as I sprang forward and swung my stick. The knob landed an inch above the huge cauliflower ear, and its owner, sagging at the knees, dropped like a pole
A second later Mendax had snatched the stick from my hand and administered another blow on the head of the prostrate, man. So far I was quite in agreement with him, but I stopped a repetition of the dose. I was about to ask a question, but Mendax did not seem in the mood for conversation; besides, his movements were extremely interesting. He peeled off his coat and waistcoat, and flung them aside, then he tore off his braces. I was about to remonstrate with him on the grounds of propriety, until I saw the method in his madness was to tie the gnarled wrists of his patient with his braces. Then he grabbed his waistcoat, in which he fingered until he produced a pocket-knife. Then he ran to the clotheslines that hung about the yard. Two of these he cut down.
Seldom have I seen a man act with such speed and such purposeful zeal as Mendax when he trussed up the form of his late assailant. All the time he talked, but not to me. His remarks were all addressed to Mr. Binns, on whom they were quite lost. I knew of old that Mendax had an amazing flood of vituperation, but I never beard anything like the language that he used towards his fallen foe, either before on since. I can only hope that it was acquired from Mr. Binns himself, and not a gift. As he talked he pulled viciously and knotted savagely until the man was swathed in rope as though in a cocoon, beyond all hope of movement or resistance.
"Take his feet," he snorted to me as he raised the man's shoulders.
"What about Mrs. Verjuice?" I asked, I glancing at her.
"The old fowl's all right; only got a crack on the jaw from papa. Serve her right, too. She started it. Take his feet."
I obeyed, and between half carrying and dragging the man we got him to the laboratory. Here with much panting we raised the huge bulk to a table. Mendax turned from a drawer and approached the table with a small cedar case in his hand. From this he chose an extremely ugly and efficient looking knife, and bent over Binns.
This was too much for me.
"Good God, man!" I gasped, clutching his sleeve; "it's murder!"
Then he turned on me, and as he shook me off he directed towards me much of what he had been saying about Binns. From purely extraneous matter I sifted enough of his meaning to understand that he was about to perform an entirely necessary surgical operation to "de-juvenute," if I may coin the word, his demonstrative patient before he recovered consciousness. As I was quite in accord with his views in this respect, I raised no further obstacle. I watched fascinated for a few moments (Mendax evidently understood his unpleasant job), and then retired to the back yard, where I was violently ill. My stomach was entirely unused to surgery.
When I had slightly recovered I turned round to find Mrs. Verjuice sitting on the ground regarding me with interest.
"Where is he?" she asked. "I mean me old man."
Briefly I outlined the situation, while she, watching me, rubbed her jaw tenderly.
"What did you hit him with?" she asked when I had finished. I pointed to the stick that lay where Mendax had dropped it. She rose painfully and walking over picked it up and weighed it in her hand.
"Did you belt him good and hard?" she inquired.
I nodded. "Hard as I could," I replied.
For the first time since I had known Mrs. Verjuice she smiled. "I'm sure I'm very much obliged," said that filial lady graciously. "I'm sorry I couldn't give him one myself; come here and I'll show you."
She led the way down a path to what had once been the stables of the mansion. There in a room that had apparently been the grooms' quarters she displayed the most astonishing collection of loot I have ever seen, and among which I recognised several articles of my own. I had estimated there was quite £20,000 of other people's property, principally jewellery, in the apartment, when Mendax joined us. He grunted his belated thanks for my intervention, adding that he thought that his "goose was cooked" when I arrived.
In the explanation that followed he told me that that he and Mrs. Verjuice had their suspicions, but could not find the hiding place until that afternoon, and it was the latter's ill-timed disclosure of the discovery that precipitated the crisis. His criticism of Mrs. Verjuice's indiscretion led to counter-criticism from the lady on science in general and rejuvenation in particular, that was to me more amusing than edifying.
I borrowed a suitcase from Mendax and retrieved my own goods from the pile, and in the discussion that followed as to the best way of returning the rest to the respective owners, he treated my suggestions with such contempt that I left him to stew in his own juice.
It was with some interest then that I read a few days later an account of how four large packing cases crammed with the proceeds of numerous robberies had been found by a morning milkman by the roadside in a distant suburb. I was vastly interested in the speculations in the newspapers as not one of the journals got within a thousand miles of the truth, which is here presented for the first time.
What can Mendax experiment with next? Oh, I know: test-tube babies...
IT had been more than three months since I had come into contact with Mendax. For reasons which would be obvious to anyone acquainted with that caustic genius, the loss of his society caused little or no regret.
On the last occasion on which I had called at his house to deliver a message for a mutual friend who feared that he would feel impelled to assault Mendax if he delivered it in person, he had refused to see me.
His housekeeper, Mrs. Verjuice, had delivered his reply to my request for an audience verbatim. It was to the effect that he was busy, and it specified most explicitly to where he wished I should go, how, as well as the length of my sojourn in that place. A few days later I met him in the street. He had either forgotten or he pretended to forget the offensiveness of his message. Indeed, I think he would have been surprised that I either remembered it or resented it.
I remember that in the course of our ten minutes' talk he referred to some cabled message that Sir Oliver Lodge had foretold the possibility of chemically vitalising artificial protoplasm, and to the condemnation of such experiments by leading churchmen. He went off into a blistering indictment of Sir Oliver Lodge's methods and of clerical interference with science, from which I gathered that he was deep in similar experiments himself, but on a much more elaborate scale.
At the moment I took little notice of his ravings, but later I had reason to remember them. That was the last I had seen or heard of him until I received a telephone summons through Mrs. Verjuice to call on him. She had said that "the boss wants to see you at once." In reply to my desire for further enlightenment, she said that it was none o' her business, and I'd be sorry for it if I didn't come. As she slammed up her receiver I caught a remark that sounded like "Nice goin's on, I don't think."
Now Mendax was, socially, an unspeakable brute. His manners were appalling, and his language was worse, but he had one inestimable virtue. He was never dull. At the time I received his peremptory message I was feeling very dull indeed. The thought that his society would be an improvement on my own at the moment urged me to pocket my pride and ascertain the meaning of the summons.
The great garden which surrounded his house seemed to be more neglected and overgrown than ever. Except for a track, the drive was obliterated by weeds. Remembering long waits on the worn mat, I hammered loudly on the paint-blistered double doors. It was Mrs. Verjuice who flung them open, rather to my surprise, before the echoes of the attack had died away.
She demanded fiercely to know whether I thought she was deaf. In exaggerated endearments I had found the only sure means of checking her venomous tongue. I bowed ceremoniously, and assured her it was only a turbulent and uncontrollable desire to gaze upon her countenance that had inspired my anxiety for admittance. "What you'll get one of these days is a clout over the head," she snorted.
I was about to tell her that even violence could not quench my devotion when a sound cut the words short on my lips. Prom the far end of the wide passage where Mendax's laboratory was situated came the muffled but unmistakable cry of an infant. Of all the wonders I had come across in that strange house the very last I should have expected was an infant. Whatever other inclination Mendax had he had none for domesticity.
I stared at Mrs. Verjuice, a figure of wide-eyed, open-mouthed interrogation. In her hard grey eyes there was a light of malicious amusement.
"'Ark at 'im—at 'is age—me bein' always respectable, too." Then as an afterthought, "Oh, ye, 'e's clever, but 'e ain't clever enough to stop that kid howlin'—nice goin's on," she sniffed.
"But whose child is it?" I demanded.
"'E sez"—she stopped abruptly.
Mendax was in his shirt sleeves. He had flung off his collar. His unlovely mat of straw-coloured hair was on end. His face bore a look of furious exasperation, combined with hopeless anguish.
As I entered he scarcely looked up. His mind seemed to be concentrated on a bundle in a blanket which he held in his arms, and from which came vociferous evidences of infantile woe. Speech left me, but I was still able to laugh, and I did.
I even heard a dry cackle from behind me. The sound of my laughter seemed to be the spark that detonated Mendax, He reared his gaunt figure and poured over us a flood of vitriolic abuse, remarkable even for him. When at length he paused for breath, Mrs. Verjuice croaked: "Oh, you wicked old devil, talkin' like that in front of yer innocent kid."
"Take the wretched thing," he shouted, holding the bundle out to her. "I cant stop it,"
"Not me," she snapped, her hands on her wide hips. "I'm in a respectable woman, I am. I cooks for yer and I washes for yer, but I nurses none of that for yer."
"But didn't I tell you—"
She cut me short. "Think I'm a fool to believe that yarn? It's the very himage of yer. Take a squint at it," she appealed to me. "It's the dead spit of 'im."
Goaded into self defence, his nerve broken, Mendax threw back the blanket from the squalling bundle. "Did you call that like me?" he demanded furiously.
As a bachelor I am no authority on babies, but never did I imagine such a totally unprepossessing specimen. Its red, crinkled face seemed to be one vast mouth, from which came a volume of sound out of all proportion to the size of the puny body. I did not think it possible to libel Mendax's face, but Mrs. Verjuice had achieved that apparently hopeless slander.
Still, I owed him something, and after a close scrutiny I observed that its eyes and forehead were very like that of Mendax. He looked as if his last support had failed him.
Then he turned to Mrs. Verjuice. "I'll give you a quid, if you'll take it and quieten it," he begged.
She took the bundle from his arms and Mendax placed a note from a roll which he drew from his pocket into the greedy, outstretched hand.
A light dawned on me.
"How much is that costing you a day?" I asked as the closed door shut off the volume of sound. He came to himself and sighed. "A five yesterday, and that's the fourth today—but its worth it." For the first time in our long acquaintance, I saw Mendax broken and cowed.
He dropped himself wearily into a chair and nodded me to another. He was so hopelessly depressed that I could not find heart to protest as he commenced to fill his pipe with his awful black tobacco.
"Tell me the worst, Mendax," I asked, "that is, if it's fit for the ears of innocence." Had he been normal that prod would have begun something. Instead he blinked at me reflectively and polluted the room with a cloud of smoke before he spoke.
"You remember the last time I saw you," he began, "we were talking of Sir Oliver Lodge's prophecies about synthetic life?"
"You were," I corrected.
He disregarded my interruption. "Well, I've been working on those lines for years. I've forgotten more than he is ever likely to know about it."
"Well?" I asked.
He stared at me with the offensive compassion that one would bestow on a congenital idiot. "Well," he mimicked me, "Isn't that sufficient?"
"I'm thick-headed, I suppose," I replied irritably, "but what's that got to do with that last thing in infants?"
"That, my poor fool," he answered, nodding his head in the direction of the faint wail that still reached us, "is the result of my experiments."
He rose and walked across the room where rows of great glass jars lined the shelves. Beginning at one end, he worked along, talking.
"Here," he said, pointing to the first jar, "was where I began. Now note the progressive improvement." The first jar showed a faint slimy sediment, which increased in other jars until a sprawling, unsightly organism covered the bottom of the last.
"Those things alive?" I demanded, nodding towards the jars.
"Not only alive," he answered, with a ring of pride, "but endowed with life by me."
"Can't say I think much of them," was my candid comment. "It's a long way from that unpleasant creation of yours to that other."
"Is it?" he sneered. "It's only one step, my friend. I got the clue from that last jar."
"A pretty long step," I said, looking up from the unpleasantness he mentioned.
"See that jar on the bench?" He pointed with his pipe stem to the great wide-mouthed amphora. "I set that jar four months ago. Up till last week it was going along as I expected. Then I had to go to Sydney for the bacteriological conference. Got back the night before last. Found Mrs. V. had left to attend some fool relative who was sick. Two or three times in the night I heard a noise and thought it was a cat howling. Came down in the morning, walked in here, and that infant was howling in the jar.
There could be no doubt of his seriousness. Whatever the facts were, Mendax believed what he told me.
"Mendax," I said, "someone must have put it there."
For a wonder he did not storm at me.
"How?" he demanded. "The only living soul who knew what I was working on was Von Herkomer, of Bonn, and he is half-way back to Germany. That poisonous old she cat was not in the house. She didn't get back until after lunch. I had to look after the youngster myself till she came."
I let it go at that for the moment. "Anyhow, Mendax, where do I come in?"
"I can't keep it," he almost whined. "I must get rid of it somehow."
There was a long and painful silence. Then he spoke: "Look here, you get your living by writing lies, don't you?"
"Trying to conciliate me?" I asked shortly.
"Well, don't you?" he insisted. "That's your profession, inventing lies and all that!" He waved his hands largely.
"As a definition of fiction it is not very adequate; but I'll admit it."
He sat up and sat forward impressively. "Well, I'll give you the biggest fee you ever got if you'll invent a story to get me out of this."
I suppressed my mirth with difficulty. "Nothing doing," I said, firmly. "Telling lies for a living is one thing, but swearing to them is another. Much as I love you, Mendax, I do draw the line."
He stood up and paced the room like a restless animal. I walked over to the bench on which the jar stood, and looked into the tangled garden. Suddenly my eye fell on a small, freshly torn splinter on the window-frame, and enlightenment came to me.
"Mendax," I said. "You are convinced that that squalling horror is synthetic?"
"Nothing can alter my conviction," he said.
"What will you pay to get it off your hands?"
There was a dawn of hope in his eyes. "You think you can manage it?" he shouted, almost.
I nodded. "Then," he broke out, "anything—£5,000, or go to £10,000 if you like."
"I think I can fix it for less. Will you leave it absolutely to me?"
He nodded his acquiescence, and I turned and left the room.
A CRASH and clatter of crockery guided me to Mrs. Verjuice in her gloomy kitchen. She met my entrance with a swift glance of suspicion. In a basket beneath the window the synthetic infant lay asleep.
I looked at it long and carefully. Slumber added little to its beauty. I looked from Mrs. Verjuice to the basket and back again, and I was prepared to swear that there was Verjuice blood and not chemicals in its veins. The look of suspicion flashed back to her face again. '"Ere!" she said, sourly, "you get outter my kitchen."
For answer I sat on the table and smiled at her ingratiatingly. "Suppose," I said, looking carefully at my fingernails, "someone was given, say, £500 and 10 shillings a week until it is 21 years old, and then, say, another £500. Do you know of anyone who would adopt that child and register it as her own?"
I heard her give a short gasp.
"Someone forced the laboratory window recently," I added casually.
There was another gasp.
"No questions asked on either side," I went on, "and besides, he deserves it!"
"'E do that," she chuckled, Then, after a pause, "Wot about £1,000 down and a quid a week?" she ventured.
I would not haggle. Mendax could afford it, and I did not love him over much. "Will you get it away tonight?"
"Very good," I said, "you'll trust me to fix up about the money?"
"You, but not 'im," she replied emphatically.
Our eyes met, and we both laughed. "Tell me," I asked. "Between ourselves. How did you know what he was at?"
She looked round and lowered her voice.
"I 'eard 'im talkin' to that German bloke one day. The winder was open."
"Whose?" I glanced down at the basket.
"Me granddaughter's," she grinned. "Most providential it were, too. I knew he was comin' back that night, so I slipped over an' got through the window. I emptied a lot o' muck out of the jar and stood by to shove the kid in when I 'eard 'im comin.' Got dashed near froze, too."
A few minutes later I was telling Mendax that Mrs. Verjuice had agreed to get a friend to adopt it. "I want two cheques for £1,000 each, one open. There'll be a few pounds for legal expenses, too," I added.
"Best money I ever spent," he said as he passed me two cheques before I left.
"I don't think I'd go on with those experiments if I were you, Mendax," I said as we strolled down the drive.
"Do you take me for a blithered fool?" he asked with a return to his own self.
"Perhaps, and perhaps not," was my cryptic reply as I left him.
as by "The Chiel"
Pay the man his forty bob!
"AND," Mendax concluded, his voice shrill with wrath, "they fined me forty shillings with distress in default. And the magistrate, a cocky little blighter, had the frozen cheek to tell me that I deserved to be fined for contempt, also." Then, after a pause he added, "And you stand there grinning like an ape."
My apelike grin expanded into a laugh as I looked up from the pile of letters he had pushed into my hand. "Well," I said, "judging from this correspondence, you asked for it.
"Listen!" I went on. "You refused to take my advice, and you handled the business yourself. When you were asked for a reasonable explanation why you did not vote, you addressed the electoral authority as, wait"— I turned up the letter— "yes, as a blithered jackass. Also, if that were not enough, you referred to the two candidates as psychopathic impostors, and said you would not insult your conscience by voting for either."
"Well," he protested, "I had to tell the truth."
"A little tactless, don't you think?"
My understatement passed over his head. "Tactless, my foot," he shouted. "That's the only language these Government blighters understand."
"Apparently they did understand," I said and passed him back the letters.
"But, forty bob!" he wailed.
"You got out of it lightly." and there was no sympathy in my voice. "You're no more exempt from the law than anyone else."
He paced irritably up and down the great laboratory in which we talked. It was here where his warped genius had achieved some astounding scientific marvels that he never proclaimed.
Presently he paused and turned to me. "So I have to pay?"
I nodded. "You can't fight the law, and the whole country, Mendax."
His eyes ran round the maze of instruments and machinery in sight, and a lopsided smile lifted one corner of his mouth. "Perhaps not," he muttered. And then, "By heck, though, I can punish the whole country for making damned silly laws."
"A big contract," I laughed, "and for forty bob."
I made up his income tax returns, and knew that he had one of the few six-figure incomes in the Commonwealth, and that his living expenses did not amount to £250 p.a.
"It does not matter a hoot whether it is forty bob, pounds, or pence," he snarled. "I've been rooked by a dashed insolent Jack- in-office, and told off by a little squirt on the bench, because I did my duty to society in refusing to be party to sending one or two morons to Canberra."
What the PM said must have rankled. Mendax's manner at any time was an incitement to violence, and his conflict with an authority that held a whip hand must have come as a shock to his caustic system. The things he said about our legislative and judicial systems were entertaining but unprintable. My amusement drew his wrath on me, and as I had found by long experience that the only way to cope with him was to meet insult by insult, I told him where he could go.
As I left, he called after me, "Thanks, my dear idiot, I'll send for you again when I need an emetic." That was Mendax.
That night after dinner I tried to ring up a friend with whom I had an appointment next day, in order to cancel it. Apart from a momentary irritation at finding my line was dead, I thought no more about it. I was reminded, however, early on the following morning, when my neighbour, Carter, came in and asked if he might use my telephone, as something had happened to his. Mine, too, was still dead. About fifteen minutes later he returned to tell me that every telephone in the street had gone phut. The things he said about the service were both lurid and uncomplimentary.
That afternoon I had to attend a board meeting in the city. I noticed vaguely that there seemed to be an unusual amount of activity in the streets, and that the motor-car jam at the intersections was above normal. It was not until I arrived at the company's office, usually a home of well-ordered and dignified activity, that I gained enlightenment. Its calm had been exchanged for the confusion of a disturbed ant heap. The staff was in a state of jostling disorder. The public was clamouring at its counters, and I heard voices raised, and expressions used that savoured more of the fish market than of high finance. In the boardroom I was greeted by a hot and furious general manager.
"Hold on! Jimmy," I begged. "What's it all about? What's happened?"
"Happened! Happened!" he yelped. "Haven't you heard? The entire telephone system of the Commonwealth collapsed completely last night. Every line is dead."
"Oh, nonsense!" I said. "My line is out, I know— but the entire system—impossible!"
"I tell you it's true." Jimmy unconsciously executed an ungraceful pas seul. "I've just come in from headquarters at the G.P.O. They're all crazy there. All crazy. I saw Hutchinson, though. He'd got in to one of the men higher up, and he tells me that they are utterly bewildered. Can't account for it."
"Well," I asked, "what are you doing?"
"Doing! What the blazes can I do? We're trying to hire messengers, and can't get any. You saw that howling bear pit outside?" He pointed towards the general office. "Well, every office in the city is like that."
Our meeting lapsed for want of a quorum, for the first time in the board's thirty years of existence. Two of the seven who should have put in an appearance, and who trusted to luck that the others would be there, stayed for about half an hour, during which we discussed telephones. Except for a wasted afternoon, the disruption of communication touched me but lightly, so far. However, it caught up with me that evening. Dinner was sketchy —very sketchy. It appeared that the system of ordering by telephone from the tradespeople had completely wrecked the domestic organisation, because there was no telephone by which to order. Our cook was temperamental. Unfortunately, Vera, my wife, had travelled some twenty miles that afternoon in response to an invitation from a friend, to find that her hostess had been called away to a sick mother. When she arrived at home again she also was feeling a bit temperamental. I never heard the full details of her exchanges with the cook, but, whatever they were, they left us cookless.
Next day the failure of the telephone system crowded all other news off the front pages of all of our newspapers. I never envied a man less than I did the Postmaster-General when I read what they said about him and his department. His plea that the public should slow down on letter writing because the sudden flood of letters had swamped the post-offices, was received with what I think was undeserved derision. Next day he had to beg for a let- up on telegrams. By the end of the week telegraphic despatches were two days behind in transmission, and the letter-carriers had struck.
Extracts from newspapers gave some idea of what the collapse of the telephone service meant at the end of a fortnight. The newspapers were publishing news days old, despite the organisation of an interstate aeroplane and motor-car service. The Government had refused them telegraphic priority. Their reactions were not altogether favourable to the Government. From what they published, however, it was clear that commerce and finance in Australia were in a chaotic state. There were hundreds of advertisements for messenger boys at £3 and £4 a week with no takers. They opened special classified "ads" columns for people wishing to communicate with friends in a hurry. These columns were more worth reading than the news. The Government kept on reiterating that everything humanly possible was being done to discover the cause of the failure of the telephones. There was an acrimonious correspondence in the Press between theorists who claimed that the cause of the trouble lay in some obscure electrical influence beyond the stratosphere, and those practical people who said the theorists were nuts—or words to that effect.
Now, it is curious that until I read a few lines in one Government announcement, a possible cause for the trouble never entered my mind. The announcement gave the names of several scientists who were appointed as a committee to investigate the calamity. Among these names was that of the "noted research worker, Major Max Mendax." Then a light came to me. I threw aside my paper, grabbed my hat, and sallied forth to call on Mendax. His housekeeper, Mrs Verjuice, admitted me. "Is he at home?" I asked.
She nodded her wrinkled old head. "Yes, and 'e's up to somethink dirty if I knows 'im. 'E's been whistlin' for days, and 'e never whistles unless 'e's doin' someone dirt." It was evidence, but not confirmation.
I found Mendax in his laboratory with his eyes glued to a double-barrelled microscope. He looked up as I entered, but immediately resumed his work with provocative intent. I waited a while, but he continued to ignore me. Then I said, "Mendax, you ruffian. You did it."
"Did what?" his eyes still at his lenses.
"Scuppered the telephones."
His head came up, and there was a twisted grin on his face. "That slander is worth £10,000 in any court."
"It'll be worth ten years to you if you don't stop it," I replied.
"You blazing idiot! Where's your proof? Why, I could choke you in the witness box with your own stupidity,"
"You did it," I reiterated, "proof or no proof."
He leaned back laughing. "Well—what of it?" My word against yours—your bare word."
"Stop it, Mendax," I begged.
"At a price." He was still laughing.
"What do you want?" I demanded.
"Your promise of secrecy, and an apology for your abominable smugness about that fine. I paid that forty bob—but I said I would punish them. You laughed at that. Now apologise."
There was nothing else for it. I seethed, but apologised—humbly, in word at least.
Then he slowly unfolded his ungainly length from his chair, walked down the laboratory with me at his heels, stopped a purring machine, and threw a switch.
"There!" he turned to me chuckling. "As easy as that."
"You mean?" I asked.
"Just that," he answered. Then, as he walked back to resume his work, he said: "Do you know, I think it not a bad idea to remind people not to place too much dependence on the artificial amenities of life."
"You ought to be poleaxed," I said with feeling.
"Tut! Tut! would you like me to switch that machine on again?"
I yabbed hastily and apologised again.
"Then get out and go home," he retorted.
As I went down the passage his voice followed me. "Don't forget—forty bob, or in default distress." And I wasn't the one who was distressed.
Roy Glashan's Library.
Non sibi sed omnibus
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