Chapter VIII: The Professor Explains
WHEN Gabriel Syme found himself finally established in a chair, and opposite to him, fixed and final also, the lifted eyebrows and leaden eyelids of the Professor, his fears fully returned. This incomprehensible man from the fierce council, after all, had certainly pursued him. If the man had one character as a paralytic and another character as a pursuer, the antithesis might make him more interesting, but scarcely more soothing. It would be a very small comfort that he could not find the Professor out, if by some serious accident the Professor should find him out. He emptied a whole pewter pot of ale before the professor had touched his milk.
One possibility, however, kept him hopeful and yet helpless. It was just possible that this escapade signified something other than even a slight suspicion of him. Perhaps it was some regular form or sign. Perhaps the foolish scamper was some sort of friendly signal that he ought to have understood. Perhaps it was a ritual. Perhaps the new Thursday was always chased along Cheapside, as the new Lord Mayor is always escorted along it. He was just selecting a tentative inquiry, when the old Professor opposite suddenly and simply cut him short. Before Syme could ask the first diplomatic question, the old anarchist had asked suddenly, without any sort of preparation—
“Are you a policeman?”
Whatever else Syme had expected, he had never expected anything so brutal and actual as this. Even his great presence of mind could only manage a reply with an air of rather blundering jocularity.
“A policeman?” he said, laughing vaguely. “Whatever made you think of a policeman in connection with me?”
“The process was simple enough,” answered the Professor patiently. “I thought you looked like a policeman. I think so now.”
“Did I take a policeman’s hat by mistake out of the restaurant?” asked Syme, smiling wildly. “Have I by any chance got a number stuck on to me somewhere? Have my boots got that watchful look? Why must I be a policeman? Do, do let me be a postman.”
The old Professor shook his head with a gravity that gave no hope, but Syme ran on with a feverish irony.
“But perhaps I misunderstood the delicacies of your German philosophy. Perhaps policeman is a relative term. In an evolutionary sense, sir, the ape fades so gradually into the policeman, that I myself can never detect the shade. The monkey is only the policeman that may be. Perhaps a maiden lady on Clapham Common is only the policeman that might have been. I don’t mind being the policeman that might have been. I don’t mind being anything in German thought.”
“Are you in the police service?” said the old man, ignoring all Syme’s improvised and desperate raillery. “Are you a detective?”
Syme’s heart turned to stone, but his face never changed.
“Your suggestion is ridiculous,” he began. “Why on earth—”
The old man struck his palsied hand passionately on the rickety table, nearly breaking it.
“Did you hear me ask a plain question, you pattering spy?” he shrieked in a high, crazy voice. “Are you, or are you not, a police detective?”
“No!” answered Syme, like a man standing on the hangman’s drop.
“You swear it,” said the old man, leaning across to him, his dead face becoming as it were loathsomely alive. “You swear it! You swear it! If you swear falsely, will you be damned? Will you be sure that the devil dances at your funeral? Will you see that the nightmare sits on your grave? Will there really be no mistake? You are an anarchist, you are a dynamiter! Above all, you are not in any sense a detective? You are not in the British police?”
He leant his angular elbow far across the table, and put up his large loose hand like a flap to his ear.
“I am not in the British police,” said Syme with insane calm.
Professor de Worms fell back in his chair with a curious air of kindly collapse.
“That’s a pity,” he said, “because I am.”
Syme sprang up straight, sending back the bench behind him with a crash.
“Because you are what?” he said thickly. “You are what?”
“I am a policeman,” said the Professor with his first broad smile, and beaming through his spectacles. “But as you think policeman only a relative term, of course I have nothing to do with you. I am in the British police force; but as you tell me you are not in the British police force, I can only say that I met you in a dynamiters’ club. I suppose I ought to arrest you.” And with these words he laid on the table before Syme an exact facsimile of the blue card which Syme had in his own waistcoat pocket, the symbol of his power from the police.
Syme had for a flash the sensation that the cosmos had turned exactly upside down, that all trees were growing downwards and that all stars were under his feet. Then came slowly the opposite conviction. For the last twenty-four hours the cosmos had really been upside down, but now the capsized universe had come right side up again. This devil from whom he had been fleeing all day was only an elder brother of his own house, who on the other side of the table lay back and laughed at him. He did not for the moment ask any questions of detail; he only knew the happy and silly fact that this shadow, which had pursued him with an intolerable oppression of peril, was only the shadow of a friend trying to catch him up. He knew simultaneously that he was a fool and a free man. For with any recovery from morbidity there must go a certain healthy humiliation. There comes a certain point in such conditions when only three things are possible: first a perpetuation of Satanic pride, secondly tears, and third laughter. Syme’s egotism held hard to the first course for a few seconds, and then suddenly adopted the third. Taking his own blue police ticket from his own waist coat pocket, he tossed it on to the table; then he flung his head back until his spike of yellow beard almost pointed at the ceiling, and shouted with a barbaric laughter.
Even in that close den, perpetually filled with the din of knives, plates, cans, clamorous voices, sudden struggles and stampedes, there was something Homeric in Syme’s mirth which made many half-drunken men look round.
“What yer laughing at, guv’nor?” asked one wondering labourer from the docks.
“At myself,” answered Syme, and went off again into the agony of his ecstatic reaction.
“Pull yourself together,” said the Professor, “or you’ll get hysterical. Have some more beer. I’ll join you.”
“You haven’t drunk your milk,” said Syme.
“My milk!” said the other, in tones of withering and unfathomable contempt, “my milk! Do you think I’d look at the beastly stuff when I’m out of sight of the bloody anarchists? We’re all Christians in this room, though perhaps,” he added, glancing around at the reeling crowd, “not strict ones. Finish my milk? Great blazes! yes, I’ll finish it right enough!” and he knocked the tumbler off the table, making a crash of glass and a splash of silver fluid.
Syme was staring at him with a happy curiosity.
“I understand now,” he cried; “of course, you’re not an old man at all.”
“I can’t take my face off here,” replied Professor de Worms. “It’s rather an elaborate make-up. As to whether I’m an old man, that’s not for me to say. I was thirty-eight last birthday.”
“Yes, but I mean,” said Syme impatiently, “there’s nothing the matter with you.”
“Yes,” answered the other dispassionately. “I am subject to colds.”
Syme’s laughter at all this had about it a wild weakness of relief. He laughed at the idea of the paralytic Professor being really a young actor dressed up as if for the foot-lights. But he felt that he would have laughed as loudly if a pepperpot had fallen over.
The false Professor drank and wiped his false beard.
“Did you know,” he asked, “that that man Gogol was one of us?”
“I? No, I didn’t know it,” answered Syme in some surprise. “But didn’t you?”
“I knew no more than the dead,” replied the man who called himself de Worms. “I thought the President was talking about me, and I rattled in my boots.”
“And I thought he was talking about me,” said Syme, with his rather reckless laughter. “I had my hand on my revolver all the time.”
“So had I,” said the Professor grimly; “so had Gogol evidently.”
Syme struck the table with an exclamation.
“Why, there were three of us there!” he cried. “Three out of seven is a fighting number. If we had only known that we were three!”
The face of Professor de Worms darkened, and he did not look up.
“We were three,” he said. “If we had been three hundred we could still have done nothing.”
“Not if we were three hundred against four?” asked Syme, jeering rather boisterously.
“No,” said the Professor with sobriety, “not if we were three hundred against Sunday.”
And the mere name struck Syme cold and serious; his laughter had died in his heart before it could die on his lips. The face of the unforgettable President sprang into his mind as startling as a coloured photograph, and he remarked this difference between Sunday and all his satellites, that their faces, however fierce or sinister, became gradually blurred by memory like other human faces, whereas Sunday’s seemed almost to grow more actual during absence, as if a man’s painted portrait should slowly come alive.
They were both silent for a measure of moments, and then Syme’s speech came with a rush, like the sudden foaming of champagne.
“Professor,” he cried, “it is intolerable. Are you afraid of this man?”
The Professor lifted his heavy lids, and gazed at Syme with large, wide-open, blue eyes of an almost ethereal honesty.
“Yes, I am,” he said mildly. “So are you.”
Syme was dumb for an instant. Then he rose to his feet erect, like an insulted man, and thrust the chair away from him.
“Yes,” he said in a voice indescribable, “you are right. I am afraid of him. Therefore I swear by God that I will seek out this man whom I fear until I find him, and strike him on the mouth. If heaven were his throne and the earth his footstool, I swear that I would pull him down.”
“How?” asked the staring Professor. “Why?”
“Because I am afraid of him,” said Syme; “and no man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid.”
De Worms blinked at him with a sort of blind wonder. He made an effort to speak, but Syme went on in a low voice, but with an undercurrent of inhuman exaltation—
“Who would condescend to strike down the mere things that he does not fear? Who would debase himself to be merely brave, like any common prizefighter? Who would stoop to be fearless—like a tree? Fight the thing that you fear. You remember the old tale of the English clergyman who gave the last rites to the brigand of Sicily, and how on his death-bed the great robber said, ‘I can give you no money, but I can give you advice for a lifetime: your thumb on the blade, and strike upwards.’ So I say to you, strike upwards, if you strike at the stars.”
The other looked at the ceiling, one of the tricks of his pose.
“Sunday is a fixed star,” he said.
“You shall see him a falling star,” said Syme, and put on his hat.
The decision of his gesture drew the Professor vaguely to his feet.
“Have you any idea,” he asked, with a sort of benevolent bewilderment, “exactly where you are going?”
“Yes,” replied Syme shortly, “I am going to prevent this bomb being thrown in Paris.”
“Have you any conception how?” inquired the other.
“No,” said Syme with equal decision.
“You remember, of course,” resumed the soi-disant de Worms, pulling his beard and looking out of the window, “that when we broke up rather hurriedly the whole arrangements for the atrocity were left in the private hands of the Marquis and Dr. Bull. The Marquis is by this time probably crossing the Channel. But where he will go and what he will do it is doubtful whether even the President knows; certainly we don’t know. The only man who does know is Dr. Bull.”
“Confound it!” cried Syme. “And we don’t know where he is.”
“Yes,” said the other in his curious, absent-minded way, “I know where he is myself.”
“Will you tell me?” asked Syme with eager eyes.
“I will take you there,” said the Professor, and took down his own hat from a peg.
Syme stood looking at him with a sort of rigid excitement.
“What do you mean?” he asked sharply. “Will you join me? Will you take the risk?”
“Young man,” said the Professor pleasantly, “I am amused to observe that you think I am a coward. As to that I will say only one word, and that shall be entirely in the manner of your own philosophical rhetoric. You think that it is possible to pull down the President. I know that it is impossible, and I am going to try it,” and opening the tavern door, which let in a blast of bitter air, they went out together into the dark streets by the docks.
Most of the snow was melted or trampled to mud, but here and there a clot of it still showed grey rather than white in the gloom. The small streets were sloppy and full of pools, which reflected the flaming lamps irregularly, and by accident, like fragments of some other and fallen world. Syme felt almost dazed as he stepped through this growing confusion of lights and shadows; but his companion walked on with a certain briskness, towards where, at the end of the street, an inch or two of the lamplit river looked like a bar of flame.
“Where are you going?” Syme inquired.
“Just now,” answered the Professor, “I am going just round the corner to see whether Dr. Bull has gone to bed. He is hygienic, and retires early.”
“Dr. Bull!” exclaimed Syme. “Does he live round the corner?”
“No,” answered his friend. “As a matter of fact he lives some way off, on the other side of the river, but we can tell from here whether he has gone to bed.”
Turning the corner as he spoke, and facing the dim river, flecked with flame, he pointed with his stick to the other bank. On the Surrey side at this point there ran out into the Thames, seeming almost to overhang it, a bulk and cluster of those tall tenements, dotted with lighted windows, and rising like factory chimneys to an almost insane height. Their special poise and position made one block of buildings especially look like a Tower of Babel with a hundred eyes. Syme had never seen any of the sky-scraping buildings in America, so he could only think of the buildings in a dream.
Even as he stared, the highest light in this innumerably lighted turret abruptly went out, as if this black Argus had winked at him with one of his innumerable eyes.
Professor de Worms swung round on his heel, and struck his stick against his boot.
“We are too late,” he said, “the hygienic Doctor has gone to bed.”
“What do you mean?” asked Syme. “Does he live over there, then?”
“Yes,” said de Worms, “behind that particular window which you can’t see. Come along and get some dinner. We must call on him tomorrow morning.”
Without further parley, he led the way through several by-ways until they came out into the flare and clamour of the East India Dock Road. The Professor, who seemed to know his way about the neighbourhood, proceeded to a place where the line of lighted shops fell back into a sort of abrupt twilight and quiet, in which an old white inn, all out of repair, stood back some twenty feet from the road.
“You can find good English inns left by accident everywhere, like fossils,” explained the Professor. “I once found a decent place in the West End.”
“I suppose,” said Syme, smiling, “that this is the corresponding decent place in the East End?”
“It is,” said the Professor reverently, and went in.
In that place they dined and slept, both very thoroughly. The beans and bacon, which these unaccountable people cooked well, the astonishing emergence of Burgundy from their cellars, crowned Syme’s sense of a new comradeship and comfort. Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.
Syme was able to pour out for the first time the whole of his outrageous tale, from the time when Gregory had taken him to the little tavern by the river. He did it idly and amply, in a luxuriant monologue, as a man speaks with very old friends. On his side, also, the man who had impersonated Professor de Worms was not less communicative. His own story was almost as silly as Syme’s.
“That’s a good get-up of yours,” said Syme, draining a glass of Macon; “a lot better than old Gogol’s. Even at the start I thought he was a bit too hairy.”
“A difference of artistic theory,” replied the Professor pensively. “Gogol was an idealist. He made up as the abstract or platonic ideal of an anarchist. But I am a realist. I am a portrait painter. But, indeed, to say that I am a portrait painter is an inadequate expression. I am a portrait.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Syme.
“I am a portrait,” repeated the Professor. “I am a portrait of the celebrated Professor de Worms, who is, I believe, in Naples.”
“You mean you are made up like him,” said Syme. “But doesn’t he know that you are taking his nose in vain?”
“He knows it right enough,” replied his friend cheerfully.
“Then why doesn’t he denounce you?”
“I have denounced him,” answered the Professor.
“Do explain yourself,” said Syme.
“With pleasure, if you don’t mind hearing my story,” replied the eminent foreign philosopher. “I am by profession an actor, and my name is Wilks. When I was on the stage I mixed with all sorts of Bohemian and blackguard company. Sometimes I touched the edge of the turf, sometimes the riff-raff of the arts, and occasionally the political refugee. In some den of exiled dreamers I was introduced to the great German Nihilist philosopher, Professor de Worms. I did not gather much about him beyond his appearance, which was very disgusting, and which I studied carefully. I understood that he had proved that the destructive principle in the universe was God; hence he insisted on the need for a furious and incessant energy, rending all things in pieces. Energy, he said, was the All. He was lame, shortsighted, and partially paralytic. When I met him I was in a frivolous mood, and I disliked him so much that I resolved to imitate him. If I had been a draughtsman I would have drawn a caricature. I was only an actor, I could only act a caricature. I made myself up into what was meant for a wild exaggeration of the old Professor’s dirty old self. When I went into the room full of his supporters I expected to be received with a roar of laughter, or (if they were too far gone) with a roar of indignation at the insult. I cannot describe the surprise I felt when my entrance was received with a respectful silence, followed (when I had first opened my lips) with a murmur of admiration. The curse of the perfect artist had fallen upon me. I had been too subtle, I had been too true. They thought I really was the great Nihilist Professor. I was a healthy-minded young man at the time, and I confess that it was a blow. Before I could fully recover, however, two or three of these admirers ran up to me radiating indignation, and told me that a public insult had been put upon me in the next room. I inquired its nature. It seemed that an impertinent fellow had dressed himself up as a preposterous parody of myself. I had drunk more champagne than was good for me, and in a flash of folly I decided to see the situation through. Consequently it was to meet the glare of the company and my own lifted eyebrows and freezing eyes that the real Professor came into the room.
“I need hardly say there was a collision. The pessimists all round me looked anxiously from one Professor to the other Professor to see which was really the more feeble. But I won. An old man in poor health, like my rival, could not be expected to be so impressively feeble as a young actor in the prime of life. You see, he really had paralysis, and working within this definite limitation, he couldn’t be so jolly paralytic as I was. Then he tried to blast my claims intellectually. I countered that by a very simple dodge. Whenever he said something that nobody but he could understand, I replied with something which I could not even understand myself. ‘I don’t fancy,’ he said, ‘that you could have worked out the principle that evolution is only negation, since there inheres in it the introduction of lacuna, which are an essential of differentiation.’ I replied quite scornfully, ‘You read all that up in Pinckwerts; the notion that involution functioned eugenically was exposed long ago by Glumpe.’ It is unnecessary for me to say that there never were such people as Pinckwerts and Glumpe. But the people all round (rather to my surprise) seemed to remember them quite well, and the Professor, finding that the learned and mysterious method left him rather at the mercy of an enemy slightly deficient in scruples, fell back upon a more popular form of wit. ‘I see,’ he sneered, ‘you prevail like the false pig in Aesop.’ ‘And you fail,’ I answered, smiling, ‘like the hedgehog in Montaigne.’ Need I say that there is no hedgehog in Montaigne? ‘Your claptrap comes off,’ he said; ‘so would your beard.’ I had no intelligent answer to this, which was quite true and rather witty. But I laughed heartily, answered, ‘Like the Pantheist’s boots,’ at random, and turned on my heel with all the honours of victory. The real Professor was thrown out, but not with violence, though one man tried very patiently to pull off his nose. He is now, I believe, received everywhere in Europe as a delightful impostor. His apparent earnestness and anger, you see, make him all the more entertaining.”
“Well,” said Syme, “I can understand your putting on his dirty old beard for a night’s practical joke, but I don’t understand your never taking it off again.”
“That is the rest of the story,” said the impersonator. “When I myself left the company, followed by reverent applause, I went limping down the dark street, hoping that I should soon be far enough away to be able to walk like a human being. To my astonishment, as I was turning the corner, I felt a touch on the shoulder, and turning, found myself under the shadow of an enormous policeman. He told me I was wanted. I struck a sort of paralytic attitude, and cried in a high German accent, ‘Yes, I am wanted—by the oppressed of the world. You are arresting me on the charge of being the great anarchist, Professor de Worms.’ The policeman impassively consulted a paper in his hand, ‘No, sir,’ he said civilly, ‘at least, not exactly, sir. I am arresting you on the charge of not being the celebrated anarchist, Professor de Worms.’ This charge, if it was criminal at all, was certainly the lighter of the two, and I went along with the man, doubtful, but not greatly dismayed. I was shown into a number of rooms, and eventually into the presence of a police officer, who explained that a serious campaign had been opened against the centres of anarchy, and that this, my successful masquerade, might be of considerable value to the public safety. He offered me a good salary and this little blue card. Though our conversation was short, he struck me as a man of very massive common sense and humour; but I cannot tell you much about him personally, because—”
Syme laid down his knife and fork.
“I know,” he said, “because you talked to him in a dark room.”
Professor de Worms nodded and drained his glass.