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Chapter 1

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« on: April 02, 2023, 10:03:56 am »

PROFESSOR Felix Toddleben was a reasonable man, which is to say that he accepted facts often repellent to human instinct. While granting that our senses alone permit us to know anything at all, since they represent the sole channels through which knowledge may be attained, he yet acknowledged the scientific truth that they are not constituted ever to attain reality. He resented sham solutions to the riddle of existence and denied that the true one lay within reach of finite intelligence.

"Man," said Felix, "must bow to his mental limitations and admit the Absolute to be for ever beyond him." He held biology the most exciting occupation and wished that he were young again to concentrate upon it. For him the Victorian universe was a fiction of the past—its dogmas and certainties as dead as the dodo—but he recognized no considerable genius at present carrying on the good work, or tilling the fruitful field.

The professor's own activities concerned only a small corner of zoology, wherein he stood the admitted master of human knowledge; but he was quite aware of its comparative unimportance, had never possessed the professorial mind and always laughed at those numerous savants who flourish their little crumb of wisdom and cry 'Behold the loaf!'

He knew far more about Lacerta than anybody else in the world; but he was also assured that profounder problems than any offered by the Lizard family still await discovery.

The excellent man had achieved such distinction as he most coveted and was a Fellow of the Royal Society. His classic on his subject stood as yet unchallenged, and now, at sixty-five years old, he pursued his way and continued to devote his working hours to the Lacerta, while enjoying increased leisure for pursuit of biology and modern physics, which he approached as an amateur. He corresponded with learned societies, but was not himself gregarious and lacked any flair for social friendships. In his dry fashion he would remark that to be a mammal proved distressing enough without herding among others. For the most part he found the life of his unconscious fellow creatures more attractive and stimulating than that of his own species, yet, while somewhat unapproachable socially, the professor was generous to humane causes and quick to lessen adversity when it lay in his power so to do.

Absolute independence of thought he demanded as a man of science, and perceiving his native country to be the most free and least under dictatorial regime, was glad that he happened to be an Englishman. For the scientific mind needs liberty and can ill brook the dictation and lordship of intellects inferior to its own. He held that science had proved its right to freedom by every page of its noble history, and the spectacle of a backward people casting out Einstein, with attendant circumstances of robbery, for ever stamped their nation, in his opinion, as a danger to human progress and an insult to civilization.

"That the man who discovered Relativity—the most world-shaking doctrine since Evolution—should be subjected to the assault and outrage of Nordic Huns, is as though we had driven a Newton or a Darwin from our eternal reverence and devotion"—so Felix would declare.

His connection with a State Department was concluded by age limit, and at the same time he vacated a university chair and retired to the peace and quiet of the country. Chance had left him a small estate and dwelling-house in East Devon and, at Applewood, he now dwelt in retirement, his mind ceaselessly active, his health preserved by exercise and the pursuit of horticulture. Most of his forty acres was meadowland and let to a farmer; but the professor enjoyed the beauty of his orchard in daffodil time, in blossom time and in fruit time. He also reserved to himself a two-acre paddock, his walled vegetable and fruit garden and the domain of lawns and flowers. In his hot-houses he grew exotic things and found relaxation and genuine joy of life in their culture. He also hatched the eggs of the Lacerta and learned new facts concerning them. He was very seldom outside his own outer gate, but always busy and active in mind and body within it. His annual exodus and holiday took him to the meeting of the British Association, where he renewed acquaintance with his kind and enjoyed the reputation of a man of humour. Humour is a relative term and, in truth, the professor's vintage must have seemed exceeding dry to any average lover of a joke; but he entertained the learned, and an irreverent post-war generation called him 'The Lizard' behind his back. These youthful zoologists pretended to perceive in Toddleben's active gestures, bright eyes and attenuated physique kinship with the creatures to whom he had dedicated his life. And now this distinguished man stood upon the brink of extraordinary events tending to prove an interposition of Providence. An astounding coincidence was at hand and the professor, who judged that life had already blessed him with all the experience he desired, was shortly about to face a challenge destined to represent the whole of his busy and learned past as a mere preliminary to events unique, not only in his own existence, but that of all human kind.

Felix was unmarried, for love had never rippled the deep stream of his devotion to learning; but he possessed a widowed sister who adored him and she, after a stormy union with a soldier, returned to her brother when Major Hapgood lost his life in a motor accident. Norah had now kept his house for twenty years. She was younger than he and, save for one daughter, lacked all encumbrances. Mrs. Hapgood possessed that element of humour which petered out so faintly in Felix. She was easy-going, comfortable and never perturbed by circumstance—a woman well calculated to support him in the tremendous event now so near at hand. She cared much for her brother, devoted her care to his comfort and took quite an intelligent interest in his pursuits, read scientific books with pleasure and often pleased him by her understanding of the major problems demanding elucidation.

"What we want now," said Norah, "is a new portrait of Man. The finished picture depicted by a Darwin and a Huxley has grown faint. The biologists of the coming generation must wipe it out and give us something more in keeping with the immense strides that science has taken since their time."

Norah had stolen this opinion from a book, as she stole many of her opinions; but the professor, not having as yet read the book, felt gratification at her sound sense. She knew well how to please him.

"You almost tempt me sometimes to subscribe to the doctrine of 'intuition', my love," he said after one of her plagiarisms. "One knows, of course, that the idea of intuition has been exploded, yet your hazardous shots at truth not seldom hit the mark."

On one occasion he caught Norah, but she escaped the snare and created no suspicion. She had stated opinions gleaned from her reading and Felix stared at her with amazement.

"Good powers, woman!" he exclaimed, "Owen said that fifty years ago!"

"Then," she replied, "if I agree with Owen after such a lapse of time, it is certain that we must both be right."

It was their custom to reserve any item of special interest gleaned through the day until they sat together after the evening meal in Norah's drawing-room. Then, if her brother had anything of particular importance to relate, she would hear it, and should the day have brought some local news, Norah had the racy item ready.

There came a summer evening when it was the professor's turn, and as they drank their coffee together in his sister's unobtrusive but attractive apartment, Felix pricked the end of his after-dinner cigar, but spoke before he lighted it.

"You'll be glad to hear that I have completed my monograph on the second sub-order of the Chamæleonoidea—genera Chamæleon and Rhampholeon. I wrote the last word this morning," he said quietly.

Whereupon Norah set down her cup, leapt up and kissed him.

"Well done, darling!" she cried. "A triumph!"

"Adequate, I hope."

"You'll miss it fearfully; but you must take a little real rest now."

The professor was suffering from that consciousness that comes to the creative artist on completion of any achievement. He scarcely knew it himself as yet, but it tinged his mind to a certain melancholy, which presently found voice.

He seldom criticized himself, and when he did so, Norah always diagnosed liver; but to-night, rather than any exhibition of modest jubilance on the completion of his work, Felix showed personal dissatisfaction—not with the monograph, but himself.

He turned upon his cigar and regarded it with unfriendly eyes.

"It has troubled me of late," he said, "that I grow very self-indulgent. There is a fatal weakness in our natures to be tender to ourselves, and we find that few consciences are powerful enough to combat this propensity. Of late my evening cigar has caused me discomfort—not physical, needless to say, for I win absurd animal pleasure from it—but mentally, even morally. I smoke three hundred and sixty-five cigars every year of my life and have done so for many years. The brand is not expensive for a sound and matured Havannah, but the fact remains that I spend somewhat more than fifteen pounds of good money every year on a gross, personal luxury."

"Now listen to me," began Norah; but he stopped her.

"Allow me to finish, please, then, I think, you will find nothing to say in response," he replied. "Now a luxury must be approached with caution and weighed in the balance. We should consider its dangers and measure them against its advantages. What, at first sight, appears perhaps utterly harmless, may possess insidious properties of a dangerous nature. Luxury may be unsocial and therefore basically immoral. While doing you no apparent harm, it is possible that by prejudicing your powers to do other people good, it is working real, though unsuspected, havoc with your own morale. I see many sound reasons in the case of my neighbours why modest luxuries are right and just. For those less blessed than myself I often delight to observe how some happy accident has added pleasure to their days and perhaps helped to lessen the burdens that life has put upon them. But consider my own immense advantage over such persons. I already have a luxury denied to most people at my time of life. I have passed the grand climacteric without an ache or pain. I have known no physical disability since I cut my teeth. In a word, Providence has blessed me with that rare and super-luxury, perfect health: a sound mind housed in a sound body. Better than wealth, better than intellect, surely better than cigars, is the parental legacy of such a constitution as both you and I enjoy.

"Granted then," concluded the professor, "that from no virtue of my own I am privileged to possess the greatest luxury that any man of good sense can desire—a luxury far above the merit and beyond the unaided reach of humanity—then does it not follow that, content with such a supreme blessing, I should scorn all lesser luxuries whatsoever, and devote my means rather to finding how I may abate the necessities of those less fortunate?"

"If you have finished with this nonsense, perhaps you will permit me to speak, darling," answered Norah. She was calm but her eyes flashed upon him.

"I have but one thing to say," she continued, "and you have long since learned that what I say, I mean. I am not going to argue and I am not going to be sentimental. I merely state, as a matter of adamant fact beyond any appeal whatsoever, that if you give up your after-dinner cigar, I leave the house. Light it at once and talk of something else. Humility of this kind is quite unworthy of you and most distasteful to me. We may not be altruists exactly, but we do all the good we can. We are most kind-hearted and patient. I attend the baby clinics and mothers' meetings. You give prizes for the whist drives and athletic sports and flower shows. Nobody bearing a horrid little book ever brings it to this door without receiving a subscription. You make no distinction as to the cause. Everything and everybody gets a half-crown from the pile that you keep upon your desk for the purpose. Your indifference and lack of discrimination is quite unmoral. You give food and drink to anybody who comes begging. You do all manner of irrational things from your good heart. So do I. There is not a pin to choose between us. I might as well say that I shall give up my aviary of budgerigars and tropical finches, as you suggest denying yourself this innocent and aromatic pleasure. I will not give up my budgeys for anybody, and you will not give up your tobacco. I should miss it quite as much as you would. Now talk of something else."

Felix smiled and struck a match.

"We are a gross couple; but it shall be as you wish, my love," he answered.

When agitated Norah would sometimes talk to herself, and she did so now.

"If the greatest living authority on the Lacerta cannot smoke an occasional cigar, then the universe may run down, and the sooner the better," she murmured, frowning at her bosom.

Silence fell for a few moments, then the professor put a question.

"When does Mildred honour us with a visit?" he asked.

Mildred Hapgood worked in London as a clerk at the War Office, where she prospered on light labours, easy hours, excellent money and ample leisure. She enjoyed life heartily and was a typical maiden of the times, with great gift of friendship and love of all things new. She was fearless and education had armed her against harm, so that while she enjoyed fancied perils and liked to believe that she lived dangerously, the fact was otherwise. None could take better care of herself than Mildred, and the reckless strain won from her father was moderated by an element of intelligence peculiar to herself. She and her mother were good friends but entertained no particular admiration for each other, and while her uncle enjoyed her breezy companionship, beauty and youth, he was prone to regret her pleasures and opinions. For Mildred's part she found him inexpressibly arid. "You are not merely a lizard, but a fossil lizard, Uncle Felix," she once told him when he opposed her theory of existence, "and it is exasperating, because I really believe about things in general pretty much what you do yourself. Only I have the wit to see that everything is going to be all right in a few million years, when man has grown up, whereas you are cowardly enough to think that everything is all wrong with him and feel sure that he will never live to grow up at all."

Mrs. Hapgood answered her brother's question.

"Milly is going to Norway with friends for her vacation; but hopes to look us up before she returns to work," she said. "We bore her. There is a hectic demand for eternal incident in Milly, common of course to her generation, dear child. An instinct prompts her to avoid both us and Applewood, and she summed it up last time she was here. 'Nothing ever happens,' she told me, 'and that's so ageing.'"

"But there lies the beauty of life as we plan it," argued the professor. "The less extraneous incident and the fewer complications, the more time and peace for those happenings of only real moment, which take place within the ambit of our own brains. Most people, by their ill-considered actions, leave the door open to every sort of undesirable happening that it is possible to imagine, and then they cry out with dismay at the passage of events, which might have been avoided with a little intelligent anticipation. Was it unworthy to be called a happening that to-day I finished my monograph?"

"Of course not. It's the most tremendous thing that has happened at Applewood since you finished the last one—three years ago," she replied. "You and I and the scientific world know that perfectly well. But Mildred is only twenty-three. Which really sums up the situation. At three-and-twenty the young want things to happen and love to be in a continual whirl. They welcome change, just as your Great Dane welcomes the start of a walk. As he dashes forth, bursting with idiot joy about nothing, giving tongue for the mere delight of being alive and able to smell the million scents that salute his delicate nostrils, and are mercifully hidden from ours, so the young dash forth to salute their companions and rejoice in every sort of distraction, that a distracted world so abundantly offers them. We cannot judge their excitement or share their fiendish energy. We mature blossoms quite forget what it felt like to open our hearts to the sun and rain for the first time."

"True, Norah. I see your point. When Milly specifies her next date of arrival, we will be alert to arrange something in the nature of an entertainment for her," promised Felix.

"What its nature may be," he continued, "does not occur very readily to my mind; but I can trust yours to plan a carouse, or expedition, or what not, and ask such of her generation as we know to join us."

"It's not a bit easy really to entertain a town girl in the heart of a rural district," admitted Norah. "Even the bright ones fail to catch the spirit of it, or appreciate the orderly sights and scenes presented to them. They care nothing for the crops and herds, yet appear amazingly sensitive to weather. They indicate instant depression if a soaking day confronts them. Mildred always evinces a quiet but obvious determination to do her duty when she arrives, and a sparkling excitement when the day of departure dawns and she departs, rejoicing in the conviction that she has done it."

"She loves art," commented the professor, "but is singularly indifferent to the sources from which art springs. I have heard her say that she would infinitely sooner see a Turner sunrise in the comfort of a picture gallery, than get up before dawn and behold the phenomena for herself. 'In a fine Corot,' she said to me on one occasion, 'you get everything you want without going to some horrid, marshy hole full of midges and mud, where he went to paint it. He had to face these things for his art; but there is no occasion, though we adore him, for us to face them. He gives us all the loveliness and colour and mystery without the mess and mosquitoes. One of the beautiful things about art is that'—well you know how she talks."

"Quite sensibly according to her lights, which burn from new lamps," replied Norah; "and, by the same token, our lamps need new wicks. They shall be got when I visit the city on Thursday. For the moment I am going to bed after listening to the news."

Mrs. Hapgood started the radio which occupied a corner of her drawing-room. Neither ever listened to it until nine o'clock, save on the occasions of a symphony concert, but both enjoyed music.

The affairs of civilization proved not very cheerful on this occasion, and when the record ended, Norah kissed her brother and retired, while he went to his study, where he was used to read and drink a glass of hot water, his final refreshment for the day.

At midnight, or there about, the professor usually liberated 'Rex', his Great Dane, leaving the house, yard and outbuildings to his care. Then he went to bed and the dreamless sleep he was accustomed to enjoy.

But to-night the unusual happened and, about the hour of two, Felix found himself wide awake and in some concern to know what had shattered his unconsciousness. He judged rightly that only a considerable sound would have been capable of doing so; but as he rose and turned on his electric lamp no noise broke the nightly silence. Faint and at some distance from the house, he presently heard the baying of his Great Dane, but it was not an utterance calculated to banish sleep, or bring him thus suddenly wide awake and aware of some untoward event.

A sense of incidents altogether out of the common prevented Felix from putting out his light and going to sleep again, and he was sitting up considering the possibility of action when there came a knock at his door. Voices had already attracted his attention and he had heard his sister and a manservant upon the landing. Now she came in and displayed much perturbation.

"Everybody in the house is awake," declared Norah, "and something tremendous has evidently happened out of doors."

She was clad in a dark-green silk dressing-gown, and wore a cap upon her grey hair.

"Sit down and tell me what you know," he answered. "The tremendous thing that has happened to me is that I was suddenly startled from sleep at two of the clock; but what occasioned any event so unusual I have yet to learn."

"It sounded exactly as though an express train had broken loose and was whirling through the rhododendrons under my bedroom window," explained Norah. "The air was full of a sudden roar and the house rocked. I thought every moment that the roof would crash down upon us."

"Then the vibration doubtless woke me," answered Felix.

"It lasted no time," she continued. "Just one pandemonium, like a hideous explosion with everything shaking, and then all was quiet. So it wasn't a storm or anything of that sort."

"It may have been an explosion," he declared.

"What have we got to explode?" she asked.

"My thoughts turn to the heating apparatus in the incubating-house. Anything wrong there would be very serious, for I have some exceedingly rare plants being cultivated for my friend, Sir Humphrey Johnson, the Director of Kew. But no lizards at present."

The professor prepared to rise.

"I must investigate," he said. "If Peters is outside, direct him to go to the lodge, summon Medland and tell him to join me at the stove-houses in the kitchen garden."

"Peters is on the landing, in purple pyjamas with a broad yellow stripe," answered Norah. "He is trembling and quite unnerved and looking like nothing on earth."

But Felix preserved absolute calm.

"Tell him to put on some clothes at once and not attempt to go to the lodge attired in that grotesque fashion," he directed. "If the Great Dane met him in purple pyjamas he would not be recognized and have swift cause to regret it. Now go away and I will attire myself and investigate."

His sister was about to leave him when he spoke again.

"Mildred will be interested to learn that something has happened at last," he said.

A quarter of an hour later the professor descended to the hall, put on a cap and a pair of goloshes, procured an electric torch from a drawer in a Welsh dresser and set forth.

He met Peters returning from the lodge. His trepidation had passed and the factotum was brave again.

"I've roused the gardener, sir," he said. "He'll be on his way. He was woke by the affair and a good bit put about."

"Can you form any theory to account for it?" asked Felix and the old man declared that he stood in doubt between two opinions.

"'Tis one thing, or else another, without a doubt, Professor," he replied. "Either a thunder-planet have fallen on Applewood, or else 'tis they Germans. There can't be nought else."

"If by 'thunder-planet' you mean an aerolite, or fragment from the outer universe, I should feel disposed to agree with you," answered Felix. "But not, I think, an enemy bomb. Nothing is hidden more profoundly from common knowledge than the truth of the political situation at any time; but there is no reason, if we may trust the news, to presume an evil of that kind."

"So long as you ain't afeared, I ain't afeared, Professor," declared Peters.

"Go in now and direct a maid to brew tea and take a cup to Mrs. Hapgood. Let the staff prepare what stimulant they feel to need, and take a tot of brandy yourself. If the stove is intact, I shall return very shortly."

"The dog sounds to be yowling down in the paddock, Professor."

"I will look to him before I come in. Any possible catastrophe there would be of minor importance."

The July night was moonless, but summer stars shone drowsily overhead and the air smelled sweet as Toddleben turned on his torch and set forth to learn the worst. A range of low hills extended northerly of Applewood and behind them already glimmered the dawn of another day.
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