In a night club of many lights and much high-pitched laughter, where he had come for an hour of forgetfulness and an execrable dinner, John Northwood was suddenly conscious that Fate had begun shuffling the cards of his destiny for a dramatic game.
First, he was aware that the singularly ugly and deformed man at the next table was gazing at him with an intense, almost excited scrutiny. But, more disturbing than this, was the scowl of hate on the face of another man, as handsome as this other was hideous, who sat in a far corner hidden behind a broad column, with rude elbows on the table, gawking first at Northwood and then at the deformed, almost hideous man.
Northwood’s blood chilled over the expression on the handsome, fair-haired stranger’s perfectly carved face. If a figure in marble could display a fierce, unnatural passion, it would seem no more eldritch than the hate in the icy blue eyes.
It was not a new experience for Northwood to be stared at: he was not merely a good-looking young fellow of twenty-five, he was scenery, magnificent and compelling. Furthermore, he had been in the public eye for years, first as a precocious child and, later, as a brilliant young scientist. Yet, for all his experience with hero worshippers to put an adamantine crust on his sensibilities, he grew warm-eared under the gaze of these two strangers--this hunchback with a face like a grotesque mask in a Greek play, this other who, even handsomer than himself, chilled the blood queerly with the cold perfection of his godlike masculine beauty.
Northwood sensed something familiar about the hunchback. Somewhere he had seen that huge, round, intelligent face splattered with startling features. The very breadth of the man’s massive brow was not altogether unknown to him, nor could Northwood look into the mournful, near-sighted black eyes without trying to recall when and where he had last seen them.
But this other of the marble-perfect nose and jaw, the blond, thick-waved hair, was totally a stranger, whom Northwood fervently hoped he would never know too well.
Trying to analyze the queer repugnance that he felt for this handsome, boldly staring fellow, Northwood decided: “He’s like a newly-made wax figure endowed with life.”
Shivering over his own fantastic thought, he again glanced swiftly at the hunchback, who he noticed was playing with his coffee, evidently to prolong the meal.
One year of calm-headed scientific teaching in a famous old eastern university had not made him callous to mysteries. Thus, with a feeling of high adventure, he finished his supper and prepared to go. From the corner of his eye, he saw the hunchback leave his seat, while the handsome man behind the column rose furtively, as though he, too, intended to follow.
Northwood was out in the dusky street about thirty seconds, when the hunchback came from the foyer. Without apparently noticing Northwood, he hailed a taxi. For a moment, he stood still, waiting for the taxi to pull up at the curb. Standing thus, with the street light limning every unnatural angle of his twisted body and every queer abnormality of his huge features, he looked almost repulsive.
On his way to the taxi, his thick shoulder jostled the younger man. Northwood felt something strike his foot, and, stooping in the crowded street, picked up a black leather wallet.
“Wait!” he shouted as the hunchback stepped into the waiting taxi.
But the man did not falter. In a moment, Northwood lost sight of him as the taxi moved away.
He debated with himself whether or not he should attempt to follow. And while he stood thus in indecision, the handsome stranger approached him.
“Good evening to you,” he said curtly. His rich, musical voice, for all its deepness, held a faint hint of the tremulous, birdlike notes heard in the voice of a young child who has not used his vocal chords long enough for them to have lost their exquisite newness.
“Good evening,” echoed Northwood, somewhat uncertainly. A sudden aura of repulsion swept coldly over him. Seen close, with the brilliant light of the street directly on his too perfect face, the man was more sinister than in the café. Yet Northwood, struggling desperately for a reason to explain his violent dislike, could not discover why he shrank from this splendid creature, whose eyes and flesh had a new, fresh appearance rarely seen except in very young boys.
“I want what you picked up,” went on the stranger.
“It isn’t yours!” Northwood flashed back. Ah! that effluvium of hatred which seemed to weave a tangible net around him!
“Nor is it yours. Give it to me!”
“You’re insolent, aren’t you?”
“If you don’t give it to me, you will be sorry.” The man did not raise his voice in anger, yet the words whipped Northwood with almost physical violence. “If he knew that I saw everything that happened in there--that I am talking to you at this moment--he would tremble with fear.”
“But you can’t intimidate me.”
“No?” For a long moment, the cold blue eyes held his contemptuously. “No? I can’t frighten you--you worm of the Black Age?”
Before Northwood’s horrified sight, he vanished; vanished as though he had turned suddenly to air and floated away.
The street was not crowded at that time, and there was no pressing group of bodies to hide the splendid creature. Northwood gawked stupidly, mouth half open, eyes searching wildly everywhere. The man was gone. He had simply disappeared, in this sane, electric-lighted street.
Suddenly, close to Northwood’s ear, grated a derisive laugh. “I can’t frighten you?” From nowhere came that singularly young-old voice.
As Northwood jerked his head around to meet blank space, a blow struck the corner of his mouth. He felt the warm blood run over his chin.
“I could take that wallet from you, worm, but you may keep it, and see me later. But remember this--the thing inside never will be yours.”
The words fell from empty air.
For several minutes, Northwood waited at the spot, expecting another demonstration of the abnormal, but nothing else occurred. At last, trembling violently, he wiped the thick moisture from his forehead and dabbed at the blood which he still felt on his chin.
But when he looked at his handkerchief, he muttered:
“Well, I’ll be jiggered!”
The handkerchief bore not the slightest trace of blood.
Under the light in his bedroom, Northwood examined the wallet. It was made of alligator skin, clasped with a gold signet that bore the initial M. The first pocket was empty; the second yielded an object that sent a warm flush to his face.
It was the photograph of a gloriously beautiful girl, so seductively lovely that the picture seemed almost to be alive. The short, curved upper lip, the full, delicately voluptuous lower, parted slightly in a smile that seemed to linger in every exquisite line of her face. She looked as though she had just spoken passionately, and the spirit of her words had inspired her sweet flesh and eyes.
Northwood turned his head abruptly and groaned, “Good Heavens!”
He had no right to palpitate over the picture of an unknown beauty. Only a month ago, he had become engaged to a young woman whose mind was as brilliant as her face was plain. Always he had vowed that he would never marry a pretty girl, for he detested his own masculine beauty sincerely.
He tried to grasp a mental picture of Mary Burns, who had never stirred in him the emotion that this smiling picture invoked. But, gazing at the picture, he could not remember how his fiancée looked.
Suddenly the picture fell from his fingers and dropped to the floor on its face, revealing an inscription on the back. In a bold, masculine hand, he read: “Your future wife.”
“Some lucky fellow is headed for a life of bliss,” was his jealous thought.
He frowned at the beautiful face. What was this girl to that hideous hunchback? Why did the handsome stranger warn him, “The thing inside never will be yours?”
Again he turned eagerly to the wallet.
In the last flap he found something that gave him another surprise: a plain white card on which a name and address were written by the same hand that had penned the inscription on the picture.
Emil Mundson, Ph. D., 44-1/2 Indian Court
Emil Mundson, the electrical wizard and distinguished scientific writer, friend of the professor of science at the university where Northwood was an assistant professor; Emil Mundson, whom, a week ago, Northwood had yearned mightily to meet.
Now Northwood knew why the hunchback’s intelligent, ugly face was familiar to him. He had seen it pictured as often as enterprising news photographers could steal a likeness from the over-sensitive scientist, who would never sit for a formal portrait.
Even before Northwood had graduated from the university where he now taught, he had been avidly interested in Emil Mundson’s fantastic articles in scientific journals. Only a week ago, Professor Michael had come to him with the current issue of New Science, shouting excitedly:
“Did you read this, John, this article by Emil Mundson?” His shaking, gnarled old fingers tapped the open magazine.
Northwood seized the magazine and looked avidly at the title of the article, “Creatures of the Light.”
“No, I haven’t read it,” he admitted. “My magazine hasn’t come yet.”
“Run through it now briefly, will you? And note with especial care the passages I have marked. In fact, you needn’t bother with anything else just now. Read this--and this--and this.” He pointed out penciled paragraphs.
Man always has been, always will be a creature of the light. He
is forever reaching for some future point of perfected evolution
which, even when his most remote ancestor was a fish creature
composed of a few cells, was the guiding power that brought him
up from the first stinking sea and caused him to create gods in
his own image.
It is this yearning for perfection which sets man apart from all
other life, which made him man even in the rudimentary stages
of his development. He was man when he wallowed in the slime of
the new world and yearned for the air above. He will still be
man when he has evolved into that glorious creature of the
future whose body is deathless and whose mind rules the
Professor Michael, looking over Northwood’s shoulder, interrupted the reading:
“Man always has been man,” he droned emphatically. “That’s not original with friend Mundson, of course; yet it is a theory that has not received sufficient investigation.” He indicated another marked paragraph. “Read this thoughtfully, John. It’s the crux of Mundson’s thought.”
Since the human body is chemical and electrical, increased
knowledge of its powers and limitations will enable us to work
with Nature in her sublime but infinitely slow processes of
human evolution. We need not wait another fifty thousand years
to be godlike creatures. Perhaps even now we may be standing at
the beginning of the splendid bridge that will take us to that
state of perfected evolution when we shall be Creatures who have
reached the Light.
Northwood looked questioningly at the professor. “Queer, fantastic thing, isn’t it?”
Professor Michael smoothed his thin, gray hair with his dried-out hand. “Fantastic?” His intellectual eyes behind the thick glasses sought the ceiling. “Who can say? Haven’t you ever wondered why all parents expect their children to be nearer perfection than themselves, and why is it a natural impulse for them to be willing to sacrifice themselves to better their offspring?” He paused and moistened his pale, wrinkled lips. “Instinct, Northwood. We Creatures of the Light know that our race shall reach that point in evolution when, as perfect creatures, we shall rule all matter and live forever.” He punctuated the last words with blows on the table.
Northwood laughed dryly. “How many thousands of years are you looking forward, Professor?”
The professor made an obscure noise that sounded like a smothered sniff. “You and I shall never agree on the point that mental advancement may wipe out physical limitations in the human race, perhaps in a few hundred years. It seems as though your profound admiration for Dr. Mundson would win you over to this pet theory.”
“But what sane man can believe that even perfectly developed beings, through mental control, could overcome Nature’s fixed laws?”
“We don’t know! We don’t know!” The professor slapped the magazine with an emphatic hand. “Emil Mundson hasn’t written this article for nothing. He’s paving the way for some announcement that will startle the scientific world. I know him. In the same manner he gave out veiled hints of his various brilliant discoveries and inventions long before he offered them to the world.”
“But Dr. Mundson is an electrical wizard. He would not be delving seriously into the mysteries of evolution, would he?”
“Why not?” The professor’s wizened face screwed up wisely. “A year ago, when he was back from one of those mysterious long excursions he takes in that weirdly different aircraft of his, about which he is so secretive, he told me that he was conducting experiments to prove his belief that the human brain generates electric current, and that the electrical impulses in the brain set up radioactive waves that some day, among other miracles, will make thought communication possible. Perfect man, he says, will perform mental feats which will give him complete mental domination over the physical.”
Northwood finished reading and turned thoughtfully to the window. His profile in repose had the straight-nosed, full-lipped perfection of a Greek coin. Old, wizened Professor Michael, gazing at him covertly, smothered a sigh.
“I wish you knew Dr. Mundson,” he said. “He, the ugliest man in the world, delights in physical perfection. He would revel in your splendid body and brilliant mind.”
Northwood blushed hotly. “You’ll have to arrange a meeting between us.”
“I have.” The professor’s thin, dry lips pursed comically. “He’ll drop in to see you within a few days.”
And now John Northwood sat holding Dr. Mundson’s card and the wallet which the scientist had so mysteriously dropped at his feet.
Here was high adventure, perhaps, for which he had been singled out by the famous electrical wizard. While excitement mounted in his blood, Northwood again examined the photograph. The girl’s strange eyes, odd in expression rather than in size or shape, seemed to hold him. The young man’s breath came quicker.
“It’s a challenge,” he said softly. “It won’t hurt to see what it’s all about.”
His watch showed eleven o’clock. He would return the wallet that night. Into his coat pocket he slipped a revolver. One sometimes needed weapons in Indian Court.
He took a taxi, which soon turned from the well-lighted streets into a section where squalid houses crowded against each other, and dirty children swarmed in the streets in their last games of the day.
Indian Court was little more than an alley, dark and evil smelling.
The chauffeur stopped at the entrance and said:
“If I drive in, I’ll have to back out, sir. Number forty-four and a half is the end house, facing the entrance.”
“You’ve been here before?” asked Northwood.
“Last week I drove the queerest bird here--a fellow as good-looking as you, who had me follow the taxi occupied by a hunchback with a face like Old Nick.” The man hesitated and went on haltingly: “It might sound goofy, mister, but there was something funny about my fare. He jumped out, asked me the charge, and, in the moment I glanced at my taxi-meter, he disappeared. Yes, sir. Vanished, owing me four dollars, six bits. It was almost ghostlike, mister.”
Northwood laughed nervously and dismissed him. He found his number and knocked at the dilapidated door. He heard a sudden movement in the lighted room beyond, and the door opened quickly.
Dr. Mundson faced him.
“I knew you’d come!” he said with a slight Teutonic accent. “Often I’m not wrong in sizing up my man. Come in.”
Northwood cleared his throat awkwardly. “You dropped your wallet at my feet, Dr. Mundson. I tried to stop you before you got away, but I guess you did not hear me.”
He offered the wallet, but the hunchback waved it aside.
“A ruse, of course,” he confessed. “It just was my way of testing what your Professor Michael told about you--that you are extraordinarily intelligent, virile, and imaginative. Had you sent the wallet to me, I should have sought elsewhere for my man. Come in.”
Northwood followed him into a living room evidently recently furnished in a somewhat hurried manner. The furniture, although rich, was not placed to best advantage. The new rug was a trifle crooked on the floor, and the lamp shades clashed in color with the other furnishings.
Dr. Mundson’s intense eyes swept over Northwood’s tall, slim body.
“Ah, you’re a man!” he said softly. “You are what all men would be if we followed Nature’s plan that only the fit shall survive. But modern science is permitting the unfit to live and to mix their defective beings with the developing race!” His huge fist gesticulated madly. “Fools! Fools! They need me and perfect men like you.”
“Because you can help me in my plan to populate the earth with a new race of godlike people. But don’t question me too closely now. Even if I should explain, you would call me insane. But watch; gradually I shall unfold the mystery before you, so that you will believe.”
He reached for the wallet that Northwood still held, opened it with a monstrous hand, and reached for the photograph. “She shall bring you love. She’s more beautiful than a poet’s dream.”
A warm flush crept over the young man’s face.
“I can easily understand,” he said, “how a man could love her, but for me she comes too late.”
“Pooh! Fiddlesticks!” The scientist snapped his fingers. “This girl was created for you. That other--you will forget her the moment you set eyes on the sweet flesh of this Athalia. She is an houri from Paradise--a maiden of musk and incense.” He held the girl’s photograph toward the young man. “Keep it. She is yours, if you are strong enough to hold her.”
Northwood opened his card case and placed the picture inside, facing Mary’s photograph. Again the warning words of the mysterious stranger rang in his memory: “The thing inside never will be yours.“
“Where to,” he said eagerly; “and when do we start?”
“To the new Garden of Eden,” said the scientist, with such a beatific smile that his face was less hideous. “We start immediately. I have arranged with Professor Michael for you to go.”
Northwood followed Dr. Mundson to the street and walked with him a few blocks to a garage where the scientist’s motor car waited.
“The apartment in Indian Court is just a little eccentricity of mine,” explained Dr. Mundson. “I need people in my work, people whom I must select through swift, sure tests. The apartment comes in handy, as to-night.”
Northwood scarcely noted where they were going, or how long they had been on the way. He was vaguely aware that they had left the city behind, and were now passing through farms bathed in moonlight.
At last they entered a path that led through a bit of woodland. For half a mile the path continued, and then ended at a small, enclosed field. In the middle of this rested a queer aircraft. Northwood knew it was a flying machine only by the propellers mounted on the top of the huge ball-shaped body. There were no wings, no birdlike hull, no tail.
“It looks almost like a little world ready to fly off into space,” he commented.
“It is just about that.” The scientist’s squat, bunched-out body, settled squarely on long, thin, straddled legs, looked gnomelike in the moonlight. “One cannot copy flesh with steel and wood, but one can make metal perform magic of which flesh is not capable. My sun-ship is not a mechanical reproduction of a bird. It is--but, climb in, young friend.”
Northwood followed Dr. Mundson into the aircraft. The moment the scientist closed the metal door behind them, Northwood was instantly aware of some concealed horror that vibrated through his nerves. For one dreadful moment, he expected some terrific agent of the shadows that escaped the electric lights to leap upon him. And this was odd, for nothing could be saner than the globular interior of the aircraft, divided into four wedge-shaped apartments.
Dr. Mundson also paused at the door, puzzled, hesitant.
“Someone has been here!” he exclaimed. “Look, Northwood! The bunk has been occupied--the one in this cabin I had set aside for you.”
He pointed to the disarranged bunk, where the impression of a head could still be seen on a pillow.
“A tramp, perhaps.”
“No! The door was locked, and, as you saw, the fence around this field was protected with barbed wire. There’s something wrong. I felt it on my trip here all the way, like someone watching me in the dark. And don’t laugh! I have stopped laughing at all things that seem unnatural. You don’t know what is natural.”
Northwood shivered. “Maybe someone is concealed about the ship.”
“Impossible. Me, I thought so, too. But I looked and looked, and there was nothing.”
All evening Northwood had burned to tell the scientist about the handsome stranger in the Mad Hatter Club. But even now he shrank from saying that a man had vanished before his eyes.
Dr. Mundson was working with a succession of buttons and levers. There was a slight jerk, and then the strange craft shot up, straight as a bullet from a gun, with scarcely a sound other than a continuous whistle.
“The vertical rising aircraft perfected,” explained Dr. Mundson. “But what would you think if I told you that there is not an ounce of gasoline in my heavier-than-air craft?”
“I shouldn’t be surprised. An electrical genius would seek for a less obsolete source of power.”
In the bright flare of the electric lights, the scientist’s ugly face flushed. “The man who harnesses the sun rules the world. He can make the desert places bloom, the frozen poles balmy and verdant. You, John Northwood, are one of the very few to fly in a machine operated solely by electrical energy from the sun’s rays.”
“Are you telling me that this airship is operated with power from the sun?”
“Yes. And I cannot take the credit for its invention.” He sighed. “The dream was mine, but a greater brain developed it--a brain that may be greater than I suspect.” His face grew suddenly graver.
A little later Northwood said: “It seems that we must be making fabulous speed.”
“Perhaps!” Dr. Mundson worked with the controls. “Here, I’ve cut her down to the average speed of the ordinary airplane. Now you can see a bit of the night scenery.”
Northwood peeped out the thick glass porthole. Far below, he saw two tiny streaks of light, one smooth and stationery, the other wavering as though it were a reflection in water.
“That can’t be a lighthouse!” he cried.
The scientist glanced out. “It is. We’re approaching the Florida Keys.”
“Impossible! We’ve been traveling less than an hour.”
“But, my young friend, do you realize that my sun-ship has a speed of over one thousand miles an hour, how much over I dare not tell you?”
Throughout the night, Northwood sat beside Dr. Mundson, watching his deft fingers control the simple-looking buttons and levers. So fast was their flight now that, through the portholes, sky and earth looked the same: dark gray films of emptiness. The continuous weird whistle from the hidden mechanism of the sun-ship was like the drone of a monster insect, monotonous and soporific during the long intervals when the scientist was too busy with his controls to engage in conversation.
For some reason that he could not explain, Northwood had an aversion to going into the sleeping apartment behind the control room. Then, towards morning, when the suddenly falling temperature struck a biting chill throughout the sun-ship, Northwood, going into the cabin for fur coats, discovered why his mind and body shrank in horror from the cabin.
After he had procured the fur coats from a closet, he paused a moment, in the privacy of the cabin, to look at Athalia’s picture. Every nerve in his body leaped to meet the magnetism of her beautiful eyes. Never had Mary Burns stirred emotion like this in him. He hung over Mary’s picture, wistfully, hoping almost prayerfully that he could react to her as he did to Athalia; but her pale, over-intellectual face left him cold.
“Cad!” he ground out between his teeth. “Forgetting her so soon!”
The two pictures were lying side by side on a little table. Suddenly an obscure noise in the room caught his attention. It was more vibration than noise, for small sounds could scarcely be heard above the whistle of the sun-ship. A slight compression of the air against his neck gave him the eery feeling that someone was standing close behind him. He wheeled and looked over his shoulder. Half ashamed of his startled gesture, he again turned to his pictures. Then a sharp cry broke from him.
Athalia’s picture was gone.
He searched for it everywhere in the room, in his own pockets, under the furniture. It was nowhere to be found.
In sudden, overpowering horror, he seized the fur coats and returned to the control room.
Dr. Mundson was changing the speed.
“Look out the window!” he called to Northwood.
The young man looked and started violently. Day had come, and now that the sun-ship was flying at a moderate speed, the ocean beneath was plainly visible; and its entire surface was covered with broken floes of ice and small, ragged icebergs. He seized a telescope and focused it below. A typical polar scene met his eyes: penguins strutted about on cakes of ice, a whale blowing in the icy water.
“A part of the Antarctic that has never been explored,” said Dr. Mundson; “and there, just showing on the horizon, is the Great Ice Barrier.” His characteristic smile lighted the morose black eyes. “I am enough of the dramatist to wish you to be impressed with what I shall show you within less than an hour. Accordingly, I shall make a landing and let you feel polar ice under your feet.”
After less than a minute’s search, Dr. Mundson found a suitable place on the ice for a landing, and, with a few deft manipulations of the controls, brought the sun-ship swooping down like an eagle on its prey.
For a long moment after the scientist had stepped out on the ice, Northwood paused at the door. His feet were chained by a strange reluctance to enter this white, dead wilderness of ice. But Dr. Mundson’s impatient, “Ready?” drew from him one last glance at the cozy interior of the sun-ship before he, too, went out into the frozen stillness.
They left the sun-ship resting on the ice like a fallen silver moon, while they wandered to the edge of the Barrier and looked at the gray, narrow stretch of sea between the ice pack and the high cliffs of the Barrier. The sun of the commencing six-months’ Antarctic day was a low, cold ball whose slanted rays struck the ice with blinding whiteness. There were constant falls of ice from the Barrier, which thundered into the ocean amid great clouds of ice smoke that lingered like wraiths around the edge. It was a scene of loneliness and waiting death.
“What’s that?” exclaimed the scientist suddenly.
Out of the white silence shrilled a low whistle, a familiar whistle. Both men wheeled toward the sun-ship.
Before their horrified eyes, the great sphere jerked and glided up, and swerved into the heavens.
Up it soared; then, gaining speed, it swung into the blue distance until, in a moment, it was a tiny star that flickered out even as they watched.
Both men screamed and cursed and flung up their arms despairingly. A penguin, attracted by their cries, waddled solemnly over to them and regarded them with manlike curiosity.
“Stranded in the coldest spot on earth!” groaned the scientist.
“Why did it start itself, Dr. Mundson!” Northwood narrowed his eyes as he spoke.
“It didn’t!” The scientist’s huge face, red from cold, quivered with helpless rage. “Human hands started it.”
“What! Whose hands?”
“Ach! Do I know?” His Teutonic accent grew more pronounced, as it always did when he was under emotional stress. “Somebody whose brain is better than mine. Somebody who found a way to hide away from our eyes. Ach, Gott! Don’t let me think!”
His great head sank between his shoulders, giving him, in his fur suit, the grotesque appearance of a friendly brown bear.
“Doctor Mundson,” said Northwood suddenly, “did you have an enemy, a man with the face and body of a pagan god--a great, blond creature with eyes as cold and cruel as the ice under our feet?”
“Wait!” The huge round head jerked up. “How do you know about Adam? You have not seen him, won’t see him until we arrive at our destination.”