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.