The only question with him was whether the heat of the arc would melt the soft metal teeth at the right time and with even regularity. He was pale and nervous with the tension of the work, his loss of sleep and his goading of conscience, and when the carbons started to glow with the familiar hiss, he started back as if someone had come in, and looked around the shop fearfully.
Then he laughed hysterically and turned again to his machine. His whole attention was now fastened upon it, and with the true inventor's ecstasy he forgot Bauer, forgot his mother, forgot that he was at the center of a great moral tragedy for his own soul, forgot there was a God, and a judgment day and any such things as conscience or remorse, or injustice.
His whole soul flung itself on that point of dazzling light and the soft metal teeth which he had coupled in a strip to the electrodes. He watched it, fascinated and fearful. He saw the tooth begin to glow to a red, then to a white, heat and then it melted softly away, letting the electrodes fall gently, keeping the points of their position in perfect place while the second tooth slipped down in turn to be transformed into a soft and yielding point.
The lamp worked! It was a practical success! It had stood the test! He did not know how long he had been in the shop or how long he had been watching the mechanism. He switched off the power, and adjusted a part of the scissors-coupling. Then he turned on the current again and with the same feeling of fascination watched the softening and dissolving of the metal tooth.
A noise of a door opening aroused him and he looked up. Someone had come in, and was walking directly toward his bench.
The glare of the lamp blinded him, and his eyes had to become adjusted to the dimness as he turned his back on the lamp. But when the person was ten feet away he recognised in a moment the face of Bauer, as he came walking slowly toward him.
WALTER'S mind worked with what he afterward described to himself as an unquestioning obedience to a first impulse, at the centre of which was an instantaneous fear of discovery. Before Bauer had taken another step nearer him he had turned, switched off the power from the lamp, and snatched up a hammer from his bench.
With one blow he smashed the electrodes and then, as if made frantic over the act, he struck at the mechanism until it was a heap of bent and twisted wires and metal. It lay on his bench in a tangled mass and he stooped over it and began to sweep it off into the refuse box. Bauer had not yet said a word. Only with the first blow of the hammer he had ejaculated "Ach!" As Walter was flinging bits of the lamp into the box the German student came up and stood near, looking at Walter in astonishment.
"What is the matter?"
Walter simply muttered some unintelligible thing. He was, to tell the truth, tremendously excited, disturbed, overwhelmed by Bauer's return at this particular time.
"I've—I've been experimenting and have failed," he finally managed to say, stammering out the words with great difficulty. He was terrified to think Bauer might read in his face the whole story.
But Felix Bauer was one of the most simple-hearted and unsuspicious souls that ever lived. If he had not been, some of the things that are going to be true of this story could never have happened. He looked at Walter and then at the broken mechanism and simply said: "I am sorry you have failed. But it is nothing by the side of dishonor."
And then for the first time Walter looked openly and squarely into Bauer's face and saw tragedy there. The incandescent light over the bench was not a strong one. But Bauer was close to him and Walter quickly saw that he was not thinking of what Walter had done, was not going to ask him any questions about it, because some other thing was gripping him, some other thing so strong and insistent and sorrowful that it took possession of him and dominated him. Walter's action had already passed out of his mind as simply an incident connected with some disappointing experiment, and he was looking at Walter with an appeal in his great, sad eyes which smote Walter like a blow in the dark.
He felt almost faint and instinctively he sat down. Bauer had gone over to his own desk and stood leaning against it.
"I ought not to come in here and annoy you at this time," he said in his slow, almost stammering manner, "but I—you see, somehow I felt so lonely, so afraid, when I got off the train to-night, that I could not help the desire to see you, and they told me you must be in the shop. Heine says in the Lorelei, you know, 'Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten, das Ich so traurig bin?' But I do know why I am so sad. It is disgrace which has befallen me, such deep disgrace to my home, my father–"
He stopped and looked at Walter timidly as if not quite sure how his confidence might be received. Walter sat with his head bowed, and smitten into silence. He did not know what to say, but Bauer probably took his silence for quiet sympathy, being of that nature himself and mistaking Walter's attitude for earnest attention.
"My father—you will understand what it means—has deserted my mother, and she has run away, the home destroyed is to be, and the disgrace—Oh, it is greater, more than I can endure, I said as I was obliged to come back for my things. It is more than I can bear alone, and you are so strong, so principled."
Walter cowered in his chair, appalled at the thing that was happening to him. Here was a soul in desperate need who had come to fling itself on him for companionship and courage, and he with his own soul stained with deception for the love of fame and money! He would have cried out; he wanted to, but Bauer went on, now he had broken over his natural reserve. He eagerly awaited Walter's sympathy, and his spirit hungered for light in his darkness.
"Yes, you see, I don't know anyone here, and your action about the story telling in your room—I heard of that—I counted it a brave thing to do. And, oh, I am so hungry for a friend! I need one; do you think you could be friend to me, do you, Douglas? Friend to a disgraced family? It is asking a great deal, but I feel the dark, the dark—it is so heavy for me–"
Bauer, looking at Walter in his almost animal-like appeal, saw at last that there was something he did not understand in Walter's attitude. Walter's mind was not confused by the strange situation, it was clear and vibrating with feeling. But it was a long time before he could speak. How could he tell Bauer the truth now? Why not let him remain in ignorance of the purpose to steal his ideas? Nothing had been done so far to really wrong him. The lamp was destroyed. Walter would not make another, and the basis of a possible friendship, such as Bauer needed, could be established without any explanation or foolish confession.
But somehow Walter could not rest with that suggestion. He felt that if Bauer had his friendship it must rest on truth and a frank outspoken revelation of the character of the soul he was appealing to for help.
It was very still in the big shop when Walter finally looked up and said to Bauer:
"I am not worthy of your friendship. I am not what you think I am."
"Not worthy? Not–" Bauer looked at him in amazement.
"No, not worthy. Look!" Walter spoke fast now as if afraid he might fail in courage. "Open your locker! Here! here is the key! You left it with me."
He thrust the key at Bauer, and Bauer turned around, and under the pressure of Walter's look and voice opened his locker and stood in front of it holding on to the door.
"There! That paper! Your plan, your drawing of the lamp! Open it. Let me show–"
Bauer obeyed mechanically. Walter got up and stood by Bauer's table. Bauer slowly unfolded the paper. His look showed he had almost forgotten it.
"There! See! You were on the right track! The soft metal teeth coupled to the electrode! Don't you see?" Bauer's face began to glow for the first time that evening, for he, too, like Walter, had the inventor's sensitive hunger. "You left the paper here the night you were called home. I saw it and copied it before I put it back. I made the model and it works. That is it there," and Walter pointed to the stuff on the table and in the refuse box. "Do you understand? I stole your plans. I was going to get out the lamp without telling you