The Stolen Bacillus
by H.G. Wells
This again,’ said the Bacteriologist, slipping a glass slide under the microscope, ‘is a preparation of the celebrated Bacillus of cholera – the cholera germ.’
The pale-faced man peered down the microscope. He was evidently not accustomed to that kind of thing, and held a limp white hand over his disengaged eye. ‘I see very little,’ he said.
‘Touch this screw,’ said the Bacteriologist; ‘perhaps the microscope is out of focus for you. Eyes vary so much. Just the fraction of a turn this way or that.’
‘Ah! now I see,’ said the visitor. ‘Not so very much to see after all. Little streaks and shreds of pink. And yet those little particles, those mere atomies, might multiply and devastate a city! Wonderful!’
He stood up, and releasing the glass slip from the microscope, held it in his hand towards the window. ‘Scarcely visible,’ he said, scrutinizing the preparation. He hesitated. ‘Are these – alive? Are they dangerous now?’
‘Those have been stained and killed,’ said the Bacteriologist. ‘I wish, for my own part, we could kill and stain every one of them in the universe.’
‘I suppose,’ the pale man said with a slight smile, ‘that you scarcely care to have such things about you in the living – in the active state?’
‘On the contrary, we are obliged to,’ said the Bacteriologist. ‘Here, for instance-‘ He walked across the room and took up one of several sealed tubes. ‘Here is the living thing. This is a cultivation of the actual living disease bacteria.’ He hesitated. ‘Bottled cholera, so to speak.’
A slight gleam of satisfaction appeared momentarily in the face of the pale man. ‘It’s a deadly thing to have in your possession,’ he said, devouring the little tube with his eyes. The Bacteriologist watched the morbid pleasure in his visitor’s expression. This man, who had visited him that afternoon with a note of introduction from an old friend, interested him from the very contrast of their dispositions. The lank black hair and deep grey eyes, the haggard expression and nervous manner, the fitful yet keen interest of his visitor, were a novel change from the phlegmatic deliberations of the ordinary scientific worker with whom the Bacteriologist chiefly associated. It was perhaps natural, with a hearer evidently so impressionable to the lethal nature of his topic, to take the most effective aspect of the matter.
He held the tube in his hand thoughtfully. ‘Yes, here is the pestilence imprisoned. Only break such a little tube as this into a supply of drinking water, say to these minute particles of life that one must needs stain and examine with the highest powers of the microscope even to see, and that one can neither smell nor taste – say to them, “Go forth, increase and multiply, and replenish the cisterns”, and death – mysterious, untraceable death, death swift and terrible, death full of pain and indignity – would be released upon this city, and go hither and thither seeking his victims. Here he would take the husband from the wife, here the child from its mother, here the statesman from his duty, and here the toiler from his trouble. He would follow the watermains, creeping along streets, picking out and punishing a house here and a house there where they did not boil their drinking-water, creeping into the wells of the mineral-water makers, getting washed into salad, and lying dormant in ices. He would wait ready to be drunk in the horse-troughs, and by unwary children in the public fountains. He would soak into the soil, to reappear in springs and wells at a thousand unexpected places. Once start him at the water supply, and before we could ring him in, and catch him again, he would have decimated the metropolis.’
He stopped abruptly. He had been told rhetoric was his weakness.
‘But he is quite safe here, you know – quite safe.’
The pale-faced man nodded. His eyes shone. He cleared his throat. ‘These Anarchist – rascals,’ said he, ‘are fools, blind fools – to use bombs when this kind of thing is attainable. I think – ‘
A gentle rap, a mere light touch of the finger-nails was heard at the door. The Bacteriologist opened it. ‘Just a minute, dear,’ whispered his wife.
When he re-entered the laboratory his visitor was looking at his watch. ‘I had no idea I had wasted an hour of your time,’ he said. ‘Twelve minutes to four. I ought to have left here by half past three. But your things were really too interesting. No, positively I cannot stop a moment longer. I have an engagement at four.’
He passed out of the room, reiterating his thanks, and the Bacteriologist accompanied him to the door, and then returned thoughtfully along the passage to his laboratory. He was musing on the ethnology of his visitor. Certainly the man was not a Teutonic type nor a common Latin one. ‘A morbid product, anyhow, I am afraid,’ said the Bacteriologist to himself. ‘How he gloated on those cultivations of disease-germs!’ A disturbing thought struck him. He turned to the bench by the vapour-bath, and then very quickly to his writing-table. Then he felt hastily in his pockets, and then rushed to the door. ‘I may have put it down on the hall table,’ he said.
‘Minnie!’ he shouted hoarsely in the hall.
‘Yes, dear,’ came a remote voice.
‘Had I anything in my hand when I spoke to you, dear, just now?’
‘Nothing, dear, because I remember-‘
‘Blue ruin!’ cried the Bacteriologist, and incontinently ran to the front door and down the steps of his house to the street.
Minnie, hearing the door slam violently, ran in alarm to the window. Down the street a slender man was getting into a cab. The Bacteriologist, hatless, and in his carpet slippers, was running and gesticulating wildly towards this group. One slipper came off, but he did not wait for it. ‘He has gone mad!’ said Minnie; ‘it’s that horrid science of his’; and, opening the window, would have called after him. The slender man, suddenly glancing round, seemed struck with the same idea of mental disorder. He pointed to the Bacteriologist, said something to the cabman, the apron of the cab slammed, the whip swished, the horse’s feet clattered, and in a moment the cab, Bacteriologist hotly in pursuit, had receded up the vista of the roadway and disappeared round the corner.
Minnie remained straining out of the window for a minute. Then she drew her head back into the room again. She was dumbfounded. ‘Of course he is eccentric,’ she meditated. ‘But running about London – in the height of the season, too – in his socks!’ A happy thought struck her. She hastily put her bonnet on, seized his shoes, went into the hall, took down his hat and light overcoat from the pegs, emerged upon the doorstep, and hailed a cab that opportunely crawled by. ‘Drive me up the road and round Havelock Crescent, and see if we can find a gentleman running about in a velveteen coat and no hat.’
‘Velveteen coat, ma’am, and no ‘at. Very good, ma’am.’ And the cabman whipped up at once in the most matter-of-fact way, as if he drove to this address every day in his life.
Some few minutes later the little group of cabmen and loafers that collects round the cabmen’s shelter at Haverstock Hill were startled by the passing of a cab with a ginger-coloured screw of a horse, driven furiously.
They were silent as it went by, and then as it receded-‘That’s ‘Arry ‘Icks. Wot’s he got?’ said the stout gentleman known as Old Tootles.
‘He’s a-using his whip, he is, to rights,’ said the ostler boy.
‘Hullo!’ said poor old Tommy byles; ‘here’s another bloomin’ loonatic. Blowed if there ain’t.’
‘It’s old George,’ said Old Tootles, ‘and he’s drivin’ a loonatic, as you say. Ain’t he a-clawin’ out of the keb? Wonder if he’s after ‘Arry ‘Icks?’
The group round the cabmen’s shelter became animated. Chorus: ‘Go it, George!’ ‘It’s a race!’ ‘You’ll ketch ’em!’ ‘Whip up!’
‘She’s a goer, she is!’ said the ostler boy.
‘Strike me giddy!’ cried Old Tootles. ‘Here! I’m a-goin’ to begin in a minute. Here’s another comin’. If all the kebs in Hampstead ain’t gone mad this morning!’
‘It’s a fieldmale this time,’ said the ostler boy.
‘She’s a-following him,’ said Old Tootles. ‘Usually the other way about.’
‘What’s she got in her’and?’
‘Looks like a’igh ‘at.’
‘What a bloomin’ lark it is! Three to one on old George,’ said the ostler boy. ‘Next!’
Minnie went by in a perfect roar of applause. She did not like it but she felt that she was doing her duty, and whirled on down Haverstock Hill and Camden Town High Street with her eyes ever intent on the animated back of Old George, who was driving her vagrant husband so incomprehensively away from her.
The man in the foremost cab sat crouched in the corner, his arms tightly folded, and the little tube that contained such vast possibilities of destruction gripped in his hand. His mood was a singular mixture of fear and exultation. Chiefly he was afraid of being caught before he could accomplish his purpose, but behind this was a vaguer but larger fear of the awfulness of his crime. But his exultation far exceeded his fear. No Anarchist before him had ever approached this conception of his. Ravacho!, Vaillant, all those distinguished persons whose fame he had envied, dwindled into insignificance beside him. He had only to make sure of the water supply, and break the little tube into a reservoir. How brilliantly he had planned it, forged the letter of introduction, and got into the laboratory, and how brilliantly he had seized his opportunity! The world should hear of him at last. All those people who had sneered at him, neglected him, preferred other people to him, found his company undesirable, should consider him at last. Death, death, death! They had always treated him as a man of no importance. All the world had been in a conspiracy to keep him under. He would teach them yet what it is to isolate a man. What was this familiar street? Great Saint Andrew’s Street, of course! How fared the chase? He craned out of the cab. The Bacteriologist was scarcely fifty yards behind. That was bad. He would be caught and stopped yet. He felt in his pocket for money, and found half a sovereign. This he thrust up through the trap in the top of the cab into the man’s face. ‘More,’ he shouted, ‘if only we get away.’
The money was snatched out of his hand. ‘Right you are,’ said the cabman, and the trap slammed, and the lash lay along the glistening side of the horse. The cab swayed, and the Anarchist, half-standing under the trap, put the hand containing the little glass tube upon the apron to preserve his balance. He felt the brittle thing crack, and the broken half of it rang upon the floor of the cab. He fell back into the seat with a curse, and stared dismally at the two or three drops of moisture on the apron.
‘Well! I suppose I shall be the first. Phew! Anyhow, I shall be a Martyr. That’s something. But it is a filthy death, nevertheless. I wonder if it hurts as much as they say.’
Presently a thought occurred to him – he groped between his feet. A little drop was still in the broken end of the tube, and he drank that to make sure. It was better to make sure. At any rate, he would not fail.
Then it dawned upon him that there was no further need to escape the Bacteriologist. In Wellington Street he told the cabman to stop and got out. He slipped on the step, his head felt queer. It was rapid stuff this cholera poison. He waved his cabman out of existence, so to speak, and stood on the pavement with his arm folded upon his breast, awaiting the arrival of the Bacteriologist. There was something tragic in his pose. The sense of imminent death gave him a certain dignity. He greeted his pursuer with a defiant laugh.
‘Vive l’Anarchie! You are too late, my friend. I have drunk it. The cholera is abroad!’
The Bacteriologist from his cab beamed curiously at him through his spectacles. ‘You have drunk it! An Anarchist! I see now.’ He was about to say something more, and then checked himself. A smile hung in the corner of his mouth. He opened the apron of his cab as if to descend, at which the Anarchist waved him a dramatic farewell and strode off towards Waterloo Bridge, carefully jostling his infected body against as many people as possible. The Bacteriologist was so preoccupied with the vision of him that he scarcely manifested the slightest surprise at the appearance of Minnie upon the pavement with his hat and shoes and overcoat. ‘Very good of you to bring my things,’ he said, and remained lost in contemplation of the receding figure of the Anarchist.
‘You had better get in,’ he said, still staring. Minnie felt absolutely convinced now that he was mad, and directed the cabman home on her own responsibility. ‘Put on my shoes? Certainly, dear,’ said he, as the cab began to turn, and hid the strutting black figure, now small in the distance, from his eyes. Then suddenly something grotesque struck him, and he laughed. Then he remarked, ‘It is really very serious, though.’
‘You see, that man came to my house to see me, and he is an Anarchist. No – don’t faint, or I cannot possibly tell you the rest. And I wanted to astonish him, not knowing he was an Anarchist, and took up a cultivation of that new species of Bacterium I was telling you of, that infest, and I think cause, the blue patches upon various monkeys; and like a fool, I said it was Asiatic cholera. And he ran away with it to poison the water of London, and he certainly might have made things look blue for this civilized city. And now he has swallowed it. Of course, I cannot say what will happen, but you know it turned that kitten blue, and the three puppies – in patches, and the sparrow – bright blue. But the bother is, I shall have all the trouble and expense of preparing some more.
‘Put on my coat on this hot day! Why? Because we might meet Mrs. Jabber. My dear, Mrs. Jabber is not a draught. But why should I wear a coat on a hot day because of Mrs.–? Oh! very well.’