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Chapter 5

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« on: April 02, 2023, 12:22:24 pm »

BEFORE the professor's activities were again challenged Mildred Hapgood came to spend a few days at Applewood with her mother and tell of her holiday in Norway. She was not apparently interested in the trip, but had no little to say on the subject of a fellow tourist. Mildred possessed beauty and great vivacity. Like the rest of her kind, she loved experience and scorned convictions of any sort. She was energetic, intelligent and avid for adventure; and now unconsciously she revealed something in that direction. It transpired that a bright lad from the Russian Legation was on the holiday boat also, enjoying his vacation, and Mildred had evidently found him to possess exceptional qualities of intellect and remarkable grasp of social and political problems. He, too, had apparently been much struck with her own unusual attainments. They found themselves in whole-hearted agreement as to the way in which the world might be set right, and the young man from Moscow had exacted a promise from Miss Hapgood that their acquaintance should ripen when both returned to London.

"What I liked about him," said Mildred, "was his power of synthesis and his philosophical outlook. He doesn't dogmatize and lay down the law. In strict confidence, he confessed to me that he did not by any means see eye to eye with the Soviets. His ideal is by no means Communism pure and simple, and in his heart he believes that our democratic principles are far sounder than advanced Socialism. I should say he was too sympathetic and too human for his own safety, and he admits that it is very difficult to practise humanism in Russia, because the regime is not human and overrides all other interests than the State. But he is brilliant and very cautious. It took some time for him really to trust me; he said that I was the first kindred spirit he had met with among professional people in England."

Mildred flowed on in this fashion, indicating her ingenuous admiration for the Sclav; and when Norah asked what he was like and from what family he might be descended, she had the answer at her fingers' ends.

"He is thirty-two and amazingly handsome and virile," she told them. "Somewhat Asiatic really, with those strange Eastern eyes that usually mean something akin to genius. He speaks perfect English and is in a sort of way English-minded. He told me frankly that had he not been a Russian, he would have wished to be British; but he has a patriotic devotion to his country, though he keeps it hidden and assumes a sort of diplomatic disguise of indifference except when with me."

"Deep and cunning, I expect," suggested Norah.

"Deep certainly, and crafty up to a point. You have to be pretty crafty in Russia if you want to preserve your liberty and life. We all know the end of their leading men. He says that Stalin is terribly suspicious of ability and is quite remorseless the moment that any of his associates begins to be popular, or show exceptional resource. To differ from him on any question of policy is to take the first step to your own extinction. Infinite tact is demanded and Serge Boluski is made of tact. He was much surprised to learn that I worked in our War Office, but never asked me a question that I could not easily answer. Yet he liked me to ask him questions and gave me a hint that I pleased and impressed him by my grasp of his own difficulties. He is tremendously ambitious himself; but admits that ambition is a very dangerous impulse in Russia."

"Don't allow yourself to become too attracted, Milly," advised Felix. "I venture to think that your mother would much regret it if you lost your heart to a Muscovite."

"She needn't fear," promised the girl. "We are both far too interested in our own careers to contemplate handicapping ourselves in that way. The friendship, so to call it, is on quite a different plane."

"See that it remains so, then," begged Norah, "and ask your English men friends what they think of Mr. Boluski."

But Mildred scorned the suggestion.

"I do my own thinking, mother. The average man can always be trusted to come to a wrong conclusion about the superior man. When a person's jealous, their judgment is worthless."

"I don't like the sound of him and it's no good pretending I do," declared Mrs. Hapgood.

But the engaging Russian soon ceased to interest, for two days before Milly's holiday was ended, there came Saul Medland to see the professor while he was yet at his morning meal.

"It have hatched out in the night, master!" he said. "A lizard, as you foretold us, and never did I see a more god-forsaken, hideous object, begging your pardon for the word."

Felix had already leapt from the table. Upon Sunday he always enjoyed a sausage and fried potatoes for breakfast and, as a rule, looked forward to them; but now he abandoned these good things despite Norah's protest and hastened to his incubator.

"It's for all the world like they efts in the pond, Professor," explained Saul, "and yet again it ain't, because it haven't got no tail to name and be all head and eyes. A proper monster."

"No tail to name, Saul? Are you sure? I should certainly have anticipated a tail," answered Felix.

"A most creepy creature," declared the gardener. "He looked me up and down but didn't show no fear. I wouldn't say but what he might be poisonous, Professor."

"Most improbable, my dear fellow," replied Toddleben. "There is but one poisonous lizard in our knowledge, and though this creature may possess exceptional attributes, the power to poison is not likely to be one of them."

"Another thing have happened," continued Saul. "They seeds that come in the bolt have rose in the night. You can most see 'em growing—for all the world like a potato, or some such."

"I'm glad to hear it," replied Felix. "If this is destined to be the creature's foodstuff, the quicklier it matures, the better. I have yet to learn from Kew, but it may well be that we are dealing with a solanum as you suggest."

Soon he stood beside the incubator and looked down through its glass lid at the mysterious fragment of life beneath. The lizard had broken its shell and crept away into a corner where the morning sun already touched its cradle. Felix beheld an object that challenged his knowledge and confirmed it in certain particulars, but confounded it in others. Here was most certainly an infant iguana, yet it differed in radical particulars from the species, and the differences cast the professor down. Milly had followed him and exclaimed in horror at what she saw. The thing was already six inches long and had quite outgrown its covering, but it presented no sinuous and graceful lizard lines, being squat and toad-like with an extraordinary, bulbous head that towered over its eyes, exquisite and perfect little front paws and sturdy, muscular extremities. The tail was rudimentary.

"We have here," began Felix, falling into his professional manner, "something unique, yet obviously linked with the familiar. Either this iguana is hopelessly deformed—as a result possibly of its awful journey through space—or it belongs to a species of which we possess no knowledge. You will observe the incipient crest and dewlap of Iguana rhinolophus. The colouring is also indicated in the body of the reptile, where olive green and emerald green blend upon the adult. But snake and lizard have flat heads: their brain is very small. Here is a creature with a lofty skull—a cranium out of all proportion to its size. It may, of course, be no more than a protuberance having nothing to do with the creature's brain content. Time will show if it lives and develops; but, as I say, two alternatives confront us. We may be looking at a deformed specimen of the common iguana, or a new species, having different habits and qualities. Iguana is an arborial lizard and nocturnal. This creature's eyes prove it probably nocturnal, but I should not consider it to be a tree lizard owing to the aborted tail."

"You can see it growing anyway," declared Milly.

"It has a lidded and an amazingly lustrous eye," continued the professor, "and it is no doubt dumb after its kind. The abnormalities may mean something, but it is impossible as yet to say what. It is growing as you say. Such swift development indicates the need for sustenance. We will examine the box within a box, which I have always maintained meant food."

Felix fetched the receptacle, a tin-opener and a saltspoon. When he had taken the top from the metal container, a smell as of musk melon instantly pervaded the greenhouse and Toddleben permitted himself a note of triumph.

"I was right," he said. "I did not err. This vegetable jelly has been compounded from fruit, and I have no doubt the creature will partake of it."

He opened the glass lid of the incubator, where the lizard reposed on warm silver-sand, and offered it a saltspoon of the fragrant jelly. It showed no alarm, set its nose to the spoon, appeared to consider a moment and then devoured the contents. Its wonderful eyes looked up at Felix. It lay upon its side, stretched and lifted its front paws.

"One more spoonful," he said, "then it will probably go to sleep."

The lizard ate a second spoonful, with less gusto than the first, then its head sank between its shoulders; its amazing eyes were shut and it fell into slumber.

"It's grown three inches while we were watching it!" said Mildred. "How big is it likely to get, uncle?"

"Their growth is slow as a rule," he answered, "but here we have something outside experience concerning which we cannot speak of rules. In a day or two we may be better able to judge. It is worthy of note that you can see these plants growing too. Development is purely a relative term, and everything whence these creatures come may go through far swifter phases of growth and expansion than we know here. Our conditions of air and water, light and temperature, are possibly quite different from those which have created them, and there is a danger in that, for living things either forced, or retarded, are subject to considerable strain. I must watch over it closely."

He drew cotton-wool about the sleeping lizard, having first set a saucer containing water, beside it; and then he looked at the young seedling plants and nibbled a leaf.

"Now do come in and let them fry you another sausage," advised his niece; but Felix felt not hungry.

"In two hours," he said, "we must feed again if the lizard is awake. Meantime put this confection into the refrigerator."

The girl tasted the lizard's provender and found it delicious.

"Like a classy fruit salad," she declared.

"One hopes that he may find our fruit agreeable," said Felix. "A fragment of the jelly will go to London to-morrow for examination. But we must treasure it. No doubt the amount was calculated to sustain him until his plants became ready."

From that hour the professor lived for the lizard and, long afterwards, confessed that certain highly unscientific suspicions had inspired him to do so. He kept them to himself, indeed, until no manner of doubt remained, and of such a startling quality were they that, when the truth dawned upon him, though not wholly unexpected, it unmanned Felix. "My bravest and most intelligent achievement"—so he declared at the end of his long life—"was to face the problem that discovery demanded, though, looking back, I shall always feel that I might have done it better."

Norah came to see the growing lizard upon the second morning of its existence. She was warned by Mildred to fortify her mind against an object lacking beauty, but brought observation and good sense to her ordeal and experienced no repulsion. In truth she admired the little creature and, after watching it silently for five minutes, declared actual pleasure.

"I think it a very wonderful thing," she said, "and I believe that once you get over its queer forehead—so unlike other lizards—you begin to notice other points that they haven't got. It is going to be a beautiful green and grow a lovely pattern, and its crest and dewlap will be like other iguanas you have raised—a dazzling scarlet. One misses a tail, because a tail ends them off so gracefully; but nothing could be ugly with such amazing eyes. Their size alone is remarkable, but they have something in them that actually gives the creature an expression. That is so extraordinary, because I never saw a lizard with any expression before. Perhaps it is the lofty brow. It regards you very closely and it has been looking at me ever since I came to the glass; but it doesn't look at you as animals look: it looks at you as a human baby does!"

"Ah!" said the professor, "a nice distinction, my love, and worthy of you."

"But no baby ever had such eyes, of course," she added. "They are more wonderful than any eyes that ever I saw."

"It sees in the dark as well as in the light," he said. "It can proceed about its business at any time. I am training it from the first to regard me as a trustworthy companion."

They left the lizard then and sat together upon a garden seat in the sunshine, where Norah knitted and the professor discoursed.

"I shall not tell you of the very strange ideas formulating in my mind as yet," he said, "but by your sagacious comment on the iguana, you reminded me curiously of biological facts in our own human story. Will it bore you if I discuss human origins for a moment?"

"My dear fellow, you never bore me," declared Mrs. Hapgood. "Should I have stopped with you all these years and made you my hero if you had?"

But his voice soon turned Norah drowsy, as it was wont to do.

"Such an amazing ascension," he began, "even if we omit the earlier chapters and begin at the Tree Shrew, for example. He found safety for himself and his family in the tree-tops, as did his follower, the Spectral Tarsier, whose giant eyes glimmered like little moons, where he ran aloft through the nocturnal forests. Upward, ever upward we went until we came to the primates."

"Of York and Canterbury," added Norah, striving to show intelligence, but very somnolent in the sunshine.

"You are not listening," he said with some reproach. "I have not reached the archbishops yet, but only arrived at our super-apes. Consider the tremendous advance that followed them, the preparation for coming consciousness and the first step to it without doubt. The great monkeys left the trees, descended to earth, stood on their hind-legs for the first time and transformed their fore-paws into hands! I feel no doubt that human reason was born with that prodigious event. Ape-man appeared and Homo Sapiens followed after. From pithecanthropus to savage we climbed through the waste of countless years; and forward we still tramp on our endless march, already claiming civilization, although, in my opinion, that still lies as far ahead of us as the jungle lies behind."

"Perhaps we are about half-way," suggested Norah, who had kept awake since his reproof.

"Possibly; but I pursue these reflections for a purpose. We must not permit ourselves to become unduly sanguine touching this infant iguana; and yet none can regard it without a considerable challenge. Food for abundant thought is there in those strange, receptive eyes and abnormal forehead. One has also to recollect that saurians are of infinitely greater age than the other orders of creation that followed them after lapse of many centuries."

"We shall keep our nerve about it whatever happens," promised Norah. "You never lost your nerve in your life, and I only remember to have done so very seldom."

"One cannot presume to foretell the processes of evolution in other planets than our own," he continued. "Truth demands the ever-open mind. But a side-issue—a sort of reminder—occurs to me. The vast reptiles of earth's childhood have left their fossil skeletons and science has recreated them from these fragments. And what do we find? That many of these formidable monsters stood upright! They may actually have been on the way to consciousness, when Nature changed her mind about them."

"Who shall blame her if she did?" asked Norah. "If things of that sort had developed brains, the world might have become even more impossible than it is."

"That is pure supposition, my love," he replied. "Conscious lizards, with vegetarian instincts and peaceable inclinations, might have made a much pleasanter world of it than we have. It needs, of course, more imagination than I possess to see the sort of civilization that such creatures would have developed; but one has no right to assume that, given intellect, they are likely to have fallen very far beneath our own achievements."

Mrs. Hapgood conceded as much.

"Quite," she said. "In fact, it doesn't need a fearful amount of imagination to admit they might have done much better."

"You see where my thoughts are tending," answered Felix. "For the present we will put these reflections out of our minds, Norah. They are unscientific and therefore disorderly. But we have broken the ground and indicated strange possibilities that cannot be ignored."

"It's rather awful in a way," she said; "but, of course, that's not the way to look at it. One never knows exactly what shape one's duty will take; though, as a rule, you can assume it won't be pleasant."

"The thing is to do it to the best of our power," he replied. "Given certain eventualities, science may desire to remove the iguana from my keeping; and in that case it would be my duty to relinquish it; but we have now reached a point when I should most deeply regret any such intervention."

"It's your lizard and you have a perfect right to stick to it," declared his sister. "I should like to see anybody dare to take it away. Who on earth could bring up a lizard better than you, or know a quarter as much about it? And what happens if we find the thing has a will of its own?"

"In that stupendous event, it will have to do what it is told, like everybody else, and respect our manners and customs," answered Felix.

"Unless it can improve upon them," suggested Norah.
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