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Chapter 4

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« on: April 02, 2023, 11:50:39 am »

TO liberate the bolt from its girdle occupied the time of two skilled smiths for a week. It was cut away piecemeal and found to be embedded in the metal of the main mass to a depth of six inches. The chemists tested it and reported that one of the constituents embraced a new element as yet unrecorded. "The result of its removal is definite," so Felix explained to Norah. "When this tremendous stricture was finally cut away, the delicate and illusive lines, discovered by that able young man from the museum, became more apparent, and it is now quite clear that the shell has been composed of two equal portions, perfectly fitted together. How to divide them and operate that no injury shall overtake what lies within is our next problem. Infinite care must be taken that nothing as yet hidden shall be injured, but great force may be demanded to get through the metal at all. We hope, however, that the two halves are not actually welded."

"What is your theory of the shell, darling?" asked Norah.

It was Sunday evening and Felix, after the usual cold Sabbath supper, smoked a cigar and rested from his labours until the morning.

"Speaking in such uncertain terms as I should only address to you," he answered, "I have an idea as to the nature of the bolt; but, as yet, none whatever concerning its contents. The object emphatically comes from a conscious and highly organized society of beings for a definite purpose; but only the contents can afford their reason; and it is quite possible that the actual secret it contains may prove of a nature beyond our understanding. If nothing but an insoluble riddle awaits us, then the enterprise of these unknown beings will be wasted, but having high intelligence, we may assume that they will recognize they are seeking to communicate with another order of creation than their own and endeavour to send us something capable of interpretation. They will surely simplify the approach and apply their wits to the most likely means of establishing some sort of understanding, though how such a thing may be accomplished, I admit I can form no sort of opinion. Success demands imagination of a high order and, as you know, I have nothing whatever to be described as imagination myself. That belongs to the province of art rather than science, and the unknown might have created a link between art and science which does not exist on earth at present. In fact, art and science entertain a mutual distrust here which I am disposed to regret."

"Has Greenwich done anything useful about the problem of where the thing came from?" she asked, and Felix shook his head.

"Since my directions were acknowledged, I have, as yet, heard nothing," he answered.

"Then they don't believe in it," declared Norah.

"A large body of scientific persons do not believe in it," he replied. "They do not doubt that the bolt fell and, as you know, numerous eminent men have come to see it; but there is a considerable and increasing body of opinion that the thing was man-made and can only be explained on that assumption."

"Like the colonel and brigadier," said Norah.

"Time will show," he continued. "As for the missile itself, I am disposed to believe that we shall presently find it was constructed much upon our own principle of the thermos flask. The problem for such a terrific journey was to create a receptacle as far as possible impervious to the prodigiously high and low temperatures which the exterior of the bolt would have to encounter. This was probably understood and accomplished. Thus life might have been despatched to us with comparative safety."

"'Life'! My dear man, how in the name of fortune could any living thing have been packed into that small space without air or means to support it?" exclaimed his sister.

"Ask yourself another question," he answered. "How could life be immured within the sepulchral pyramids of Egypt and buried for five thousand years, yet delight our eyes with the inflorescence of the mummy pea?"

Mrs. Hapgood gazed admiringly upon him.

"Of course!" she said. "And not only seeds, but pictures. Pictures would mean art and tell us more than anything else in their power to tell us. We can't trust to language, because if they know how to write, it would be quite beyond our power to know how to read their writing."

"That difficulty might be conquered under certain circumstances," replied Toddleben; "but only under certain circumstances. Assuming a written tongue composed of words, and those words composed of letters, a Rosetta Stone, or some such clue might accompany any sort of literature which they would be in a position to despatch. But these ideas pertain to humanity. When we translated the Egyptian hieroglyphics, we were occupied with the earlier work of fellow men, who thought, acted and created language after our own manner. We can assume no foundation of agreement between our arts and crafts and those practised by the beings responsible for this projectile. Intellect of a high order they undoubtedly possess, but to take it for granted that, because they possess intellect, they remotely resemble us in body or mind, would be most unscientific. We are so used to think in terms of common humanity that it is difficult to imagine evolution arriving at conscious intelligence by any other road than our noble selves; but grant the approach may have been made by quite a different advance; concede that some other order of creation in some other planet may have attained to reason by perfectly natural and inevitable processes, and you are faced with an unlimited field. One can go even further without becoming unscientific, or allowing too much rein to imagination. It may be quite probable that the universe contains beings who differ substantially from any order of creation known to us, and possess no representatives upon earth within our knowledge."

"That is an exceedingly horrible idea," declared Norah, "and I hope you may be mistaken. It inclines me to agree with the colonel and the brigadier—that it would be much wiser to drop the bolt into the Atlantic Ocean and have done with it."

"It is a startling idea," admitted Felix, "but I see nothing horrible about it. The only difficulty would be to know how such a creature could get into touch with us, or we with it."

"The very sight of us might kill it with horror, and the sight of it might kill us with horror," said Mrs. Hapgood.

But a time soon came when the projectile yielded some measure of its inner secret, though no immediate answer to the mystery resulted. Indeed, the purpose of what it contained defied conjecture while giving rise to a flood of new theories. A stage was reached when, upon the invitation of the British Association, at that time about to meet in the city of York, Professor Toddleben prepared a paper concerning the whole subject, and informed both the learned and unlearned world of precisely how the matter stood. He also submitted his own suggestion as to future procedure, when the developments in hand should furnish results.

The introduction of the paper, which Felix read himself and which was afterwards widely circulated, concerned facts already recorded and needing not any repetition; but no words better than his own would be likely to tell the subsequent story, and we quote his report of the bolt's contents and the actions thereupon undertaken. Thus he wrote and read:

    "On the liberation of the powerful cincture, or girdle, of the object, lessening of tension became revealed and the formation of the projectile obvious. It was composed of two equal portions, and delicate leverage presently increased the gap between them. They fitted together with great perfection of workmanship and were separated without injury. Investigation then proved the head of the shell to be solid throughout and doubtless constructed to withstand the terrific impact when its journey ended and it reached earth. In which connection I may point an element of good fortune which attended its arrival, for in our alluvial and sandy soil no obstacle was offered. It penetrated at a high outward temperature and burrowed deeply without damaging itself in any way.

    "On its being opened, we were first confronted with a receptacle measuring four feet three inches long, within the thickness of the shell and situated somewhat beneath the meridional line, being thus considerably nearer the base than the apex, but protected by walls of solid metal on every side. The aperture was packed with non-conductive material of apparently vegetable origin. It presented the appearance of powdered cork and possessed a slight pungency of scent. As the shell was prized open, inch by inch, this substance exuded, and every grain has been collected and preserved. If I may offer a simile from a familiar object, I should say that we were here faced with the theory of the thermos flask. Means had, in fact, been taken to protect the interior from those extremities of temperature to which the bolt was destined to be exposed. That the beings responsible for it were well aware of the coming ordeal seems evident.

    "Bedded in this packing and revealed after its removal, I myself discovered a further receptacle—a cylinder of highly polished yellow metal, two feet six inches long and eighteen inches wide at the circumference. Analysis has proved this to be made of gold fortified with brass.

    "I may say that every morsel of the shell and its contents have been most faithfully preserved, and their ultimate destination await such decisions as science may presently attain.

    "Examination of the golden cylinder revealed a spring that yielded to pressure and brought it open in my hands. It was constructed much on the principle of the shell itself: in two equal portions, and it was tightly packed with material as like our cotton-wool as can be imagined. This mass of wadding yielded to my manipulation and presently were revealed three square boxes precisely similar in every respect. They were eight inches long, six inches deep, and made from wood of a dark colour and very fine grain. This timber is of extreme hardness and every box showed a high, vitreous polish as of glass. As you are aware, one of these boxes was conveyed to the Director of Kew for examination. It proves to be coated with a transparent metallic glaze and the precise nature of the wood cannot be ascertained; but there would seem to be nothing abnormal about it save its stony fabric. Teak, or mahogany, oak or any other known timber, soft when submitted to comparison.

    "There was no difficulty about opening the boxes. The first contained another box of metal hermetically sealed; the second was full of some vegetable seed; the third held an egg most carefully packed in some silken substance of exquisite softness, and silver colour. And these three small objects were all the bolt contained, all these skilled and intelligent creatures from the unknown despatched to us! This is a thought to waken the utmost perplexity, and I am not going to pretend that any definite explanation can be as yet submitted by me. Nor, thus far, have any of you gentlemen present (who have examined the objects yourselves and know all about them) been able to arrive at a rational theory of such an extraordinary present from the unknown. At first sight it would seem that the mountain had produced—not indeed a mouse—but something equally insignificant, for consider the nature of the huge preparations that despatched our projectile to earth and weigh the possibilities offered by it to bring under terrestrial knowledge evidence of other conscious beings capable of establishing relations with our sphere. Language being perhaps impossible, one had certainly anticipated illustrations that talk a common tongue, or other evidences of the intellect that fashioned the bolt and urged it upon its course with such astounding accuracy. Even a man like myself, given the opportunity, had risen to some measure of greater invention and exhausted our human resources to better purpose. Surely the combined wit and wisdom of those savants hidden in space might have packed into the bowels of their metal messenger material of more immediate and fruitful value than a small box as yet to be opened, a handful of vegetable seeds as yet to be germinated, and an egg as yet to be hatched? So it must undoubtedly appear to the great body of scientific and learned persons whom I have the honour to address.

    "But, Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, we must not be too hasty. We must not as yet allow disappointment, or any shadow of impatience to cloud judgment or darken council. The conscious mind is a subject so vast that to limit its possibilities within the narrow radius of our own reason, or imagine that we may assume ourselves to be the pioneers and vanguard of the universe's consciousness, would be unworthy either of the wits we claim, or that ceaseless search for truth and more truth to which we devote our lives and our prime energies. It follows, I think, that because this communication from extra-terrestrial regions appears so trivial, this assumption may result—not from any mental inferiority in those who despatched it, but because our own mentality is as yet incapable of apprehending their purpose. They may be inferior to ourselves; they may have operated from a lower standard of intelligence and upon values far beneath our own. Their knowledge is doubtless built up on a different plane; but that knowledge need not of necessity lie behind our own knowledge; nor can we deny that it may embrace understanding and perception of reality so far ahead of our own that, as yet, we lack the bridge or connecting link ever to recognize what these fellow creatures were driving at when they sent us their seeds, their egg and their little, unopened box.

    "Now far be it from me to presume a hypothesis, or advance a theory where my learned betters have so far failed to submit one; but the end is not yet and I am only concerned at present to suggest the unknown purpose, without for one moment pretending to comprehend the reason. Nor should I even presume to detain you with any air-drawn and nebulous opinion whatsoever, but for one extraordinary circumstance—an apparent almost grotesque coincidence which entitles me to venture upon this doubtful ground.

    "As you are aware I have not opened the third little box at present; but I have sent the seeds to Kew, and the report upon them is that they present no determinate factors and cannot be assigned to any botanical order until they come up and declare themselves. There remains the egg and, strange though it must appear, probably there is not one in this assembly better equipped to pronounce upon the egg than myself.

    "An assertion so pedantic and vainglorious may well shock you; but when I assert the unquestionable genesis of this egg, you will, I venture to hope, condone it, for during the past five-and-forty years I have submitted thousands of similar eggs to the process of incubation, and if I do not know an egg of the Lacerta, or lizard family when I see it, then is a lifetime of devotion vain.

    "Our egg is somewhat larger than that of a domestic duck and it has the unspotted, delicate, blue colour of the spring sky. The shell is of a perfect oval and composed of a leathery, calcareous substance after the manner of the lizard kind. All lizards as you know are oviparous and propagate their species in this manner. They do not tend their eggs, but lay them as chance may determine and leave their future prosperity or destruction to Nature. Now, proceeding on grounds of my own experience, I learn that only a large lizard was responsible for this large egg, and I find—still on terrestrial grounds—that no more than two of any known species could be responsible for it. In the particular of its cerulean colour alone is it unique and differs from hundreds of eggs that I have incubated in my time; but eggs of this size are only laid by two species of the lizards known to science. These are the Monitors and the Iguanidæ. Monitor niloticus—the great Nile monitor—is the largest of his race. He is a marsh-lover and carnivorous. I therefore dismiss him, for reasons presently to be stated. Iguana rhinolophus—that superb and stately creature—is a crested Leguan only found in the forest regions of tropical America. He attains a length of five feet and is a noble lizard of rare distinction. I am disposed to believe, then, that we deal with the egg of a great iguana, and if you ask me why such an assumption, I point to the seeds and the unopened metal receptacle. My theory is admittedly vague, but may for a moment be allowed to cover such meagre facts as it is founded upon. I believe that the egg, now in my care at a suitable temperature, will hatch a creature whose food supply has come with it. I suspect the seeds will germinate speedily and produce vegetation, fruit, or both, suited to its needs; and I guess that the unopened box contains nourishment in some form to support the dawn of life in the creature and send it on its way to maturity. I plump therefore for something in the nature of iguana, because these lizards are vegetarians and subsist on fruit and foliage.

    "That is where we stand, and though the event may confound my predictions, though the grain may not germinate and the egg under terrestrial conditions may not hatch, and the unopened box be found to contain quite another key to the riddle, I submit that we are operating correctly, but am, of course, prepared to proceed on other lines if in your judgment the situation can be rendered more secure in any other manner."

A discussion followed and Professor Toddleben discovered that, on the vital point, a considerable volume of scientific opinion flowed against him. Even artists are not more acerb than the learned when in opposition, and an elderly biologist named Linklater, who set truth higher than courtesy and did not like Felix, now stated his opinions.

"I submit," he said, "that the precious time of the association is being devoted to no good purpose. Being old enough to remember certain painful incidents of the past, when an unprincipled 'explorer' imposed upon us and awakened general ridicule of science as a result, I should like to declare these proceedings to be eminently unprofitable. The assumption that a cumbrous cube of doubtful metal has fallen in East Devon from some region in the solar system as yet unknown, and the discovery that it contains a box of seeds and a lizard's egg may provide an entertaining fairy story, but affords material by no means in keeping with our deliberations, or the worldwide attention they very properly command. What are the facts? Astronomy assigns the only possible starting-point for the projectile as the planet Venus, where the existence of anything that could possess life is subject to the gravest doubt. That this object contains a lizard's egg admits of no question, since our first British authority on the species finds himself convinced of the fact; but why strain possibility when the element of probability stands so high? Why assume an event that in some degree outrages science, when a far more plausible explanation must occur to any thinking man? The reason of this elaborate and costly jest has yet to be discovered, but for my own part I am convinced that we need not seek beyond our own planet for its explanation. The bolt lands, as it were, on the doorstep of our friend, Professor Toddleben—the Lizard King—and its contents include a lizard's egg—the familiar harbinger of an iguana, in his opinion. Does no absurdity lurk in this coincidence? Are we to believe that conscious beings far beyond the confines of earth have heard of the learned professor's fame, that his labours among our reptile population rejoice the universe and are matter for satisfaction throughout the Milky Way? Has he been honoured with some super-lizard from another sphere—a being destined, perhaps, to come as an exemplar and model for our mundane lizards and lift their primitive spirits to nobler ambition and higher achievement? To ask such a ridiculous question is to reveal that we waste time in the regions of romance. In a word, this story is a joke and may be capable of an altogether different explanation. For my part I should be prepared to assert that our valued and honoured friend is the victim of a clumsy and somewhat cruel hoax, that the so-called bolt was manufactured perhaps at no great distance from his own domain and inserted by night within his paddock. The deed done, an explosion was created to waken his family and himself; while infinite puzzlement and confusion followed, as the practical jokers doubtless intended. In fact, had Toddleben gone to the police, instead of to science, seen through the insult put upon him and concerned himself with those probably responsible for it, they might have been laid by the heels long ago."

The assembled savants debated the matter in their professorial fashion, some supporting Felix and others agreeing that any explanation belonged to earth. None could see how it was possible that the birth of an iguana, even if it furnished a new species, was going to explain the business, and all determined that the problem had occupied enough time and might well be left until future developments should demand further consideration.

"For my part," summed up the President of the Association, who admired Felix and had taken the chair for him, "I am in agreement with those who suspect a terrestrial explanation of this very singular event; and when that comes, as we may hope it soon will, we shall probably find the incident removed from the domains of general science altogether and its futile purpose explained in terms of human aberration."

Norah, who had attended the meeting, expressed herself as highly indignant with the air of scepticism created by her brother's revelations.

"A jealous, mean lot," she told him. "They would all have given their heads if such a thing had happened to them and brought them on to the centre of the stage; but because it happened to you, they throw cold water on it. Nothing could have been less scientific than the criticisms, and when that miserable old Linklater tried to be funny, I very nearly cried out 'Order!' I wish now that I had."

But Felix was not in the least perturbed.

"They were all inspired by their enthusiasm for truth," he answered, "and much that they said was worthy of attention. I hold no brief for the projectile—far from it. The thing is a great bore and I honestly wish that it had descended in Timbuctoo rather than at Applewood. I have, however, heard nothing as yet to convince me that my fellow man is responsible for it. Massive evidence exists to the contrary. But, though my sense of humour is rudimentary, I did laugh with Linklater at my own expense, because the fact that this mighty messenger brought me, of all people, a lizard's egg is a distinctly humorous circumstance."

"It may be providential rather than humorous," declared Norah. "At any rate, it is much too soon for those claiming a scientific mind to giggle. However, Linklater called you 'The Lizard King', and there's many a true word spoken in jest. When do you think the egg will hatch?"

"I had expected some learned person to ask me that question," replied Felix; "but nobody did. One cannot speak with any certainty, because one is quite ignorant as to when it was laid."

"They would have been careful to send a fresh egg, don't you think?" asked Norah.

"Undoubtedly. The choice of the egg must have commanded most careful attention. We cannot tell how long it was on the way, because as yet we know not whence it started, or the space of time and distance travelled before the bolt entered our field of gravitation and headed for earth; but I have considered the point and am disposed to believe that, if the egg hatches at all, it will be within the space of two or three weeks at the outside."
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