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Chapter 15

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« on: April 03, 2023, 08:03:40 am »

THERE came a morning when summer reigned again and, during breakfast, Norah asked an exceedingly curious question. Felix was not at his best on the occasion and had slept ill—an unusual incident. When in good health and spirits the professor enjoyed a sausage, stewed kidneys, or eggs and bacon with his morning mail, and opened his letters while he ate; but upon days that he awoke pensive, depressed, or otherwise perturbed, he was wont to eat an insipid cereal with hot milk and ignore his post altogether. To-day, in silence, he toyed with this unpretentious fare, and Mrs. Hapgood endeavoured to interest him.

"Would a person's birthday," she asked, "be on the day they were laid, or on the day they were hatched?"

Felix stared at her and went as near scowling as he ever did.

"Since we are not oviparous, the question doesn't arise," he snapped.

"Oh, yes, it does," she answered. "I was quite aware of that, my love; but, as you yourself are so fond of saying, we are not the only pebbles on the beach, are we? I refer, of course, to Saurus. We don't know when the poor fellow was laid, so it will be best, no doubt, to celebrate his birthday on the anniversary of the day he was hatched; and that is Tuesday week. One can hardly believe he has been with us a whole year."

"One cannot," granted Felix rather drearily. "For my own part I feel that he might well have been here ten. His arrival marks an epoch in our existence and has been fraught with much anxiety and expense, if not actual tribulation."

"And yet he is only a year old," she said.

"He is far older than that—one might almost say aged," replied the professor. "Time for him means something utterly different from what it means to us. Time is, in fact, an illusive invention of our own and I don't pretend to understand it. While it races for him, the fact remains that it has dragged interminably for me of late, if not for you."

"It does seem a long while since he arrived," admitted Norah. "He has become part of our scheme of things—one of the family, you might almost say. We regard him from opposite angles, of course. To you he has certainly meant a prodigious amount of work, study and attention; to me he has been a more or less pleasant interest. He doesn't always bore me and, of course, I can never forget that he saved my dear child's life. But I shouldn't call him 'aged' yet—just elderly."

"He considers that, on a human estimate, he is about seventy-five; that was his own opinion," answered the professor. "He asked me if that were a long life for members of the iguana family and I told him that it was. 'In captivity and with every care and attention, however,' I added, 'there is no reason why they should not live longer.' 'A true word,' he wrote. 'I am, as you say, in captivity.' He considered that he might live another six months, but he has none of that enthusiasm for existence which most of us entertain, even though we pretend otherwise."

"I cannot imagine Applewood without him now," declared Norah. "I believe he will make quite a dreadful gap in our lives when he does go."

"He hoped to create a synthesis of all the human wisdom that he has collected," explained Felix, "but now he admits that time will be lacking for such a huge enterprise. He is devoting his remaining energy to our religions. He studies comparative theology with his usual open mind and looks forward to his coming talk with the colonial bishop."

"I hope they won't worry one another?" asked Norah.

"Far from it. His lordship has a fine sense of humour and Saurus is quite a liberal thinker; but he cannot conceive our difficulties, because he does not share them. The humanity and hope of great pagans, like Seneca and Cicero, fill him with admiration; but the baffling fact that the humanists, despite their sense of justice and benevolence, have wakened no throb of response in subsequent generations of mankind, puzzles him and makes him feel that science may, after all, hold the key of our future regeneration, when itself regenerated. Not only discoveries, but the implications of those discoveries, are demanded from science, and she must cultivate a heart, which she painfully lacks."

"All very obscure," declared Norah. "Now read your post. There is a massive-looking official letter that rather intrigues me."

Felix responded and opened a communication from high quarters, with startling effect. He stared, changed colour, gazed into space, then returned to his senses, shrugged his shoulders and fixed his eyes upon his sister.

"Oh dear!" she exclaimed, "what has happened to you now, darling?"

"Read," he answered and handed the missive to her.

Professor Toddleben was invited to accept the honour of a knighthood 'for his own highly distinguished services to science and his devotion and remarkable success in accommodation of Iguana Sapiens, now domiciled under terrestrial circumstances'.

While Mrs. Hapgood received this glad news its effect on Felix became manifest. He deserted his melancholy cereal, arose, inspected a hot dish, lifted the cover and helped himself to a portion of grilled salmon. The act indicated that he was a proud man.

They purred together for some time, and Norah kissed her brother and declared the distinction no more than deserved.

"Had it been merely because I have managed the affair of Saurus with discretion, I do not think I should have accepted it," declared the professor. "That was an accident—the happening of chance—and others would have been as efficient as myself. You, indeed, are far more to be thanked than I am—as Saurus did not hesitate to tell me. But the proposed addition insists upon my personal and distinguished services to science. It would therefore be ill-mannered to decline."

"You mustn't dream of declining," she answered. "Let me see what you say when you reply. You are a famous man and would have got something, in any case, pretty soon. I've been expecting it for years, as a matter of fact; but you never would court the limelight or make enough of yourself in scientific circles. Now Saurus has brought the matter to a head—high time, too."

"The prince offered him the Order of the British Empire," said Felix, "but he begged to be excused—or so he told me."

"Anything he says is true," declared Norah, "because he doesn't know how to tell a lie—even a white lie. He hasn't the art."

Later in the day she brought fresh fruit to Saurus and told him the news; wherein it appeared that though he could not lie, he had imbibed a human sense of diplomacy to keep the truth to himself upon occasion. After hearing what Norah had to tell him he made no mention of his own good offices, being sufficiently acute to guess that they must dim the lustre now shining about his friends.

"If you and the professor are pleased," he wrote, "then I am also pleased, for he will surely make a handsomer and wiser knight than many who have come to see me."

The professor was not called to wait until the next outpouring from the fountains of honour, but presently directed to appear before his sovereign; and during his absence from home the bishop came to see Saurus. Norah introduced them and left them together, while the prelate smoked his pipe and the iguana scribbled responses to questions, or elaborated his own ideas. Aware that humour must be wasted, His Grace preserved a serious attitude to the unique situation, though sometimes disposed to laugh at an experience so singular. The good bishop had devoted much thought to his pending interview, and even considered whether any conscious being other than mankind might be reasonably converted to his own faith. Nor could he recognize any valid objection to such a missionary effort; but he found the visitant from Hermes possessed of theories which rendered the hope faint. Yet none might have quarrelled with the iguana's respectful and sincere attitude before the mysteries that he had studied; though his own opinions concerning them proved subversive, since he had reached a standpoint whence argument became impossible, because no premises could be found from which to start. Saurus was humble and confessed his natural ignorance when entering a world outside his experience and beyond his lizard comprehension; but he brought the power of reasoning to his task and an ultimate conviction with which his companion found it impossible to differ.

The bishop began and told how he, too, was a student of the past.

"One is always so sorry," he said, "that the great Darwin received such a frosty reception from the churches, because, as I see it, if ever a divine institution revealed the ruling principle of evolution, religion is that identical institution. Remember how it advanced from the ancient dawn, where fear, born of ignorance, peopled earth and sky with unseen and unfriendly spectres. Then Egypt and Crete, Greece and Rome created their pantheons and the people chose, from a household of gods and goddesses, a tutelary saviour and protector. In their turn these theologies and beliefs—so childish to us—went their way, and religion became exalted and purified as the centuries passed, until the sublime knowledge that only one true god existed was vouchsafed to man."

Saurus held up his paw and began to write.

"Other knowledge there also came," he said. "Seers of vital significance arose whose rede took a different shape and who sought to banish evil by appeal to the possibilities in man rather than through the anger of the gods. Think first upon Gautama, whose love and pity for errant mankind established a faith least stained of them all by subsequent cruelty and fanatical atrocities. The Buddha—the Enlightened One—lived and taught a universal charity, which his most zealous supporters were unable to turn into a scourge for subsequent generations. His four-fold way demanded escape from evil-doing, banishment of ignorance, unkindness and heresy. As a mother, at risk of her own life, watches over her child, so must the devout Buddhist exert ceaseless good willing to all created things. Your Golden Rule of universal tolerance and charity is the peak and pinnacle of such a faith, and those who have not attained to it are unready to enter Nirvana, complete the circle of their own existence and reach the perfect peace from which they emerged. Here is a rule of conduct which, by its intense humanity and appeal to all that is best within humanity, found widest acceptance from mankind, but even as in your own faith and that founded by Mohammed, Buddhism fell far short of the tenets laid down by the founder. That is the story of every religion since the disciple can never reach those heights whereon the masters moved. The mightier the revelation, the less likely to be kept clean. Impurities gather upon it, as moss upon the stone. Human corruptions destroy; human weakness brings the rot to the precious fabric; human short-sightedness fastens upon the vessel and neglects its contents. Yet, though now losing ground as it drifts to ultimate destruction, dying in a twilight of lazy, ignorant monks among the lamaseries of the East, your Buddha's sublime revelation continues worthy of utmost reverence. I see it as the melancholy ghost of a great faith that, had you understood it, might have made of Earth another place than you have made. Religions drift through the generations of human kind as comets across the sky, and so vanish away; but not one lacked for living wisdom; not one has failed to play its part in the evolution which you admit."

"And what would you judge to be the moral principles that your own people respect in Hermes?" inquired the bishop.

"As to that I cannot say, save through my own very doubtful guesses," replied Saurus. "Probably the greatest thing that science upon Hermes has done for the inhabitants is to banish fear, thus making us what you would call courageous as a matter of course. Religion has not as yet banished supernatural fear, or the instinctive dread of death from your species. Myself I dwell heartily and abundantly in this alien world, and as I reach my tether's end, feel a desire for my earthly companions in consciousness that they also shall live more heartily and abundantly than they seem to do. I find myself profoundly interested for mankind and actuated by what you would call 'hope' that your unborn will enjoy a wider measure of that happiness you all seek than at present exists on Earth. I would wish for you that there may be enough happiness to go round in time to come, and I recognize that happiness must be a desirable ambition for the sons of men. Their error is to seek it from sensation, whereas I suspect it can only be discovered in sincerity, which is much neglected. Few among you can be called sincere. For us, we know not happiness, or misery, triumph or failure, laughter or tears, sorrow or joy, beauty or ugliness; truth or falsehood.

"There may in past time have been a lizard god to whom our forefathers paid their worship and devotion; but I should judge that we have now reached a point where we were contented to leave that question in abeyance, as one only capable of proof by deity itself."

"You picture a colourless world and a terribly drab existence," declared the bishop. "And what do you conceive atones for such a dreary, dead-level and monotonous state of affairs?"

"A condition of equilibrium that Earth must for ever lack," explained Saurus. "A state of contentment. I hold no brief for such a state, but I see quite clearly that it is impossible on Earth, because even those who dwell in fortresses of wealth and good health must, since they are human, look out upon a world of unhappiness and therefore feel discontented. To be contented on a planet where evil so often conquers good would be inhuman. Only a devil could be contented when he enjoys a bird's-eye view of humanity, and a contented man would be a monster. Even I, who probably come from a contented home, am robbed of all contentment when I read your history.

"As for evil," proceeded Saurus. "No doubt it came into this world with consciousness and may have done the like in mine. But evil, if it ever existed there, is outgrown in Hermes—perhaps forgotten. It is outgrown for my species because I think no evil and could do no evil; which seems to prove that the quality of our reasoning powers must already be somewhat in advance of yours. You still wallow in systems of thought and action that win no applause from your own greatest prophets; you still suffer from diseases of the mind, which may have been inseparable from the infancy of consciousness, but to which you should long since have become immune. Your religions have so far failed to set you on any eternal foundations, and the factor which should control all others is ignored. Morality and Justice continue to be words so vague that not two of you would define them alike. Your religions are split into cliques and divided against themselves so that even their hierophants cannot unite in one triumphant onward march for righteousness. Instead they fiercely differ upon questions of unimaginable unimportance until the patient flock begins to think that its bell-wethers jangle nought but cracked bells. You are, in truth, denying the rights of evolution to your faith with the inevitable result."

"There I can prove you mistaken," replied the bishop firmly. "We of my faith are not standing still, believe me."

"Doubtless you refer to the recent report of your Commissioners on Church Doctrine," wrote Saurus. "A most important pronouncement, and one must have read it more than once to presume to talk about it. I found its conclusions exceedingly impressive from my detached standpoint, and no doubt they appealed to certain factions of your community. But surely they startled many others out of their senses. If this, indeed, be evolution, then you must agree that it takes a most unexpected shape and proceeds by jumping over vital obstacles that one had deemed insurmountable."

"How so?" asked the visitor, and Saurus produced the Report from among his papers.

"Your modernists," he wrote, "are admitted to be of highest intellectual status in your cult; but to what terrific conclusions have they come! They hold that your deity is finite, or limited, and that His powers only permitted Him to create man as a being subject to the eternal conflict of good and evil. Thus right and wrong must be recognized as part of the divine endowment, for so alone is it logically possible to explain either of them. They are the price humanity is called to pay for existence; but man still has it in his power and provenance to conquer evil, if so he will, and thus achieve the eternal happiness that victory ensures.

"That is the conclusion of your modernist Christians—the direct opposite of earlier theologians who held that separate deities were responsible for good and evil, and fought a ceaseless battle for the human soul. But having banished the Prince of Darkness, evil demanded to be explained differently."

"To dismiss hell and repudiate the Apostle Paul appeal to me as reasonable evidences of evolution," declared the bishop.

"Most reasonable," agreed Saurus; "but not evolutionary. Such conclusions tend rather to show that your faith must presently yield to the laws that for ever govern all faiths. Already the nations begin to pass beyond its ambit and 'Christendom' becomes a meaningless term. When the outskirts are relinquished, the citadel is quickly endangered. Evolution marches forward over a pathway paved with outworn creeds, each in itself a sign that ethical and spiritual forces have inspired human progress and served to elevate your standards. But, as you emerged from a lower animal, so your concept of righteousness will ultimately rise clear from the mists of ignorance and fear whence all your faiths took shape.

"Creeds," concluded Saurus, "I conceive to be the scaffolding needful to build the ultimate temple, and as yet you glimpse the fane of pure righteousness through a network of myth and superstition that conceals it. They will fall away until your children's children may live to worship the reality of goodness and discover the sanctity of man."

"We have never doubted the reality of goodness," declared the bishop. "Man has always been quite aware that such reality exists; but he also knew very well that it lay beyond his power to attain it single-handed."

"Not after he discovered the Golden Rule," replied Saurus, "for out of charity is begotten trust, and were trust achieved, then half your self-created difficulties vanish. Why is it denied you to trust one another? Why cannot your adolescence cast off the clouts of babyhood? Grovel and be hopeless and shamefaced no more; recognize the good health of good willing; substitute original virtue for original sin and from that sound, sweet soil germinate thought for the unborn. Make of human life the supremely sacred thing and devote your wondrous endowment of human love to worship at that altar. The Golden Rule, while it confounds all your present values and interests, can offer no opposition to such a faith. You discovered it yourselves and, even in the welter of eternal change, I fail to see how it diminishes. Rather does it endure beyond the scope of time—in imperishable principle of wisdom that was never young and never old. While you men were trying to turn base metals into precious ones and seeking the elixir of life, your gold and your elixir were already a commonplace of knowledge, only waiting application, only denied their magic by your own unfortunate propensities which rendered them of no account. You have a saying that to cast cheesecakes to a pig is folly; and shall the universe, gazing upon your little home with not unfriendly eyes, determine that man was the pig—a creature so elementary that his own immense discovery lies for ever beyond his power to comprehend?"

"Emphatically not," replied the prelate—"not for a moment, my dear fellow. None shall ever convince me that the nature of things opposes this sublime direction, or the complexity of human affairs has rendered it null and void. A precept such as this is far greater than any evanescent convictions and theories of conduct we adhere to, for they are ever changing; while, as you say, The Rule knows no change."

"It is the foundation of all good willing," replied Saurus, "and did you draw together in that spirit, not a dictator of them all, no matter what his powers and pretensions, dare abstain from entering such a conference, or condemn his nation to remain outside it. To decline would shatter his throne and destroy his dominion. Once found politics on principle and half your huge difficulties would disappear. You have worshipped idols so long that you may be called to make prodigious sacrifices before such a covenant could be created; but with waxing intelligence you could not fail to perceive that your sacrifice was of the things that did not matter, instead of, as at present, the things that do matter. To-day, for love of peace, you sacrifice principle; but once accept the paramount principle of charity and mercy; once agree that the created have a right to live and the rulers no right to take their lives from them; once enlarge your sympathies to embrace your kind as well as your kinship, then no wisdom of true human worth will again demand to be sacrificed, but only those false and pitiful values that still betray you."

"Did such a notable conference ever come to be held," answered the bishop, "then assuredly we might feel that those who have taught and fought for the Golden Rule had, at long last, succeeded in their inspired quest. You mustn't ask yet for international sympathies from creatures so limited in any sympathy at all as we are; but if we can all begin to develop something like a modest respect for the people next door and seek to share their hopes and fears, that would do for a start."

They continued to agree; and then came Norah with tea for the bishop and some freshly arrived West Indian mangoes for Saurus. Both enjoyed their meal and while the latter ate without his usual observance of manners (for it is practically impossible to be mannerly when engaged upon mangoes) the bishop talked of temporal affairs with Mrs. Hapgood and presently took his leave, assuring his host that he should hope to see him again before returning to South Africa.

When alone with her, he expressed his interest and considered his experience to be not disagreeable.

"Upon the whole," he said, "I liked the strange little being. He is, I find, an agnostic iguana and takes a view of certain questions that cannot commend itself to any of us. But I should be inclined to say that he is on the side of the angels, though I fear he doesn't as yet believe in them. Yet his ideals are lofty and, of course, would be much loftier if he knew where they really come from. What the lizard people think and how they may conduct themselves in Hermes is, of course, as unknown to him as it is to ourselves; but he is disposed to believe that they have achieved universal contentment. It sounds a miserable place it he is right. Our own difficulties of commerce and trade and distribution, and our inherent dislike of foreigners and the lesser breeds, are naturally hidden from him, though as a colonial bishop, exceedingly well known to me; but we did not touch on those matters. Whether it is either possible or desirable to approach him, as I have approached the negro, and devote some spiritual energy to converting him, is a question that it will be my duty to consider."

"I shouldn't try, your lordship," answered Norah. "You have no common ground to start from."

"Oh, yes, we have—a very sound common ground," he answered. "But Saurus attributes the Golden Rule to man's unassisted mental evolution, whereas you and I know better. My terms of reference to Omnipotence represent the difficulty, and if I could prevail upon him to grant them, the battle would very probably be won and the creature saved."

"Have you any reason to believe that he is lost?" ventured Norah. "He and I discussed the hereafter quite recently and he said a rather curious thing. He remarked that we appeared to regard the next world as planned and arranged for our noble selves alone. It struck him as another example of our incurable selfishness."

"Of course, he proves in his own bizarre person that the universe contains more conscious creatures than mankind," admitted the bishop, "but charity begins at home, if it ever begins anywhere, and we have a right to assume that the Happy Land, whatever and wherever it may be, is hardly likely to resemble the Zoological Gardens."

Norah hastened to agree.

"No, no—one quite sees that would never do," she said, "though one has met many keen animal-lovers who would like nothing better."
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