Such were the circumstances by which the world had its first notification that the Food was loose again. In another week Keston Common was in full operation as what naturalists call a centre of distribution. This time there were no wasps or rats, no earwigs and no nettles, but there were at least three water-spiders, several dragon-fly larvae which presently became dragon-flies, dazzling all Kent with their hovering sapphire bodies, and a nasty gelatinous, scummy growth that swelled over the pond margin, and sent its slimy green masses surging halfway up the garden path to Doctor Winkles’s house. And there began a growth of rushes and equisetum and potamogeton that ended only with the drying of the pond.
It speedily became evident to the public mind that this time there was not simply one centre of distribution, but quite a number of centres. There was one at Ealing—there can be no doubt now— and from that came the plague of flies and red spider; there was one at Sunbury, productive of ferocious great eels, that could come ashore and kill sheep; and there was one in Bloomsbury that gave the world a new strain of cockroaches of a quite terrible sort— an old house it was in Bloomsbury, and much inhabited by undesirable things. Abruptly the world found itself confronted with the Hickleybrow experiences all over again, with all sorts of queer exaggerations of familiar monsters in the place of the giant hens and rats and wasps. Each centre burst out with its own characteristic local fauna and flora… .
We know now that every one of these centres corresponded to one of the patients of Doctor Winkles, but that was by no means apparent at the time. Doctor Winkles was the last person to incur any odium in the matter. There was a panic quite naturally, a passionate indignation, but it was indignation not against Doctor Winkles but against the Food, and not so much against the Food as against the unfortunate Bensington, whom from the very first the popular imagination had insisted upon regarding as the sole and only person responsible for this new thing.
The attempt to lynch him that followed is just one of those explosive events that bulk largely in history and are in reality the least significant of occurrences.
The history of the outbreak is a mystery. The nucleus of the crowd certainly came from an Anti-Boomfood meeting in Hyde Park organised by extremists of the Caterham party, but there seems no one in the world who actually first proposed, no one who ever first hinted a suggestion of the outrage at which so many people assisted. It is a problem for M. Gustave lé Bon— a mystery in the psychology of crowds. The fact emerges that about three o’clock on Sunday afternoon a remarkably big and ugly London crowd, entirely out of hand, came rolling down Thursday Street intent on Bensington’s exemplary death as a warning to all scientific investigators, and that it came nearer accomplishing its object than any London crowd has ever come since the Hyde Park railings came down in remote middle Victorian times. This crowd came so close to its object indeed, that for the space of an hour or more a word would have settled the unfortunate gentleman’s fate.
The first intimation he had of the thing was the noise of the people outside. He went to the window and peered, realising nothing of what impended. For a minute perhaps he watched them seething about the entrance, disposing of an ineffectual dozen of policemen who barred their way, before he fully realised his own importance in the affair. It came upon him in a flash— that that roaring, swaying multitude was after him. He was all alone in the flat— fortunately perhaps— his cousin Jane having gone down to Ealing to have tea with a relation on her mother’s side, and he had no more idea of how to behave under such circumstances than he had of the etiquette of the Day of Judgment. He was still dashing about the flat asking his furniture what he should do, turning keys in locks and then unlocking them again, making darts at door and window and bedroom— when the floor clerk came to him.
“There isn’t a moment, Sir,” he said. “They’ve got your number from the board in the hall! They’re coming straight up!”
He ran Mr. Bensington out into the passage, already echoing with the approaching tumult from the great staircase, locked the door behind them, and led the way into the opposite flat by means of his duplicate key.
“It’s our only chance now,” he said.
He flung up a window which opened on a ventilating shaft, and showed that the wall was set with iron staples that made the rudest and most perilous of wall ladders to serve as a fire escape from the upper flats. He shoved Mr. Bensington out of the window, showed him how to cling on, and pursued him up the ladder, goading and jabbing his legs with a bunch of keys whenever he desisted from climbing. It seemed to Bensington at times that he must climb that vertical ladder for evermore. Above, the parapet was inaccessibly remote, a mile perhaps, below— He did not care to think of things below.
“Steady on!” cried the clerk, and gripped his ankle. It was quite horrible having his ankle gripped like that, and Mr. Bensington tightened his hold on the iron staple above to a drowning clutch, and gave a faint squeal of terror.
It became evident the clerk had broken a window, and then it seemed he had leapt a vast distance sideways, and there came the noise of a window-frame sliding in its sash. He was bawling things.
Mr. Bensington moved his head round cautiously until he could see the clerk. “Come down six steps,” the clerk commanded.
All this moving about seemed very foolish, but very, very cautiously Mr. Bensington lowered a foot.
“Don’t pull me!” he cried, as the clerk made to help him from the open window.
It seemed to him that to reach the window from the ladder would be a very respectable feat for a flying fox, and it was rather with the idea of a decent suicide than in any hope of accomplishing it that he made the step at last, and quite ruthlessly the clerk pulled him in. “You’ll have to stop here,” said the clerk; “my keys are no good here. It’s an American lock. I’ll get out and slam the door behind me and see if I can find the man of this floor. You’ll be locked in. Don’t go to the window, that’s all. It’s the ugliest crowd I’ve ever seen. If only they think you’re out they’ll probably content themselves by breaking up your stuff— ”
“The indicator said In,” said Bensington.
“The devil it did! Well, anyhow, I’d better not be found— ”
He vanished with a slam of the door.
Bensington was left to his own initiative again.
It took him under the bed.
There presently he was found by Cossar.
Bensington was almost comatose with terror when he was found, for Cossar had burst the door in with his shoulder by jumping at it across the breadth of the passage.
“Come out of it, Bensington,” he said. “It’s all right. It’s me. We’ve got to get out of this. They’re setting the place on fire. The porters are all clearing out. The servants are gone. It’s lucky I caught the man who knew.
Bensington, peering from under the bed, became aware of some unaccountable garments on Cossar’s arm, and, of all things, a black bonnet in his hand!
“They’re having a clear out,” said Cossar, “If they don’t set the place on fire they’ll come here. Troops may not be here for an hour yet. Fifty per cent. Hooligans in the crowd, and the more furnished flats they go into the better they’ll like it. Obviously… . They mean a clear out. You put this skirt and bonnet on, Bensington, and clear out with me.”
“D’you mean—?” began Bensington, protruding a head, tortoise fashion.
“I mean, put ’em on and come! Obviously,” And with a sudden vehemence he dragged Bensington from under the bed, and began to dress him for his new impersonation of an elderly woman of the people.
He rolled up his trousers and made him kick off his slippers, took off his collar and tie and coat and vest, slipped a black skirt over his head, and put on a red flannel bodice and a body over the same. He made him take off his all too characteristic spectacles, and clapped the bonnet on his head. “You might have been born an old woman,” he said as he tied the strings. Then came the spring-side boots— a terrible wrench for corns— and the shawl, and the disguise was complete. “Up and down,” said Cossar, and Bensington obeyed.
“You’ll do,” said Cossar.
And in this guise it was, stumbling awkwardly over his unaccustomed skirts, shouting womanly imprecations upon his own head in a weird falsetto to sustain his part, and to the roaring note of a crowd bent upon lynching him, that the original discoverer of Herakleophorbia IV. proceeded down the corridor of Chesterfield Mansions, mingled with that inflamed disorderly multitude, and passed out altogether from the thread of events that constitutes our story.
Never once after that escape did he meddle again with the stupendous development of the Food of the Gods he of all men had done most to begin.