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Chapter 17

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« on: April 03, 2023, 09:06:34 am »

MRS. Midgeley-Masters, Brigadier Rook and Colonel Pegram all called at Applewood to congratulate Toddleben upon his honours and declare their satisfaction that Saurus was spared to him. The brigadier and the lady had met the stranger from another sphere, but only once. Both found themselves very uncomfortable in his company and thankful to leave it again. He caused them embarrassment and Mrs. Midgeley-Masters told Norah that she wanted to cry at the spectacle of the iguana, while Brigadier Rook declared that it was only by an effort he could abstain from laughing. But Colonel Pegram liked Saurus and enjoyed his opinions, for he was more intelligent than the brigadier and enjoyed some breadth of mind. About this season he paid a visit and desired the great lizard's opinion upon certain matters that were precious to him.

"What," he asked, "do you say to the following problem? I find my fellow creatures quite unable to offer me any prophecy of a comforting nature and our vicar himself shares my obscurity. It is the fate of my faith amid our warring ideals. The peril is really considerable, for not a few eminent divines applaud the forces opposed to their own religion, and desire to see them conquer. They must know that Communism would sweep Christianity away to-morrow, yet stoutly support it. The Nazis persecute the faith also and show an inclination to revive Thor and Odin—bloodthirsty deities from a far past. They propose to swallow Middle Europe, dominate Italy and so threaten the British Empire and make the world their footstool. That was their ambition in nineteen-fourteen, and if at first he doesn't succeed, the German has a rare talent for trying again. The Fascists are nominally on the side of Christianity, but are quite aware that the meek never inherited the earth, and never will. They have the Pope in their pockets for the moment, but education is proceeding by leaps and bounds in Italy and the Vatican subjected to an increasing draught. Only among our free democracies shall you find faith still respected and fairly prosperous; but should the dictatorial nations triumph, I ask you what will become of it?"

"If, as your household of faith believes, you human beings have souls to save," wrote Saurus, "then the salvation of your transient ideologies must ever be a less vital matter. To make the State your god is to worship an idol, for the State is a man-made creation arising naturally out of tribal communion; but the soul, if such there be, is a god-made miracle and above all national or patriotic standards—the supreme and eternal reality. If selfishness is justified in any connection whatsoever, it may be under the necessity to save your souls. Your Western recipe for this demand is to trust your faith; and other supernatural religions there are that share your convictions, recognize the need and approach it by another road. For the moment the question of your eternal souls would appear much in abeyance, because, under the stress of the times, more immediate and temporal problems thrust it into the background. Your bodies are in danger and your earthly homes. There will be no more battles waged for faith. Men will never die again to save their souls, but their kindred and their countries. Religion has ceased to glorify mass murder now, and should it regain any hold upon your hearts or recover earthly power, it will come as a new faith—a new, universal evangel that all can recognize and all must accept."

"A new evangel is impossible," explained Colonel Pegram, "because that would mean the destruction of the old. We Englishmen have the last and final flower and fruit of religion in our Protestant faith and English Bible."

"It is a case for pooling," replied Saurus. "Again and again I have discovered and declared that if mankind would only pool their scattered wisdom, then a sound basis for appeasement might appear. No faith that has won the devotion of myriads ever lacked of light for humanity. Each held a place in the evolution of your righteousness; but you have used them as an arena for opposed hatreds and so fouled them all. However, I shall soon write my last word upon that subject before I cease to be, and if you ask Sir Felix to show it to you when I am gone, I doubt not that he will do so."

"My dear fellow, don't talk of going," begged the colonel. "We should all miss you abominably and I never saw you looking better. Not quite so red in the gills as you used to be, perhaps; but if your appetite is good and you sleep well, there cannot be much wrong with you yet. Your idea, then—to return to the subject—is that if we pooled our scanty virtues, a way might yet be found by which humanity could walk in the paths of peace; and then those who believe in their souls and a happy hereafter, like myself, might find leisure for the subject and feel more hopeful of their ultimate success?"

"That is my impression," agreed Saurus.

"No tyranny, no persecution, no prejudice, no class hatred or national hatred, no patriotism—all jog along in a community of friendship and goodwill? But such a world is one that we should come into as strangers," declared the colonel. "My good Saurus, you are asking for the rule of reason, and every reasonable man will tell you that is the last thing we shall ever attempt. Nobody in his senses would trust reason while we have a shred of faith left to cling to."

"There are some among you who would trust reason," wrote the iguana.

"I know: a handful of cranks. They don't count against the hope of the majority. Reason is a slut, a drab, a most unprepossessing and unpromising siren, I assure you. A Thames barge, plodding her snail-like way among the stately liners of faith. You mustn't suppose for one instant that the worship of reason would bring happiness—quite the contrary. It would, in fact, knock all the colour and spice out of our melancholy existence. Pure reason would simply sink us and rob us of the little fun we have got left. You may be quite sure that our unconquerable aversion from behaving reasonably was put into us by our Creator for a very good reason. We may not know it, but there it is."

Saurus had nothing to say in reply to these sentiments, so he turned to his dish of fruit and regarded the visitor solemnly while he peeled a pear.

The colonel took his leave after enjoying a bunch of muscat grapes.

"So long for the present, old boy," he said, "and give reason a miss till we meet again."

Whereon the iguana rose, bowed him out, then sat down again and peeled another pear. He knew that he was not destined to live much longer, but finding that any allusion to his end caused a listener to protest, decided not to say any more about it.

"The colonel may be right after all," he reflected. "It would seem that salvation cannot come to man from his thick head, but only, if ever, through his broken heart."

When Mildred Hapgood arrived to spend a few days with her mother, she too congratulated Saurus upon his escape.

"You saved a woman when you got me out of my mess," she said, "and I am rather glad it was a woman who saved you. One would not have thought that those wily Chinese could have let out their secret in the ears of a woman, but evidently one of them did."

"Is it not more probable that she secretly listened and overheard them?" inquired the iguana. "Be that as it may, she frustrated their plans, and since you are all so pleased with the result, that is as it should be."

Milly made a fruitless suggestion presently and wished that it lay within human power to restore Saurus to his native land.

"I imagined us packing you safely in a huge projectile with plenty of oxygen to keep you going on your journey," she told him, "and then starting you off and picturing you arriving, safe and well, among your own people. What a joy for your old age! Then you would learn your own language and tell them all about us and how wonderful we are; and you would meet your mother and father very likely, if they are still alive, and take them some beautiful diamonds and pearls and emeralds, and be the most famous person on Hermes and the first desirable alien to become historic in two worlds."

The other made no comment and Milly ran on.

"The next thing would be that we should start an inter-planetary system of communication and come and go. Men would arrive upon Hermes, very likely settle there and help to advance your prosperity, cheer you up and teach you to be bright as well as clever; and you would teach us to be clever as well as bright. One can see how it would work to our common advantage. If you only knew enough to tell us how to get you home again, all this might happen."

"It is very difficult for my brain to imagine such things," he replied. "Imagination is a quality denied me and, knowing an event to be impossible, my intellect declines to examine what the situation might be if it were not impossible. But your nimble intelligence is capable of picturing the scene, and your gift of human hope finds a bright side to it after the human fashion. To me, who see neither brightness nor gloom in all that may be brought to my consciousness, this endowment of the human mind is most interesting. I will, therefore, make an effort to estimate the value of intercommunion between Earth and Hermes if such were within the domain of reality."

Saurus set down his pen and considered; then he wrote with incredible speed.

"To reach the truth of such a matter is, of course, out of the question, because we only know one side," he told her. "It is barely possible to see the reaction of your species to such an event, but quite beyond even your imagination to know how mine would be likely to take it. One can only guess. If such things fell out and I returned to my country intact, learned my own language, as you say, and told traveller's tales, the first question that we must ask ourselves is what manner of tales should I tell. Believe me they would not be of a nature to promote inter-planetary communion. You suggest that I should take to my mother certain uncommon stones and the excretion of shell fish that you hold to be precious. You would approach a matron of Hermes as you would approach human savages—with a necklace of beads. But I venture to think that such a demonstration of goodwill would only support my traveller's tales concerning other far more significant matters."

Milly put down the paper.

"Women are women all the world over," she replied, "and I am perfectly positive that your mother would love pearls and emeralds and feel them to be glorious signs of our complete civilization."

Then she returned to her reading.

"My task would be complicated from the first, because it is impossible that our language, rich though it may be, possesses words for so many things of which we have no knowledge. And I should be similarly baffled by words signifying states, conditions and lizard wisdom of which I possess no knowledge either. But in course of time it might be possible to impress upon my fellow creatures the nature of existence on Earth, the complicated conditions created by good and evil, the incidence of war and its accompaniments, the struggle for power, the insecurity and contempt of life, the opposition of opinions, the universal waste of time, the abuse of your gift of speech, the eternal pandemonium created by the existence of noise, the necessity for clothes, the propensity to eat your fellow mammals, the contempt for ancient learning, the antipathy of nation to nation, the heroism, the knavery, the sanctity, the sacrilege, the hate, the love, the hope, the despair, and a thousand other results of your heredity and natural endowments—were I able to find words wherein to indicate a vision of mankind, then there can be no doubt of the result."

"If you made it picturesque," began Milly; but he shook his head.

"You are dealing with beings who lack any sense of the picturesque," he wrote. "Iguana Sapiens lives a far shorter time than you do, and though probably unconscious of the fact that his life is brief, probably finds his days quite long enough to justify them. I am convinced that he makes his little existence worth while and so earns the right to a tiny foothold in the cosmic scheme. My story could only convince him of the hideous dangers that must lie in any further approach to Earth. He would see himself overrun, conquered and possibly exterminated by a long-lived, ferocious and utterly unsocial being, possessed of infernal knowledge and abominable instincts—a creature so completely outside the pale of justice, reason and law that he has ignored his own invention of the oath, defied his own gods, murdered his own kind by the thousand million and prostituted much of the scientific knowledge that he has yet attained.

"In the light of such an appalling revelation," concluded Saurus, "the second bolt that might haply reach Hermes from Earth would not be opened, but subjected to instant destruction, and did my people again seek for neighbours and improved acquaintance with their fellow planets, it would not be yours to which they despatched another iguana's egg."

Miss Hapgood pouted and was inclined to be annoyed.

"You are prejudiced," she declared. "I can't think why you take such a black view of us. We have a saying, that you ought to judge a person by himself, and I'm sure you have met a great number of nice people, though you were quite right about that brute, Boluski. But take my uncle and my mother—could anybody have been kinder, or more thoughtful, or more patient than you found them?"

"I included sanctity among your attributes," he answered, "and the professor and Mrs. Hapgood are a most benignant man and woman if I am able to judge. But you very well know that I am not prejudiced, for the reason that I lack any power to be."

He proceeded in his impassive way to explain in what prejudice must consist, but Milly read no more.

"Well, well," she said, "I must buzz off now. Don't worry. I'm sorry my idea was such a wash-out and I hope, if Hermes sends an iguana to some other planet, he will have a better time than you seem to have had here. Good-bye for the present. Mother has a lovely basket of Cape gooseberries for you, and some loquats and grenadines, so you must struggle along and hope for the best. That's our slogan at the War Office: 'Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.' Better to hope and fear, like us, than never do either, like you."
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