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Chapter 11

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« on: April 03, 2023, 06:33:32 am »

SAURUS pursued his studies and denied himself to none meanwhile. It was understood that all manner of intelligent human beings who desired to do so should see him, and hours were fixed for their visits. He accepted this arrangement as reasonable, learned much from his communion with learned men and perceived the variety and immensity of human interests, noting how theories of conduct differed and with what intense zeal and ardour serious people supported their own convictions. The fanatical spirit that not a few revealed threw light for him upon past history and explained certain stages of philosophic thought. He observed that the mob of men was still highly inflammable material and always quick to catch fire, as of old, from those with the wit to command and impose their will. In certain conditions even the eternal human selfishness withers beneath this pressure: a phenomenon that interested Saurus much.

"Under the impulse and magic of a great man," he wrote for Felix, "it appears that your kind can renounce their besetting sin for a season, cast it off like a garment and stand committed to conduct inspired by the genius of some individual they may never see and will certainly never know. No matter how spurious the hero may himself be, he provides a cause that wins the multitude to fight under his banners with a devotion and adoration that stops not at self-sacrifice and death. Your religions and your conquests were doubtless rendered possible by this love of leadership and willingness to accept the inspiration of seer, sovereign, or dictator. But such majestic figures are transitory. They come and go as the comet, whom some welcome for a portent of good and others fear as the harbinger of evil. They write a new pattern on earth, or burn a new purpose into the spirits of men, then pass with the generation that bore them and fade from the memory of the next. Theories of conduct come and go; human interests are shuffled and dealt again like cards, awakening new hopes and possibilities; while change eternal ensures the systole and diastole of life's beating heart."

Felix now found the iguana to be concentrating on a certain problem and, as he approached its solution, he became somewhat less responsive than usual. But he was always well content to see men, women and children, and Mrs. Hapgood, who brought young people into his presence, discovered that he liked to have them about him and read their unspoken thoughts concerning himself. They would approach him without prejudice or preconceived opinions, and Norah was amused to notice that the younger they happened to be, the more easily they took Saurus for granted as a fellow being and not as a freak. A small girl, when taking leave, put her arms round his neck and kissed him, which threw Saurus into deep thought for several hours after the child was gone.

He discussed the experience with Norah at a later time and confessed to a shadowy recognition of a human discovery as yet by him not understood.

"I have long wondered," he wrote, "what may be this thing of which the wise write so much and call 'beauty'. I have tried to envisage it and failed; but a dim apprehension of it appears to lie within the eyes of your little children. In their irradiant depths, as in a glass darkly, I feel that the thing known as 'loveliness' may possibly be found before life's reality ascends, like a cold mist, to cloud it. But knowledge wrinkles young brows and banishes the miracle out of young eyes so quickly."

Two things happened together soon after another year had begun and a mild adventure befell Saurus, while a second of far more startling nature happened to Norah's daughter. The iguana found his interest in the first incident, which belonged to mind; but he became involved also in the second and was able, for the first time, to do a human being considerable service.

An electric bell from the home of the visitor communicated with Felix—a convenience that he had installed in case of any urgent demand. Saurus, however, never used it, because he seldom needed anything and was always prepared to wait patiently for it when he did. But there came a night at last when the bell rang, and the professor, wakened from sleep, learned that he was wanted immediately. In haste he rose, and since a January frost held Applewood in its starry grip, Felix feared that something had happened to the heating apparatus and that Saurus suffered from too low a temperature and might even be seriously ill. The hour was half-past two, and, hastening into warm garments, he proceeded down the passage of communication to find the lights shining brightly and his guest sitting in comfort and warmth with his little table drawn beside an electric stove. Saurus had evidently been writing at some length and a typed epistle awaited the professor. Now the iguana dashed off a few introductory words upon his typewriter and held them out in his little hand.

"Something of apparent importance to you has occurred," he wrote, "and everything is set down here."

"Surely you might have left it until the morning," thought Felix, and Saurus, reading this reflection, made reply.

"An element of great urgency involving human life made it impossible to delay," he answered. "It may be well to read what I have written as quickly as possible and so convince yourself that I was justified in waking you."

So Toddleben took a chair by the stove and read what his guest had to tell him. In his precise and chilly diction wrote Saurus, for he had formed his style upon the professor's own and always strove for clarity.

"While reading your eminent philosopher, Immanuel Kant," he began, "I became suddenly conscious that a human being was addressing me in considerable distress of mind and from a distance. As you are aware, experiments in this method of approach have been made with success, and I can receive messages and information from anywhere on Earth if the appeal is directed immediately to myself. To-night came information concerning Mildred Hapgood, your niece and the daughter of your sister. It was she herself who informed me of her exceedingly unpleasant predicament, and there can be no doubt that she finds herself in a critical and rather terrible position—to some extent, apparently, the result of her own mistaken judgment. The facts you will doubtless ascertain at a later date, but all that matters for the moment would seem to be that she is the prisoner of Serge Boluski and other wicked men, and in great danger of her life.

"She is bound, hand and foot, at the following habitation: No. 14 Carlyle Terrace, Chelsea, London. She has visited the dwelling on former occasions without hurt, but to-day she was detained and faced with various painful facts. The Russian has been using her as a tool and deceiving her concerning his affections. He is now prepared to torture and ultimately destroy her if she will not divulge secret information which he believes that her position at the War Office has enabled her to acquire. I could not follow many details of her narrative; but she makes it clear that time is all important. She is at present alone in captivity, but has been informed that her captors will return ere long and put her to considerable suffering if she continues to resist their demands. Her suggestion, therefore, is that you should endeavour to communicate at once with the London police and direct them to enter No. 14 Carlyle Terrace, secrete themselves and presently secure the gang of evil-doers when they return."

The professor hesitated not a moment. He rushed away, rang up Scotland Yard, explained the nature of the pending tragedy and received comforting information that instant steps would be taken. An hour later he himself was rung up, to learn that sensational and satisfactory events had followed his direction and that certain ugly customers, including Serge Boluski, were in the hands of the police, while Mildred, badly shaken but unharmed, had been conveyed to her flat. An hour later Milly herself rang up to tell her mother that all was well, "thanks to the iguana.

"I just thought of him in time," she said, "but could hardly realize my luck when I found that I had got through. Bless him for me."

She proceeded to give a graphic account of her adventure and revealed much animosity to the Russian responsible for it.

Professor Toddleben went to town on the following morning, feeling it his duty to support his niece under these sorry conditions; and when she had seen him off, Norah spent an hour with Saurus and told him all that she knew. He ate two pine-apples while he listened to her story.

Mrs. Hapgood always spoke aloud in the lizard's company. He understood what she was saying, and she found it much easier to utter her thoughts than merely think them.

"You have saved Milly's life, dear Saurus," she began, "and though you don't understand about gratitude and so on, I do beg you will feel how deeply grateful we all are and how much we shall be in your debt as long as we live. But you have done much more than this. Thanks to your wonderful gifts, you were able to set our police at work and afford them a clue that they have long been seeking. I don't understand the details, and they wouldn't interest you if I did; but there has been a cunning system of espionage operating here for a long time, and national information slipping out to other powers about our armies and navies and air force and so on. Spies have long been at work, and the difficulty was first to find them, and to learn what government they were spying for afterwards. Nationality is no criterion. A Russian may be in the secret service of Germany, or a Frenchman gleaning information for Italy. Brilliant scoundrels of this kind doubtless sell their services to the highest bidder. One hopes, of course, that no Englishman would betray his country for cash; but you never know.

"At any rate," continued Norah, "this unspeakable person, Boluski, does not appear to have been working for Russia. His Embassy denies any suggestion that his secret activities were actuated by any desire to serve them, though I dare say he was all the time. It will all be gone into, no doubt; but what interests me is how he deceived Mildred, made love to her and won her absolute trust and affection. As their friendship advanced and they became betrothed, the wily wretch pretended to confide in her and explain that the whole Russian scheme of leading our Labour Party into Communism was in his hands and that he only waited the psychological moment to expose it and reveal his compatriots in their true colours. There was nothing very wonderful about that, because everybody knew it already. The battle is ceaseless, the money forthcoming, and no doubt Communism is going ahead behind the scenes and only waiting to surprise our rulers when the proletariat rises in its might against them; but this is where Milly admits that she was a sad fool and simply played into Boluski's hands. In exchange for his confidence she talked a lot of nonsense and gave him to understand that she, too, enjoyed great privileges and was much deeper in the trust and confidence of the War Office than any young female clerk was at all likely to be. But this was what he hoped and what had inspired his pretended affection. Milly can brag in a very convincing fashion, like any educated modern girl, and undoubtedly led the man to believe she possessed valuable information. You are always ready to credit what you wish may happen, and there is no doubt that Boluski imagined she did know War Office secrets of great value for him and his horrid friends. Again and again he endeavoured to get information out of her—attempts that naturally tickled her vanity and possibly her sense of humour also, since she knew that she had nothing whatever to tell him except what the army paid for soap and button-polish and details of that sort. But she was playing with fire, and finding his perfidy would not win her secrets, he trapped her when she visited his private residence, as she was in the habit of doing, threw off the mask and demanded to know certain vitally important facts, which the little idiot had led him to believe were in her possession as a confidential clerk!

"Of course, you can see where she had landed herself. She kept her nerve and owned up, with laughter, that it was all swank and she knew nothing of the slightest use to a foreign power; but neither he nor four of his companions, who suddenly appeared, would believe her. She had deceived her lover completely and soon found it impossible to undeceive him. She said that a new and strange Boluski suddenly appeared—like something out of the Strand Magazine. He was icy and devilish, and apparently in the very best 'shocker' tradition. His companions all behaved in the same theatrical manner, and she was informed that if she did not divulge the information in her knowledge they would torture her to death. They left no doubt of their determination, and Milly perceived that it would be quite easy for them to give her a dreadful time, then murder her and throw her into the adjacent river without much difficulty or danger to themselves."

Saurus interrupted, held up his hand for silence and typed a suggestion.

"One would have thought that, being human, she might have lied, since you attach so much importance to your lives," he said.

"She did," replied Norah, "but, being human also, Boluski did not believe her. All the villains knew that she was lying because, under the agony of the moment, she couldn't hit upon anything very bright. She told them that America was making half a million bombing planes for England; but they knew that was nonsense, and one scoundrel slapped her face and said that another falsehood would mean torture and death. They gagged her and bound her and left her, saying that they would return in three hours. She heard them leave the house, and then came her great inspiration to try and tell you about it."

"You doubtless feel the human emotion of love for your offspring," wrote Saurus, "and will be gratified to hear that she was not tortured and slain. And the scoundrels will feel much cast down to find their hopes shattered and their patient plots revealed. The incident throws light on a discovery which I myself have made on the subject of mankind. Trying, as I daily and nightly do, to arrive at some explanation of his dilemma and learn whether he will find the road by which he may escape from it, I am now convinced by the nature of things that the chances are remote. You will be sorry to learn this, and Professor Toddleben, with his enthusiasm for humanity, will also regret it."

"Tell me what the dreadful snag is," begged Norah; "but I trust you're wrong. You must always allow for the hopeful spirit that has carried us through so many dreadful messes in the past. Man has bobbed up serenely again and again, when no doubt superior creatures like yourself would have felt pretty sure that he was down and out."

The iguana pushed a page of his tiny writing towards her.

"Cast your eye over the situation as I now see it," he directed, and Mrs. Hapgood, picking up a large magnifying-glass, obeyed.

"What were Darwin's last sanguine aspirations?" began Saurus. "He expressed a hope that man would tend steadily towards perfection, both in body and in mind. Perfection, of course, is out of the question for any created thing, be it mouse or mountain, man or star. Perfection is a static condition and therefore impossible in a dynamic universe, and many of your wise men doubt whether you are even making a faint advance towards it. They deny improvement of morals and suspect the present ebb tide will have no future flow. The reason for their pessimism is what I sought and have found."

Norah stopped and sighed.

"I'm sorry you've found any such thing," she said, "but they may be wrong, after all."

Then she went on reading.

"Change is the law of life and, when rational and constructive, produces evolution; when disorderly and destructive, tends to devolution and extinction. Then what is the huge opposition to orderly progress peculiar to mankind and now threatening his fragile civilization? The evolution of his wits cannot be denied, but why should it coincide with devolution of his morals? Science recognizes the existence of law in human affairs, and philosophy indicates the factor of love as an omnipotent ingredient in them; but neither law nor love means anything to man when weighed against power. On the one side is to be noted a universal lack of security in your politics, statesmanship, industry and commerce—a shattering situation where none can look forward with any confidence to what your warring regimes are breeding; and on the other an ideal of unselfishness, goodwill, mercy and charity, to compose every problem brought within its ambit and bring you, by the road of self-denial and generosity and good faith, a long stride nearer the happiness and contentment you desire. Why, then, are law and love alike powerless and their cry hushed before the eternal thirst for conquest and the victory of temporal might?

"The answer appears to lie in a fundamental error that has grown upon you and from which escape would mean an upheaval beyond your power to create. You are a gregarious species and have discovered certain ways to gregarious living; but, hidden behind them, lurks that all-powerful separatist instinct of selfishness which makes of your gregarious life a fraud and falsehood. The unconscious herds of grass-eating creatures live in peace, because they know not to be selfish; but since, on this planet, selfishness continues to be the first law of life, you cannot herd save under a garment of eternal lying and evasion. The truth would disrupt your system and prove that it is built upon sand. In other worlds—my own probably included—truth, no doubt, was accepted by consciousness and does not present the same stumbling-block and difficulty. Your diplomacy, state-craft, daily interchanges between man and man are all built on one vast pretence. Your infants are taught to lie from the cradle in the name of good manners. Unadorned truth would banish all that you hold seemly and discreet. You shiver at the thought of naked truth. But though a civilization arising upon pretence is obviously elementary, to change it would demand a revolution in behaviour of which you are now incapable."

"So you'd be afraid we are stogged in the mires of selfishness for ever more?" asked Norah.

"I only point out the difficulty of building righteousness on this foundation," wrote Saurus, "and the prodigious problem it presents. Your genius may yet solve it, of course; but only by making radical changes of architecture for a new civilization."

"You paint with too black a brush," she declared. "If tact and courtesy and consideration for other people's feelings make us palter with the truth sometimes, these amenities are not in the least vital. No doubt it seems absurd to you that we teach our children to be civil to strangers to-day and punish them for lying to us to-morrow; but civilization doesn't hinge on little matters of nice behaviour. Nobody is deceived really, and if we like to pay a certain price for being one of a herd, where's the harm? Probably your nation and every other has to do the same; and I cannot see what grounds you have for assuming they are all so fussy about the exact truth in Hermes. In any case, the real truth about anything is beyond us, so why niggle? You may be a most exceptional iguana. You might have found your passion for truth much resented in your own country. You may even be much happier and more comfortable here than you would have been up there."

"It is perfectly possible," agreed Saurus.

"Nobody knows the truth about anything," repeated Norah, "so why make life more difficult than it is already by going out of your way to try and tell it? You are just as likely to have got hold of the wrong end of the stick as anybody else. You know what an exceedingly illusive thing truth is at the best of times—much too illusive to try and build civilization upon. And if we are ever going to get goodwill and trust and sympathy and love and mercy into the world, it's not the least use trying to begin by telling people what we really think of them. The difference between what we think of our dearest friends, even, and what they think of themselves is so terrific that, far from improving civilization by any gesture of that kind, we should smash it from the top to the bottom."

Saurus nodded in his thoughtful fashion. Then he wrote:

"Which brings us to an amicable agreement: that the thing simply can't be done."

"Not that way," replied the lady; "but there may be another. At present the truth as seen by other people is more often unpleasant than not, and those who delight to tell it, in season and out, are very unpopular."

"I read that many eminent persons have been destroyed for trying to tell it," admitted Saurus, "but I still believe that without veracity and the security arising from it your search for happiness is a matter of much disappointment, because the tonic and stimulating thing lies in the search. Happiness may be for ever out of reach, but hope of it never deserts you."

"Hope is our big noise," agreed Norah, "and you can't really lose hope for us while we have the pluck to get up every morning hoping for ourselves and opening the newspaper, longing for a bright headline. Even the professor does it, though, of course, he never finds one."
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