By Jennings Perry
By Jennings Perry
Author's footnote or prenote to first column:
*In view of the universal turmoil and distraction which prevailed during the decade 1973 to the present date it is well to recall---and surely can do no harm---that the American capitol was removed from its old District of Columbia by the Potomac to the site it now occupies, formerly Kansas City, Missouri, in 1974 and '75. The city was renamed, but many of the older residents bitterly opposed the action.
"JEGERS MENTOEN, ANNIHILATOR."
The boulevards and roof-gardens of Washington, Missouri*, the new capitol of the United States of America, were abuzz with chattering, excited people. Even those fervent demagogues whose untiring protagonism towards making the disputed name of the capitol a political issue in the forthcoming election had for once discovered a more engrossing topic for declamation. In scullery and in drawing-room, in pool-hall and in editorial sanctum, along the malodorous streets of "Dobyville" and in the chambers and corridors of the marble Administration Building, itself, one discussion monopolized the common ear; and the name that fell oftenest from the common tongue was the name of Jegers Mentoen. From the paper racks on the new "Avenue" this name stared at passersby, and news-urchins fairly rent the air as they darted frantically to-and-fro, crying "Jegers Mentoen! Jegers Mento-en!" and often added "Th' 'Nihilator." Never, since the old war-days, and the later trying days of the Exodus, had the Capitol had its interest so aroused, or its credulity so tried; nor did this condition prevail in Washington alone, but all through the country---aye, throughout the world---as well. From the small spiral antennae on the Wolf Tower the news had been flashed broadcast around the earth, and wherever there had been mechanical ear to receive, there men spoke of Jegers Mentoen---with awe.
On the landing-roof of the Federal Justice Building President W---z, attended by a number of his Cabinet, stood, watch-in-hand, looking towards the south. A group of Department of Justice men waited nearby, with several pilots and mechanicians attached to the landing-roof. A troubled murmering, like the soughing of a wind in the tree-tops of a forest, came up from the throng below.
A time-board set up against one of the landing-lights had chalked on it "LL-2X1 due from New Orleans 6:11 p.m." Once a young man, with the phones still clasped about his ears, came from the radioshak and changed the time-due to read "6:11-1/2 p.m."
"Getting late, Mr. President," called a fiery-headed young mechanic, by birth a Celt, by inclination American, by nature irrepressible. And indeed, the skeletal outline of the Wolf Tower, caught against the sinking sun glowed sanguine as if painted with blood.
"Right there, son," answered the Executive cheerily. "Who is piloting the LL... whatever it is?"
"AN-653, sir," grinned the youth; a grin which communicated itself to several of the Cabinet Members, besides the President.
"His name, lad; his name?---Will he be here on time?"
"It's Cabot Westover, air," the Landing Superintendant hurried to answer. "He's coming up at a clean 233. Westover is always on ti... There he is, now!"
A black speck dropped from the sky like a falling meteorite, the keen, high-pitched whine of the Vreaux-Liberty swelling and swelling, but always a whine. The lateral rays of the sun glinted red on whirling blades. A distinct "Ah!" swept up from the crowd in the esplanade.
Presently the sound of the motor was stilled. One by one the three retardiers ballooned above the plane like white puffs of smoke; now only the hissing of air around the struts was heard. Then the sudden whirr of the helicoptic blade and the LL-2X1 settled feather-light into her berth.
The upper section of the forward door was flung open and Pilot Westover, followed by his mechanic, clambered from the pit. Dunstetter of the Secret Service Intelligence was first to reach his side.
"On the second, Westover. Goo' boy! Y' got 'im?"
"I don't know," said Westover. "The little 'Limey' has him in charge, and two surgeons."
"Here lads---" Dunstetter motioned to a couple of uniformed areos "---bring y' ladder to the door. Snappy now!"
By this time the Officials had gathered around the plane, forming a semicircle under the direction of the M.P.s. Inasmuch as Nature had not made him a tall man the President was forced to stand on his toes-tips to see over the shoulder of the Senator from Idaho, where tail men grow. With bated breath and searching eyes they watched the opening of the cabin door.
First to descend the steps was a clothes-pin of a man, clad in a tweed suit which bagged at the knees. To photograph him would have been impossible; he was a unichrome. There was no salient feature about him. His eye-lashes, eye-brows, his hair, and even the hair on the backs of his hands, had the nondescript, sandy color of a used scrubbing brush. His hat was a wilted felt; he wore a low Gladstone stock, and a bow tie, awry. His age might have been any, over a score.
"Mr... Professor Bentley, the Captor, I believe." It was the unctuous voice of the omnipresent reporter.
The little man whirled about and half-closed the door of the cabin.
"Kindly order all flashlights removed, someone," he said. "Do you want to kill him?"
"Take 'em away," roared Dunstetter, officiously. "Do you want to kill'im?" The staff-photographers reluctantly laid their cameras to one side and pressed forward to see what they might.
A leathern case, containing an electrical apparatus, was handed down from the cabin. Then, treading with trained care came the two surgeons. Between them they bore a stretcher, on which lay, Jegers Mentoen.
In various of his "bottle-messages" to the Premiers of the several European nations, Jegers Mentoen had styled himself sometimes the "Demipotent", sometimes the "Transmogrifior", often the "Annihilator", by which dread title he had come to be universally known: yet, as the little group of spectators stared at the sun-blackened bag of skin which held together the tortured bones of the Thing on the stretcher, they could find in it no correlation to the titles Jegers Mentoen had assumed, nor to the role he was alleged to have played. But for the little black eyes which seemed to glitter from the center of his head, Jegers Mentoen might easily have been mistaken for the mummy of a Rameses. Though his lips were dumb, however, his eyes were eloquent.
"And This," said the President, sadly, "has held the world in the hollow of his hand, and has not spared it."
"I tremble to think in the presence of what power we stand," said the reporter at his side.
Dunstetter's great shoulders bored through the crowd to the President. In his wake followed Professor Bentley.
"Is everything ready as I requested, Mr. President?" asked the Professor briskly.
"Is it White?" the President passed the question to his secretary.
"It is, sir. Both Houses are congregated in the Congressional Auditorium. Stenographers, newspapermen..."
"Not crowded?---as I specified---and no women??" Bentley pursued.
"No, not crowded: but the Representatives from Nevada, and Pennsylvania..."
"Very well: let them stay. The British Minister...?"
"Present. All the Diplomatic Corps are on hand."
"The charge d'affairs of Scandinavia?"
"I asked because he is especially interested," smiled the little man.
One of the surgeons approached and tapped the Professor on the shoulder.
"I can promise you not over five hours longer, Professor Bentley."
There was something automotic about the Captor. Certain circumstances demanded certain actions, and his appreciation of the circumstance and his execution of the necessary actions were perfectly co-ordinated. He lost no time now.
"We will adjourn to the Auditorium, at once," he announced, and unwittingly betrayed his English extraction by inquiring: "how do we reach the lift?"
His orders were terse, and pointed, and in a moment the stretcher was moving towards the elevator, closely guarded by the two medical men. An areo followed with the leather-encased machine. With these (and the reporter, who could not be kept out) the Professor entered a cage, and quickly dropped from sight. The waiting "lifts" were hurriedly filled, and one by one shot downward, leaving the landing-roof deserted save for Westover and the regular station-crew, who talked excitedly.
By now the murmering of the crowd far below had grown to a chant, in which awe outweighed anger; and the burthen of their cry was:
"Jegers Mentoen! the Antichrist! Lead us out Jegers Mentoen!"
Over where lay the west the star of evening burned in the sky---like a great fire diamond on a naked breast.
Lord Marton, Le Comte Georges Thenier, Herr Schultz, the much-talked of Ritzou, with Chamberlain Bjornson of the Scandinavias, sat at the long mahogany table between the first row of desks and the "pulpit"---while, from his palm-garnished etching above the speaker's stand, the benevolent gaze of the Father of his Country was bent upon his countrymen. Every seat in the auditorium, including several brass end-posts, was filled; but none were standing---except the Sergeant-at-Arms and his assistants. A heavy arm-chair had been set forward for President W---z, the legs of which ended in great claws clutching spheres of ebony. In the "triangle", Mrs. Van Vetter, the Pennsylvania contribution, focussed her lorgnette continually, and in her excitement looked through it never. Further back, Miss P. Stone, Socialist, of Nevada, brought into play her grand-father's great sea-glasses. The "press" was banked along the wall to the right where a number of telegraph keys were visible. Every body was tense, every eye fixed, every ear "pricked."
The little Briton stood upon a thick dictionary, just below the "pulpit". In his hand was a cloth-backed note-book, of the sort in general use as ship's logs, much the worse for use. At his left, his face partly concealed by the oval nez et bouche plate of a respirator, immobile as if dead, lay Jegers Mentoen: the same stretcher beneath him on which he had been transported from New Orleans. Like the mythical robin guarding the last spark of fire, a surgeon bent over him.
The Captor fronted the audience with a demeanour as expressionless as his countenance. Some volcanoes are that way.
"Gentlemen of the fortunate United States of America," he began, in a voice which caused an attendant to reach for the tuning-key of the amplifier, "and---" turning towards the mahogany table ---"representatives of our unhappy States of Europe; I have brought you whom you seek, Jegers Mentoen, the Annihilator, the Pitiless---names of his own choosing, gentlemen. I..."
A white-haired senator in the front row half arose.
"Pardon, sir. I have one request to make; that I be not interrupted. Later, I will answer questions; may ask some, but not now. Another thing...Mr. Dunstetter?"
"Right here, Professor," boomed the Intelligence Chief.
"Will you have the official hydrographic annuals for the last forty years, say, fetched here.---A moment! Shall we say fifty years---since 1930. I forgot to mention them in my cablegram."
"I'll have them very soon, sir."
"Thank you, Mr. Dunstetter," said the Professor.
He turned to the impatient audience.
"To begin:---I am Frank Bentley, a subject of Her Majesty, an amateur naturalist, born Stratford-on-Avon. I specialize in entomology. Your news-sheets refer to me, I believe, as the "Captor": why, I do not know. I have captured nothing---except, perhaps, front sheet space. I...er...induced Mr. Jegers Mentoen, here, to come with me from his home on Thimble Cay to shed what light he can, as creator, on our so-called 'World-Mystery.' He came, though he is ill, very ill. Properly, he should have been dead for two days. Since leaving Havana we have induced life to remain with him, by using the electric pulmotor. So much, at present, for Frank Bentley, and his actions.
"Now, Jegers Mentoen..."
"Ah!---" from a hundred throats.
"Jegers Mentoen, I say, requires no introduction. The world has known him for over half a century---to its sorrow. He has posed as the Annihilator!"
"Ah!---" from a thousand listeners.
"Aye! he has altered God's good arrangement of the earth. He has brought down ruin, and desolation, and slow death to the fairest country---your pardons gentlemen---and the most populous regions of the earth. He has devastated the cradle... nay then, the nursery of civilization. He, solitary and alone, through his lust for power, and the diabolical ingenuity of his brain, has done this!"
There was an uneasy shifting of feet throughout the chamber, and a clearing of throats. Muttered imprecations were mingled with whispers of incredulity.
"Gentlemen!" suddenly cried the little Naturalist, rising upon his toes, "I have been instructed, by the Annihilator, to remind you in your teeth at this moment that you are but whimpering curs come out of your kennel to stare enviously upon a mammoth. That it is his pleasure to let you look upon the face of Jegers Mentoen, your master. That, among men, he is incomparable. That, second only to his conception of God-head, he is almighty on earth!---This, gentlemen, Jegers Mentoen bade me say, as the condition of his accompanying me hither."
A great, angry hissing arose among the audience, caught up by an ominous rumble from without as the Annihilator's message was relayed to the multitude. But the hissing within quickly died away to nothingness. The surgeon, executing an evident prearrangement, had raised Jegers Mentoen to a sitting position. His gaunt, hideous arms were raised above him, index fingers pointing upwards. His lips were sucked in over his toothless gums, and as he breathed the flabby pouches of his cheeks rose and fell like the boxes of a bellows. His eyes roamed over the assembly, greedily drinking in the awe and horror in the eyes which met his.
For an instant he held them, thus, with his eyes, fascinated all: then, with a strangling cackle, he fell back limp and the respirator was hurriedly pressed to his face. A brief period of silence ensued, broken only by the restless clicking of the telegraph instruments. The lorgnette of the Lady from Pennsylvania slipped from her fingers and was shattered on the arm of the desk. A cascade of tinkling glass trickled musically to the floor, and the spell was broken.
Again Professor Bentley claimed attention.
"I promised him that moment of victory, first," he said. "He destroyed England for it. Are the hydrographic records here?"
Dunstetter, accompanied by an assistant librarian, rolled a "bus" stacked with books bound in yellow leather to the foot of the rostrum. The librarian seated himself in attendance.
"Again I thank you, Mr. Dunstetter," said the Professor. "I will have occasion to refer to them. And now---" he addressed the audience--- "we may proceed.
"There is no need for further foreword. Within the lifetime of most of you, you have seen Norway and Sweden become little better than glacial fields; you have seen the climate of Labrador creep upon, and lay barren our fair English islands; you have seen the Bay of Biscay ice-bound, and ice-hummocks growing on the coast of Portugal. You have witnessed the re-birth of Rome, and the anglization of Athens; you have seen the palaces of London become the haunts of the birds of the north, and you have seen European cities spring up on the coast of Africa. You have watched the citizens of Europe driven from their ancestral homes by an insidious boreal temperature, fleeing to this, your country, to Australia, to the islands of the sea,---and you have called it sentimentally a 'Judgment of God.' O! fools..."
The white-haired man had risen from his seat. "But, how!---O! Sir Oracle---tell us how!"
"Sir," replied the Professor calmly, "the world has looked on at the debacle; some pitying, some with disinterest, but none, savant nor divine, has answered your question. Many have journeyed to the sphinx, but the riddle was never solved. The world has allowed itself to be made the victim of a hoax; has cringed before the threats of a man calling himself the Annihilator,---a man of clay and viscid mud as you and I,---who has therefore made good his threats without molestation. Your fanatical theologists hailed the circumstance as an omen, and, because the consequences were direful, and colossal, you turned your thumbs down on the theory of human agency, although that agency communicated with you by the most material and natural means. You cast yourself back into the dark ages, conjuring up to salve your ignorance, hobgoblins, and demons, and malevolent genii. And---hear me!---throughout the years of the world's dread the key lay to your hand, and you would not touch it!"
The Captor thrust his hand deep into the pocket of his coat and brought forth a small glass tube, in which a white pellicle rattled dryly. He placed it in the hand of Lord Marton.
The ambassador examined the tube for a moment, and passed it to his neighbor.
"Why---er---is it not a shell, of a sort?"
"No," said the Professor, "it is a skeleton: more, it is the scourge which, in the hands of Jegers Mentoen, has so cruelly lashed the world.---Ten years ago, perhaps some of you remember the incident, a very confident student appeared before the British Royal Society and advanced a daring, but absolutely logical, theory of the World Mystery. If you remember, you know what happened. He was humiliated. For that Charles Darwin had set up certain principles of subsidence and elevation as postulates in the formation of coral reefs, he was hailed as an iconoclast, and booed from the building for his temerity. The student, perforce, went back to his studies; but, in the Society's museum, the branch of oceanology was enriched by a new specimen of coral polyp---which the Graybeards subsequently named Madrepora Gigantea.
"I discovered Madrepora Gigantea: our guest here, Jegers Mentoen, invented it, or bred it---as you will."
"Discovered it?" puzzled Lord Marton.
"Yes, before I had ever left England. I found it in the tentacles of a sea-weed, among flotsam, on the coast of Cornwall. The spot we.s near where the famous ''60 message,' addressed to the King by the Annihilator had been found; in fact, it was the glamour which had attached itself to that coast since the finding of the message that sent me there hotfoot in search of evidence to support the theory of the Mystery I had evolved.
"Some time after the callous rejection of this legitimate evidence by the Society I went to the Bahamas, where, until a month since I have been working with the dredging fleet over Bimini Barrier. You know the success the dredgers are having---have always had: they cannot keep pace with the growth of the coral. Their entire efforts now are being concentrated on keeping the ship-channel open.
"While conducting an investigation in the old Sargasso Sea two weeks ago, fortune smiled upon my quest of ten-years' persistence.---I found a bottle! Inside was a farewell message to the world from..." he inclined his head towards the stretcher. "A few moments since, I delivered the message to you by word of mouth. The bottle was, as usual, impossible of identification; but Jegers Mentoen, thinking to have been dead when his l'envoi was found, had substituted paper for his ancient vellum, and the paper was of Cuban manufacture, and traceable. In ten days I located Jegers Mentoen, surrounded by his amber descendants and the graves of his wives, on Thimble Cay, and, as I said, I...er...induced him to unravel his Mystery for me.
"Here he is, to corroborate my statements,---and for one other purpose."
Lord Marton fumed, and sucked the ivory head of his cane. President W---z recrossed his legs. There was some muttering throughout the audience, and a trace of nervousness perhaps. But, Le Comte Georges Thenier, compatriot of Hugo and Verne and Balzac, caressed his imperial with the tips of his fingers, and beamed upon the sandy little Captor.
"Voila!" he whispered, "quel beau raconteur!"
The hoary-haired questioner of the front row, whose great-grandfather had known one mint-julep from another mint-julep, and had worn the grey at Gettysburg, was again on his feet. His choler was mounting.
"Jegers Mentoen---he congealed Europe! But how, suh? how?"
Professor Frank Bentley waved aloft the bulky little book which had been clutched in his left hand. "The most valuable document on earth, gentlemen," he said, "our Annihilator's record of his life. And I do not base its worth on the pecuniary estimates of different publishers, although my statement even in that case would remain unaltered, but that it is the mirror in which is reflected a man's soul, a man of awful and transcendent intelligence, whose thoughts were cosmic thoughts and non-dimensional. It is the epic of the world-catastrophe, laying bare the mind of the precipitator. From this book, and from the lips of Jegers Mentoen, I have had the story of his life,---a story which might have originated in the versatile brain of a Scherezade.
"Jegers Mentoen was born---mark me, pressmen---on the coffee plantation of his father, from the womb of his father's native slave, on the island of Borneo, in the year---1862. His present age is a hundred, and twenty, and one!"
There was a general widening of eyes, and interchanging of marveling glances. Miss P. Stone, who held firmly to the six-score limit of temporal life, shook her head dubiously. For an instant the atrophied frame on the stretcher was again the cynosure of all eyes.
The Naturalist continued:
"His father was a Dutch planter, and wealthy, and because he had a son by his wife, he sent Jegers and his mother away to the Cocos-Keeling atolls. He passed his boyhood there, in a world which had for its base the infinitesimal skeleton of a reef-building animalcule. As he grew older he began to despise his native mother,---and to hate his father for having sired him a half-breed. At 22, with no other aim in life than to kill Mentoen, he stowed away on a Chinese bark and came thus to Banjermassin where he had been born. But he did not kill the Dutchman. The father bought life from the son,---and Jegers Mentoen was sent to Oxford.
"But Jegers Mentoen, then, as I in my time, discovered that he had no love for the wisdom imprisoned in words, and he turned to the fascinating book of nature. The three treatises which he offered on corals, and their propagation were accepted by the Board of Masters, printed, and filed away in the archives; where, eighty-five years later, I reprieved them from the dust.
"His residence in England came to an untimely and tragic end. While on a vacation in Scotland, he broke the head of an innkeeper, for no other reason apparently, than that the fellow had a Dutch name. For this folly he was imprisoned for three months in the foulest of the Edinburgh gaols. On the day of his release he went to the inn and engaged a room. When the host entered with his candle he felled him with a chair and strangled him with his own boot-straps.
"He fled to London, where he received his accumulated allowance, and booked passage for the land of his birth. He sailed on St. Swithin's day, 1887. Some idea of the condition of his mind at this crucial time can best be given by himself. He began his leben buk on the day of his embarcation.
"'Thus, scorned, scoffed at, and hunted, I quit Europe. I cannot hate them---' he alludes to his classmates at Oxford--- 'that they scorn me for a bastard and a mongrel; why should I censure them that they see me through my own eyes? I am all that which makes me the target of jeers and loathing. I have no home, no parents, no religion, not even a race---But I have intellect; and to be intelligent is to be powerful. And to have power is, not to grovel for toleration as a beggar prays for crumbs, but to demand---ah! to demand respect, even servility, whether due or no. It is not that they spit upon me for the adulteration of my blood, but that they decry and defame my mentality and reject without trial my endeavors, that I yearn to slit their laughing throats and laugh with them as they die. Ah! if I had power, ever so little on which to build, as corals build upon a conch; a handful of authority even.--- But every way I turn a barrier is reared; a barrier not of my building, and for which I have a libertine father to... to... curse. Yet will I always turn, and circle, like a caged leopard, seeking and seeking an avenue of escape. The night is black and...'
"Can you not see how the indifference and contempt of a self-righteous society could have reacted in but one way on an imaginative, self-conscious, race-conscious man like Jegers Mentoen? how he would grow secretive, and sullen, and morose? and that he would abhor further contact with that society until he could approach it as its legitimate superior? He left England with his soul bitter as gall against humanity, and it was a woeful day for England.
"He arrived at the Mentoen plantation to find his father dead, and his father's heir, Gustav, who had been sent to Holland for his education, in charge of the estate. At Gustav's orders he was driven from the place with the whips of the overseers. Within the week he stealthily returned, poisoned both Gustav and his mother, and took possession of the property. To his victims he gave an elaborate, though somewhat hasty burial; declaring the day a holiday among the native workers.
"As the plantation had long been a thorn in the side of the great spice interests he had no difficulty in converting it to cash. He dickered for a schooner, and with three Malay boys for crew, sailed west; because."
The Professor fluttered through the first pages of the book.
"Here," he said, "I will read:
"'...The fellow left the wheel and came forward where Bak had placed my chair.
'Which way I steer, master?' he asked.
'West,' I said.
'What town you make?' he asked.
'West,' I said.
'He opened his mouth to question further, but I knocked him over the rail. However, in that my crew is short I was forced to put about and pick him up. Poor devils! we will sail, and sail on. Sail on...'
"And, sirs, he has told me that he sailed on for five months,---but not always west,---until he had utterly lost himself in the myriad islands of the South Seas. Then his fancy was caught by a girl in the Gilberts, and for another four months his schooner was anchored within the reefs which encircled her island. When he had tired of her..."
"Professor Bentley," interrupted a querulous voice., "is this romantic biography pertinent to the mystery you have promised to clear?"
"Yes? yes?" urged other voices.
"It is," flashed the little Captor, "the sine qua non. If you had waited but a moment...
"When he had tired of her, I say., he pianned to surreptitiously heave his anchor and slip away. He hove up his anchor, but, unfortunately, slip away he did not.
"'...Sak had almost warped her about, when I made the remarkable discovery. The growth' (he was speaking of a coral growth) 'was well over a yard in length, and perpendicular to the hull. Lowered Oto over the side and he brought it up to me. I hardly know what to make of it. Of course, it may be a monstrosity, but on the other hand it has every appearance of normal, healthy development... I measure a diameter of six-inches at the base...I must investigate this. We anchor again.'
"I wonder that signs and portents were not seen in the skies of Europe that day. A demon, in the guise of Jegers Mentoen, had found him a lever to pry the world from its security; found it growing on the bottom of his ship.
"I quote from the entry of the following day in his leben buk:
"'Now exalted be the Budda who guards the temple at Djirpool with his face to the east, and his jade eyes crossing over his nose! Salut! And to the God of the Sea, with his flowing beard, I owe gratitude. Salut! And to the contradictory Being who sends thoughts, sane thoughts and man, into the brain,---to him, I am indebted! But why thank Him? He is the property of Westminster Abbey, and this, my Idea, came not from England.' Here he philosophizes for a space. '...So, the moment Sak unscrewed the helmet, and I got free of the suit, I rushed to the cabin and pulled out all my charts; both for the Florida Channel and for Atlantic Currents. Every circumstance supports my Idea, every condition augurs success, The spark that was born in my brain has become a roaring flame. I am consumed... But I must take this matter sanely; lest my castles being built upon quicksand, crumble, and involve me in their ruin. In all probability the project will prove impossible. Yet, for what besides have I to live? Pulu?---Dios!...and I will hold them all---kings, scorners, sneerers, women---all, in my grip. And I will contract my fingers, so slowly, that they may know my power is at last in me.'
"And so was conceived Jegers Mentoen's unparalleled and inhuman purpose in life. He stayed on at the island; and his days he passed under water in the suit, and his nights at the experiment-tank he had rigged: watching, studying, assiduously adding to his intimate knowledge of coral growths, and to his familiarity with the animals which formed them. He evolved a system of crossing and recrossing the varieties of zooids; and, because they spawned constantly he had not long to wait for results,---and he obtained results. But his lore increased faster than his experimentation prospered, and, from time to time, he selected the best of his hybrids, and began all over again. As one hypnotized he worked; and as he worked he visualized a world that trembled at his fiat, and a civilization that tottered when he would. And thus for two unbroken years, while he wrote not a line in his leben-buk, and the bottom of his schooner grew into the bottom of the lagoon.
"On a certain date---which he places as about November 1st, 1890---having bartered with a trader for his two-masted schooner, with a gasoline kicker, he hoisted his great tank with its several thriving colonies qf coral-polyps, alongside; and, tearing his Malays from their new-found wives, set sail for the Bahamas, laying his course for the Horn. It was the period of the southern-summer and even Aeolius seemed to connive in the plotting of Jegers Mentoen.
"When, after an uneventful voyage, he turned from the Bahama Channel and sought out an anchorage in Tongue-of-Ocean, he found that the cold waters of the Straits had exterminated all but a single group of his corals. These, however, when he had transplanted them to the face of a lifeless bank, soon began to thrive,---and thus a perverse fate sealed the doom of divers fair nations.
"This brings us to the winter of 1891.
"Within five years Jegers Mentoen had spread his Madrepora Gigantea along the American coast off Cape Florida, for twenty miles, at an average depth of fifty fathoms; and had fringed and joined the two Biminis and Gun Cay after the same fashion. His work was done at night; by day he was an inoffensive connoisseur of corals; and was rarely, if ever, bespoke by passing vessels. Due to the well-known fact that corals do not extend their structures beyond the level of low-tide his operations were assured an indefinite immunity from curious eyes.---The unthinkable had become reality; with an imperceptible motion the wheels of the Juggernaut began to turn. It was as if a noose had been passed about the artery through which flowed the life-stream of the world.
"And this life-stream: how little it was known then, how little even now! We have been lately taught, in a terrible way, how vital, how indispensable it was to existence. We must know more: listen.---As has been known since the days when the first voyages were made across the Atlantic, eastern Europe, by her geographical position on the surface of the earth alone, was not entitled to the mildness of temperature which enabled man to live there in comfort; to build his cities there, and his civilization. Her climate had, since time immemorial, been imported; borne on the bosom of the most marvelous phenomenon which ever took place before the eyes of man;---I refer to the thing destroyed by Jegers Mentoen;---the mighty Gulf Stream.
"Flowing westward through the Straits of Yucatan, the Equatorial Current enters the vast reservoir of the Gulf of Mexico; a cauldron, heated by the tropic sun. Whether this current, the father of the Gulf Stream, is impelled by the earth's rotation, or by easterly trades, is a question open to disputation: but, there can be no question as to the incalculable force of its motor when it is seen that the surface of the Gulf's waters is raised above that of the adjacent seas above and below five feet. There was but one conduit for the adequate expulsion of this impounded water,---the Straits of Florida and through Bimini Channel,---and through this narrow passage the heated current, the Gulf Stream at it's birth, urged by the terrific pressure of a natural hydraulic-ram, forced its way out into the ocean at a rate of speed greater than that attained by any of the greatest rivers of the earth. And on it flowed, meeting and defeating the icy current from Labrador off Hatteras; curving eastward from the banks of Newfoundland; becoming shallower and spreading out on the face of the ocean; hemming wandering ice-bergs and floes to the frigid waters of the northern seas: yet ever retained its warmth and trend, until, at last, it received new impulse from the westerly winds of the sea, and as the North Atlantic Drift it reached and bathed the shores of England, drifted on and nourished the coast of Europe from Cape Finisterre to Hammerfest, bore its sea-weed into the Skagerak-Kategat, ameliorated the Arctic rigor in Spitzbergen, and, at the end of its long journey lost itself in the cold embraces of the white sea. The romance of it! A river of life, emerging from a gap not fifty miles in width, fighting its way across four thousand miles of hostile waters to free a continent of its icy thrall, and drive its glaciers from its valleys to the mountain-tops. The so great potency of it! That was then: now...
"The world had accepted the Gulf Stream, as is the world's wont, complacently, as the wise and just provision of Providence; and though certain geologists had, from time to time, discovered that the stream had not always flowed without interruption; and some, who were incontinently laughed and derided, had seen in the old sea-level canal proposed for the American isthmus the possible ruination of the Old World, yet, as a whole, any conjecture as to the deflection of the Gulf Stream, and the consequences of such a deflection, was, if at all noticed, booed as an indication of dementia,---which, after all, was probably for the best peace of the mind of the mass. But, that the finger of man should, could, or would ever molest the relation of this fosterer of life and life itself, through mere chance or cold design, was a possibility too fantastic, and withal too terrible, to find credence in any brain....any brain save one.
"Jegers Mentoen, between whom and humanity no tie existed save the hate-bond, on whom lust of power had taken hold like an incurable disease and grown leprously, being before all a scientist, found in the mighty flood of the Gulf Stream, and in the microscopic body of a coral zooid, a means to his hands for the attainment of his hellish ends.
"He set about his work, not as a maniac or a fanatic, but as an experimentalist; as one whose brain was adapted to staggering generalizations, whose heart was impregnable to either ethics or sentimentality. He bore no rancor towards England; sought no vengeance. It was the thought of his power that maddened him, the consciousness that in his brain alone had germinated the scheme which had made him the manipulator of the destiny of the earth."
Professor Bentley cleared his throat:
"He built a hut on Thimble Cay, and to mask his experiments with the coral, he had his Malay boys set out a small banana grove. He obtained his plants from a mulatto like himself, who lived on a neighboring island, and who had a daughter. The daughter had no liking for Jegers Mentoen, but he bought her along with the plants, for good Dutch gold, and dragged her kicking aboard his boat. Their offspring were numerous.
"Fifteen years after he had planted his first coral colonies in Bimini Channel Jegers Mentoen realized that his work had been bootless. Not that but ultimately the world should tremble at his name (for nothing could stop the coral growth now) but th.at he should not witness its abjection was the fear which caused him to give over his first plans and to seek a more expeditious manner of choking the channel. And as perchance as had been his discovery of the parent stock of his Madrepora Gigantea growing on the bottom of his schooner, so, by merest accident, was his attention caught by a length of cable encrusted with coral, the grotesque shapes of which reached out in every direction. The cable was a straw lying with the wind and it pointed unerringly to the agency which should relieve Jegers Mentoen of his quandary. He had known in a moment what he would do.
"When the mail-boat had come and gone, he called his Malays to stand by the schooner, and giving his woman last admonitory kick he stood away for the Bahama Channel and Santarem Straits.
"In Santarem Straits, resting upon two parallel reefs where she had been flung, like a life-boat in its chocks, was a brig out of Bremen, the "Marine Hund", and her hold was filled, as Jegers Mentoen well knew, with five hundred spools of submarine cable. She was, of course, deserted. Jegers Mentoen made three trips to Santarem Straits before the last of the spools was cached on Thimble Cay. Followed a trip to Savannah for beer-kegs and a second to Nuevitas for stones, and the schooner was anchored in the lagoon of the cay.
"When Jegers Mentoen entered on this new phase of his career of destruction he had passed his 45th year, and his soul still cried out---though somewhat impatiently now---that the world should recognize and make obeisance ot it. His new task was approached unhesitatingly.
"This task, which lay before Mentoen, would have been deemed impossible by a nation, equipped with every mechanical auxiliary in use at the time: yet Mentoen, whose sole accomplice was an animalcule, did not cavil, in middle-life, that the obstacles appeared insuperable. It was towards which, and for he lived his life. In his leben buk he has summarized what lay before him.
"'To obstruct: channel...
Width (Florida Cape to Bimini).... 48 miles.
Depth..............................309 fathoms, mean, or 1800 feet.
Flow of current....................5 knots.
Volume of current..................130,000,000,000 cubic feet per hour.
Annual growth of coral (under favorable condit1ons)........................10 feet.
When I shall have done this, and in my brain it is done, will there then be one in all the world who shall dispute the sovereignty of Jegers Mentoen? mongrel though he be? Aye! now may I grasp my sceptre while my grip is yet firm.---Tomorrow, I put my hand to the wheel. Dixit!'
"And the work which on the morrow came to the hands of Jegers Mentoen was the stretching of the unwound cable in the lagoon where he had planted his first colonies. And when he had emptied the last spool, and the cables lay on the shallow floor of the lagoon with the regularity of the woof in a loom, hundreds of miles of it, he hove his boat into a cove where the receding tide would leave her on her side so that she might be scraped; for he must wait.
"At the end of four months he floated the cable nearest the mouth of the lagoon by binding casks at intervals along its length. Practically every rod of it bore one or more colonies of corals. Then, bending the end of the cable to his taffrail, he made his way outward through the shoals to the small atoll, lying north of Trigger Cay, where he had left his cargo of stones. Two nights later, when the moon was new, he submerged his cable.
"For ten miles across the deepest section of the channel it ran. Massive anchors of stone were affixed to counteract the force of the current, between which and the cable 'runners' of plied steel were supplied; an arrangement which permitted the casks to uphold the cable at a mean elevation of 100 feet above the channel-bottom. It was the same principle which we apply to our coast buoys, and which, at the time of the Great War our fathers utilized in 'sowing' mines along the mouths of harbors."
"Impossible!" muttered a voice.
The house was very quiet: outside too all was quiet. The Professor looked about for the possessor of the voice, but only set, attentive faces met him on every hand.
"I made the same demurrer, at first," he said, "but the Annihilator admits the impossibility of nothing! And if we look closer we will find that the point in question was not the ability of the casks to suspend the cable, but the ability of the anchors to hold it (and the casks) down. We must remember that at that depth the cable would have but little weight; later, when the coral growths began to enlarge materially, the casks might have proved inadequate,---but Jegers Mentoen took care of that.
"As dispatchedly as possible he set two levels of cables above the first, 500 feet apart, so that the one last placed was but 300 feet below the surface of the channel. His 'wall' then lay complete in a direct line between the Biminis and the mainland. Mentoen probably chuckled evilly to himself as he visualized the ultimate consequences of his work; but it was not until three years later, in 1910, when he had twice paralleled his first cables, once on either side, that he discharged his Malays and allowed them to hunt wives for themselves among the islanders. The noose which the Annihilator had passed about the source of Europe's existence became a grip of steel, and the striction began.
"About this time Mentoen wrote:
"'No; it is unthinkable. I cannot go away---now, I must stay and watch and tend. I have them! I have them! It will not now be so long before the thunderbolt I have hurled will fall, and then...then, will they dare ask who? Will they dare raise their eyes to the Alterer of the Earth? I shall spet on their royal purple, then, and smear their pride with humility. Little do they know how I, Jegers Mentoen, have with my brain triumphed so great a victory over mutable matter....to their undoing.'
"At the time of the Great War Jegers Mentoen was very unhappy. He lived in constant dread that some agent of destruction would be invented which would depopulate Europe and rob him of his triumph. He was already a grey-haired man and had seen two of his Malay boys, who were younger than he, claimed by death. He had money buried on the island,---it is there yet, I suppose,---but he never visited the mainland, nor permitted himself luxuries of life which were not in keeping with his station as a small banana planter. The occasional fruit-boat which came to pick up his produce brought his supplies, and the various Continental and American newspapers to which he subscribed.
"These papers he read greedily, watching, ever watching, for the day when the snow-line should be found to be descending in the Pyrenees and in the Alps and in the mountains d'Auvergne. He watched for the birth of new glaciers in the barrens of the Dovre Field. Day by day, and year by year he waited. He knew, what Europe had not yet realized, that the flowers of France did not bloom as they used, and that the green of Ireland this year was not the green of last, and his curiosity as to how the astrologists and climatologists would interpret these things was very great indeed. But they were so slow, so blind.
"And the beard of Jegers Mentoen grew longer, and whiter, and the young wives he took from among his daughters would not live with him. So he became impatient, and forsook his biding of time. It seemed to him that the people of Europe were cheating him because of their dullness. In this mood he wrote and set adrift the 1930 letter (picked up two years later), known commonly as the "Index Letter."
"We are all familiar with the text of that communication: with its arrogant salutation to the world; its crude drawing of a lion and a unicorn drooping limply in the clutches of the polar bear; the grinning mask, with the crossed hands below pointing one to the mountains, one to the sea. How it lay forgotten in the office of the "Times" until Turvold's startling declaration that the mines of Spitzbergen would have to be abandoned brought it to prominence. And in the following summer, you remember, when the observations and measurements of Colin and Eisman at the Batsberge glacier were made public,---you remember how the letter was turned over to the International College of Scientists (Fossils) to be pawed over, and laughed at, and finally determined to be a cryptogram from the hand of a modern Roger Bacon; and how they attributed the remarkable climatic changes to the Watley eruption of that year on the sun's surface. These are historical facts, and were matters of mild alarm in Europe, and matters of moment at Thimble Cay, where the Annihilator perused the more blatant publications sedulously, and their hysterical prophecies (so strangely true) were as ambrosia to his soul.
"'I see the end not far,' he wrote in his life-book. And he describes his contemporary life as '...days of glee, and nights of unrest...' Adding vehemently, 'I will not die!'---You see he was then in his 73rd year."
The Professor paused abruptly and looked about him dazedly, like a runner who has overrun his path. His eye quite by chance fell upon the librarian.
"Ah! my man," he said, "will you kindly look up for us the details of the sinking of the 'Johanna?' Date, position, etcetera."
The librarian ran his finger down the index of a volume and turned to the record of the disaster.
"Here sir," he said, "extract from ship's log: 'Longitude 46 30" West, Latitude 44 10" North; vessel put on great circle track 6:11 a.m. Heavy fog. Struck iceberg 8:00 a.m. ripping out port double-walls. Observed list immediately..."
"Date?" broke in the Professor.
"Date is July 6th, 1942, sir."
"Good. What year did the Labrador current first break through into the central ocean?"
Again a hurried fumbling of pages. "1951, sir. Off Newfound...."
"1942 and 1951---significant years, gentlemen; and there was a 'message' in between, I believe. An iceberg below 53; and in midsummer! And the Gulf Stream conquered---even for that brief space---by its old enemy, the stream from Labrador! Such things were unheard of,---undreamed of!
"I stress these occurrences because they materialized Jegers Mentoen to a world which, theretofore, had regarded his 'bottle-messages', at best but lightly, and his predictions and querulous demands as matters for jesting. Men now ceased to speak of Jegers Mentoen, the Addlepate, but the name of Jegers Mentoen, the Seer, the Potent, began to be heard on all sides. Apprehension began to be widely felt, that he should style himself the 'Annihilator'. However, scientists, and those in high places, renewed their harmless speculations, though the more superstitions classes began to whisper of Necromancers, and wizards, and Merlins.
"Four thousand miles away the Blaster of Life, who could laugh no more, tottered in the paths of his hacienda and gloated over his power, running over in his mind the first fruits of his handiwork as a miser pours his gold through his fingers. Each awakening throe of horror in which the world writhed was as sweet manna to his avarice. That people suffered, and often died he mildly regretted; he had no wish to cause them pain; but that his machinations had achieved a cosmic scope, and that the fulfillment of all that which he had foreseen was at hand, filled him with pleasure.
"All of this time the coral 'wall' in the channel was becoming synthesized. Inch by inch as the colonies divided and started new growths, and the talus was built up on the north and south of the barrier, the passage was closing; the stream being retarded. And degree by degree, in Europe the thermometer was falling. The mer du glace began its sensational march on Chamouni. The bens and lochs of Scotland bore their snow and ice in summer. Once in March, the Elbe, from St. Pauli to Cuxhavn, had not freed its ice. Already the offices of the Governments were besieged by frenzied passport-seekers. Fabulous rates were being asked, and paid, by both the air and sea lines, for passages.
"In the year of the first official cognizance of Bimini Barrier---1968---and its feeble investigations, the Chilterton interests secured their noted---as well as notorious---colonial concessions in Sparta and Thebes. Rome, once again, heard her seven hills speak in exotic tongues, and it is but yesterday since the 'New Limehouse' sprang up along the Tiber! The government lands in Algeria were thrown open to immigrants; Egypt, Senegal, Rhodesia,---Europe has been swallowed up in Africa.
"The expedition under Lieutenant Starr conducted its soundings and borings over the Reef---we all remember this---in 1970 and '71, I believe...."
"Correct, sir," affirmed the librarian.
"The conclusion was reached (still deferring to Darwin) that an elevation of the earth's crust had taken place, rising very slowly, and in this manner the Gulf Stream had been blocked. The investigators continued to discountenance any association of the mysterious Annihilator with the barrier. Man, they asseverated, cannot raise reefs from the bottom of the sea at will. A little later I discovered Madrepora Gigantea and presented my theory of a super-coral-construction; only to be confronted with quotations and figures from Mr. Starr's reports.
"At this time, Jegers Mentoen, at the age of 110 years, began to taste the dregs of his senility. He presently was forced to shut himself up in his hut with a servant to supplement his every move:---but first he prepared and set adrift the stern 'Manifesto', in which, you will recall, he bade Europe 'rede the riddle of doom.'
"The tragic happenings which have taken place in the decade between the 'Manifesto' and the present time, have left their deep marks on the world. The chinks and interstices of Bimini Reef were soon cemented by current-borne lime and sediment. The Gulf Stream was strangled at its beginning. Compelled to percolate through the innumerable isles of the Bahama Bank, its momentum is entirely lost; it is spread over the Sargasso Sea as a thin, warm stratum; is swept northeast-ward by the winds, but quickly loses its warmth and blends with the colder waters of the Labrador Current. Only a few years ago the ice first blocked the passages of the Azores; wolves of the arctic cross on unbroken ice between Norway and Scotland.
"The panic of 1976, and the subsequent calamitous 'Exodus', are fresh in our minds. The mid-winter rescue flights to Bergen and Christiania by the American relief expedition deserve a place in the ancient sagas. The villages of England, and the countryside in which my youth was spent, are deserted groups of buildings, and desolate, wind-swept barrens now, they say. And so has France suffered; and Holland. We quiver with horror to think of the thousands who have been unable to escape the 'annihilation', and the melancholia which comes over us when we realize that naught but the whim of a man has thus disfigured our world, despoiled us of homelands, and ejected our millions of human waifs upon thankless peoples, is near to unbearable. O! the bitter sadness of despair which has seized me, and must be known to all those who have loved their motherland as I have mine: the dull heartache! the homesickness!"
It was only the ghost of a sob that broke from the lips of the drab little speaker. One would never have suspected him of pathos. The audience was silent, as if only now they had realized the enormity of the metamorphosis which had taken place in the earth: slowly their eyes shifted towards the still form of the Annihilator. Outside, however, where the multitude was gathered, there were many exiles, and hearts were leaden, and eyes gazed across the river,---but saw not the black flood of the river: eyes in which the sweet agony of reminiscence shone through an arras of tears. And because they had not yet seen Jegers Mentoen, they demanded him in throaty whispers.
But again the Professor was speaking:
"I have given you the story of Jegers Mentoen, born an out-cast, and how he lived his life for a moment; how he crucified a world on the cross of a strange ambition:---" his voice rose to the question:--- "did Jegers Mentoen indeed achieve power?"
A hoarse murmer reached his ears; the token of reluctant affirmation:
"Aye! indeed power!"
For the first time an expression of excitement animated the face of the Professor.
"He is a thousandfold more powerful than you think or dream," he cried; "for listen! As, alone among all men he could and has wrought chaos,---listen!--- and you marvel that puissance could ever have inhabited his shriveled body, so he has reserved his supreme triumph until the last. Mark me! Jegers Mentoen, and only he, holds in his mind the secret which can unmake the evil he has rendered,---can bring back the sun to Europe, and the flowers to England's fields!"
A breathless silence.
"He, alone," reiterated the speaker. "For years the combined engineering skill of the world has fought the ever-growing barrier. With every engine of destruction at their hands,---with hydraulic-jacks, with submarine rams, with surface dredges, with acids, with rays of light, with even nitrictl,---they have not succeeded; they have not held their own! The world is defeated. But Jegers Mentoen, the Demipotent, who enlisted nature and her smallest animal as his allies in damning the world, is empowered to reverse nature, to command her inscrutable forces, and pit her against herself! There is a marine plant---"
"An alga, a calcareous growth which he has cultured and hybridized in his later years, his dotage. A plant which is the nemesis of coral life, which with its silky arms, like the tendrils of the liana, reaches out and destroys the zooid wherever there is a contact. Under fertilization it spreads with remarkable rapidity. Within three years the expansion of the barrier can be halted. The reopening of the channel, then, and the freeing of the Gulf Stream by dredging, will be a matter of time only."
"But will he tell? Will he surrender the secret?" whispered Lord Marton apprehensively.
"Get the secret!" admonished a lady's voice: the Professor smiled.
"He has promised to give it me before he dies," he said, "and as Europe knows, Jegers Mentoen does not lie. The secret of..."
He was interrupted by the nervous coughing of the surgeon as he arose from the side of the stretcher. A sound, like a gasp of tear, ran through the assembly.
"The Patient, sir," said the surgeon in a calm voice, "will dissolve no secrets. An hour ago he died."
The groan of despair which swept through the audience was taken up by the throng outside, and, urged by ten-thousand throats it mounted unto heaven. It was like the lament of the Lost Tribes of Israel. Cries were heard of "Woe! woe! woe!"
"Woe, to the land of the Viking, woe!"
"Woe to the Vaterland!"
"Woe to the bonnie heather!"
"To the shamrock, woe!"
"Woe to France."
But the little Professor stared impassively at the surgeon, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his coat.
"Why did you not tell me?" he demanded.
"I... I... sir, I was not instructed to announce the death."
And now on all sides rose a buzz of angry voices, berating, and culpating, and threatening. Only Le Comte Thenier, because he had liked the telling, and the white-haired relic of the Old South, because he was a gentleman, protested the innocence of the Professor.
"For vy you ditt nod vatch?" thundered Herr Schultz.
"Traitor! Imbecile!" from Ritzou.
But it remained for the Minister of Britain, in his ponderous style, to fling the curse and accusation of the world upon the head of the unlucky Professor. "Fool! You blithering idiot!" he rumbled. "What is the meaning of this? Could you hold so lightly the restitution of your country? You have led us to the depths of despair, and promised hope.---Do you play with us? You show us this man, paradoxically the perpetrator and redeemer; wax eloquent over the secret locked in his brain; and permit him to die unheard. Truly he was a marvelous being, powerful even to the requiting of his own great crime. But you let him die unheard! You snuffed the candle of hope which has held the eyes of the world above its sorrows. Unworthy man! Who now is empowered to save the world? Who knows the secret to reverse our doom?"
The audience had risen to its feet, and with hot eyes it watched the little Captor. His own eyes met theirs coldly, reproachfully, as he slowly turned towards the ambassador of his native country.
"I am," he said quietly. "I think I know."