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First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri
Mr. Hungerton, herfather, really was the most tactless personupon earth,—a fluffy, feathery, untidy cockatoo of a man,perfectly good-natured, but absolutely centered upon his own sillyself. If anything could have driven me from Gladys, it would havebeen the thought of such a father-in-law. I am convinced that hereally believed in his heart that I came round to the Chestnutsthree days a week for the pleasure of his company, and veryespecially to hear his views upon bimetallism, a subject upon whichhe was by way of being an authority.
For an hour or more that evening I listened to his monotonouschirrup about bad money driving out good, the token value ofsilver, the depreciation of the rupee, and the true standards ofexchange.
"Suppose," he cried with feeble violence,"that all the debts inthe world were called up simultaneously, and immediate paymentinsisted upon,—what under our present conditions would happenthen?"
I gave the self-evident answer that I should be a ruined man,upon which he jumped from his chair,reproved me for my habituallevity, which made it impossible for him to discuss any reasonablesubject in my presence, and bounced off out of the room to dressfor a Masonic meeting.
At last I was alone with Gladys, and the moment of Fate hadcome! All that evening I had felt like the soldier who awaits thesignal which will send him on a forlorn hope; hope of victory andfear of repulse alternating in his mind.
She sat with that proud, delicate profile of hers outlinedagainst the red curtain. How beautiful she was! And yet how aloof!We had been friends, quite good friends; but never could I getbeyond the same comradeship which I might have established with oneof my fellow-reporters upon the Gazette,—perfectly frank,perfectly kindly, and perfectly unsexual. My instincts are allagainst a woman being too frank and at her ease with me. It is nocompliment to a man. Where the real sex feeling begins, timidityand distrust are its companions, heritage from old wicked days whenlove and violence went often hand in hand. The bent head, theaverted eye, the faltering voice, the wincing figure—these,and not the unshrinking gaze and frank reply, are the true signalsof passion. Even in my short life I had learned as much asthat—or had inherited it in that race memory which we callinstinct.
Gladys was full of every womanly quality. Some judged her to becold and hard; but such a thought was treason. That delicatelybronzed skin, almost oriental in its coloring, thatraven hair, thelarge liquid eyes, the full butexquisite lips,—all thestigmata of passion were there. But I was sadly conscious that upto now I had never found the secret of drawing it forth. However,come what might, I should have done with suspense and bring mattersto a head to-night. She could but refuse me, and better be arepulsed lover than an accepted brother.
So far my thoughts had carried me, and I was about to break thelong and uneasy silence, when two critical, dark eyes looked roundat me, and the proud head was shaken in smiling reproof. "I have apresentiment that you are going to propose, Ned. I do wish youwouldn't; for things are so much nicer as they are."
I drew my chair a little nearer. "Now, how did you know that Iwas going to propose?" I asked in genuine wonder.
"Don't women always know? Do you suppose any woman in the worldwas ever taken unawares? But—oh, Ned, our friendship has beenso good and so pleasant! What a pity to spoil it! Don't you feelhow splendid it is that a young man and a young woman should beable to talk face to face as we have talked?"
"I don't know, Gladys. You see, I can talk face to facewith—with the station-master." I can't imagine how thatofficial came into the matter; but in he trotted, and set us bothlaughing. "That does not satisfy me in the least. I want my armsround you, and your head on my breast, and—oh, Gladys, Iwant——"
She had sprung from her chair, as she saw signs that I proposedto demonstrate some of my wants. "You've spoiled everything, Ned,"she said. "It's all so beautiful and natural until this kind ofthing comes in! It is such a pity! Why can't you controlyourself?"
"I didn't invent it," I pleaded. "It's nature. It's love."
"Well, perhaps if both love, it may be different. I have neverfelt it."
"But you must—you, with your beauty, with your soul! Oh,Gladys, you were made for love! You must love!"
"One must wait till it comes."
"But why can't you love me, Gladys? Is it my appearance, orwhat?"
She did unbend a little. She put forward a hand—such agracious, stooping attitude it was—and she pressed back myhead. Then she looked into my upturned face with a very wistfulsmile.
"No it isn't that," she said at last. "You're not a conceitedboy by nature, and so I can safely tell you it is not that. It'sdeeper."
She nodded severely.
"What can I do to mend it? Do sit down and talk it over. No,really, I won't if you'll only sit down!"
She looked at me with a wondering distrust which was much moreto my mind than her whole-hearted confidence. How primitive andbestial itlooks when you put it down in black and white!—andperhaps after all it is only a feeling peculiar to myself. Anyhow,she sat down.
"Now tell me what's amiss with me?"
"I'm in love with somebody else," said she.
It was my turn to jump out of my chair.
"It's nobody in particular," she explained, laughing at theexpression of my face: "only an ideal. I've never met the kind ofman I mean."
"Tell me about him. What does he look like?"
"Oh, he might look very much like you."
"How dear of you to say that! Well,what is it that he does thatI don't do? Just say the word,—teetotal, vegetarian,aeronaut, theosophist, superman. I'll have a try at it, Gladys, ifyou will only give me an idea what would please you."
She laughed at the elasticity of my character. "Well,in thefirst place, I don't think my ideal would speak like that," saidshe. "He would be a harder, sterner man, not so ready to adapthimself to a silly girl's whim. But, above all, he must be a manwho could do, who could act, who could look Death in the face andhave no fear of him, a man of great deeds and strange experiences.It is never a man that I should love, but always the glories he hadwon; for they would be reflected upon me. Think of Richard Burton!When I read his wife's life of him I couldso understand her love!And Lady Stanley! Did you ever read the wonderful last chapter ofthat book about her husband? These are the sort of men that a womancould worship with all her soul, and yet be the greater, not theless, on account of her love, honored by all the world as theinspirer of noble deeds."
She looked so beautiful in her enthusiasm that I nearly broughtdown the whole level of the interview. I gripped myself hard, andwent on with the argument.
"We can't all be Stanleys and Burtons," saidI; "besides, wedon't get the chance,—at least, I never had the chance. If Idid, I should try to take it."
"But chances are all around you. It is the mark of the kind ofman I mean that he makes his own chances. You can't hold him back.I've never met him, and yet I seem to know him so well. There areheroisms all round us waiting to be done. It's for men to do them,and for women to reserve their love as a reward for such men. Lookat that young Frenchman who went up lastweek in a balloon. It wasblowing a gale of wind; but because he was announced to go heinsisted on starting. The wind blew him fifteen hundred miles intwenty-four hours, and he fell in the middle of Russia. That wasthe kind of man I mean. Think of the woman he loved, and how otherwomen must have envied her! That's what I should like tobe,—envied for my man."
"I'd have done it to please you."
"But you shouldn't do it merely to please me. You should do itbecause you can't help yourself, because it's natural to you,because the man inyou is crying out for heroic expression. Now,when you described the Wigan coal explosion last month, could younot have gone down and helped those people, in spite of thechoke-damp?"
"You never said so."
"There was nothing worth bucking about."
"I didn't know." She looked at me with rather more interest."That was brave of you."
"I had to. If you want to write good copy, you must be where thethings are."
"What a prosaic motive! It seems to take all the romance out ofit. But, still, whatever your motive, I am glad that you went downthat mine." She gave me her hand; but with such sweetness anddignity that I could only stoop and kiss it. "I dare say I ammerely a foolish woman with a young girl's fancies. And yet it isso real with me, so entirely part of my very self, that I cannothelp acting upon it. If I marry, I do want to marry a famousman!"
"Why should you not?" I cried. "It is women like you who bracemen up. Give me a chance, and see if I will take it! Besides, asyou say, men ought to MAKE their own chances, and not wait untilthey are given. Look at Clive—just a clerk, and he conqueredIndia! By George! I'll do something in the world yet!"
She laughed at my sudden Irish effervescence. "Why not?" shesaid. "You have everything a man could have,—youth, health,strength, education, energy. I was sorry you spoke. And now I amglad—so glad—if it wakens these thoughts in you!"
"And if I do——"
Her dear hand rested like warm velvet upon my lips. "Not anotherword, Sir! You should have been at the office for evening duty halfan hour ago; only I hadn't the heart to remind you. Some day,perhaps, when you have won your place in the world, we shall talkit over again."
And so it was that I found myself that foggy November eveningpursuing the Camberwell tram with my heart glowing within me, andwith the eager determination that not another day should elapsebefore I should find some deed which was worthy of my lady.Butwho—who in all this wide world could ever have imaginedthe incredible shape which that deed was to take, or the strangesteps by which I was led to the doing of it?
And, after all, this opening chapter will seem to the reader tohave nothing to do with my narrative; and yet there would have beenno narrative without it, for it is onlywhen a man goes out into theworld with the thought that there are heroisms all round him, andwith the desire all alive in his heart to follow any which may comewithin sight of him, that he breaks away as I did from the life heknows, and ventures forthinto the wonderful mystic twilight landwhere lie the great adventures and the great rewards. Behold me,then, at the office of the Daily Gazette, on the staff of which Iwas a most insignificant unit, with the settled determination thatvery night, if possible, to find the quest which should be worthyof my Gladys! Was it hardness, was it selfishness, that she shouldask me to risk my life for her own glorification? Such thoughts maycome to middle age; but never to ardent three-and-twenty in thefever ofhis first love.
I always liked McArdle, the crabbed, old, round-backed,red-headed news editor, and I rather hoped that he liked me. Ofcourse, Beaumont was the real boss; but he lived in therarefiedatmosphere of some Olympian height from which he could distinguishnothing smaller than an international crisis or a split in theCabinet. Sometimes we saw him passing in lonely majesty to hisinner sanctum, with his eyes staring vaguely and his mind hoveringover the Balkans or the Persian Gulf. He was above and beyond us.But McArdle was his first lieutenant, and it was he that we knew.The old man nodded as I entered the room, and he pushed hisspectacles far up on his bald forehead.
"Well, Mr.Malone, from all I hear, you seem to be doing verywell," said he in his kindly Scotch accent.
I thanked him.
"The colliery explosion was excellent. So was the Southwarkfire. You have the true descreeptive touch. What did you want tosee me about?"
"To ask a favor."
He looked alarmed, and his eyes shunned mine. "Tut, tut! What isit?"
"Do you think, Sir, that you could possibly send me on somemission for the paper? I would do my best to put it through and getyou some good copy."
"What sort of meesion hadyou in your mind, Mr. Malone?"
"Well, Sir, anything that had adventure and danger in it. Ireally would do my very best. The more difficult it was, the betterit would suit me."
"You seem very anxious to lose your life."
"To justify my life, Sir."
"Dear me, Mr. Malone, this is very—very exalted. I'mafraid the day for this sort of thing is rather past. The expenseof the 'special meesion' business hardly justifies the result, and,of course, in any case it would only be an experienced man with aname thatwould command public confidence who would get such anorder. The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, andthere's no room for romance anywhere. Wait a bit, though!" headded, with a sudden smile upon his face. "Talking of the blankspaces of the map gives me an idea. What about exposing afraud—a modern Munchausen—and making him rideeculous?You could show him up as the liar that he is! Eh, man, it would befine. How does it appeal to you?"
"Anything—anywhere—I care nothing."
McArdle was plunged in thought for some minutes.
"I wonder whether you could get on friendly—or at least ontalking terms with the fellow," he said, at last. "You seem to havea sort of genius for establishing relations withpeople—seempathy, I suppose, or animal magnetism, or youthfulvitality, or something. I am conscious of it myself."
"You are very good, sir."
"So why should you not try your luck with Professor Challenger,of Enmore Park?"
I dare say I looked a little startled.
"Challenger!" I cried. "Professor Challenger, the famouszoologist! Wasn't he the man who broke the skull of Blundell, ofthe Telegraph?"
The news editor smiled grimly.
"Do you mind? Didn't you say it was adventures you wereafter?"
"It is all in the way of business, sir," I answered.
"Exactly.I don't suppose he can always be so violent as that.I'm thinking that Blundell got him at the wrong moment, maybe, orin the wrong fashion. You may have better luck, or more tact inhandling him. There's something in your line there, I am sure, andthe Gazette should work it."
"I really know nothing about him," said I. "I only remember hisname in connection with the police-court proceedings, for strikingBlundell."
"I have a few notes for your guidance, Mr. Malone. I've had myeye on the Professor for some little time." He took a paper from adrawer. "Here is a summary of his record. I give it youbriefly:—
"'Challenger, George Edward. Born: Largs, N. B., 1863. Educ.:Largs Academy; Edinburgh University. British Museum Assistant,1892. Assistant-Keeper ofComparative Anthropology Department, 1893.Resigned after acrimonious correspondence same year. Winner ofCrayston Medal for Zoological Research. Foreign Memberof'—well, quite a lot of things, about two inches of smalltype—'Societe Belge, American Academy of Sciences, La Plata,etc., etc. Ex-President Palaeontological Society. Section H,British Association'—so on, so on!—'Publications: "SomeObservations Upon a Series of Kalmuck Skulls"; "Outlines ofVertebrate Evolution"; and numerous papers, including"Theunderlying fallacy of Weissmannism," which caused heated discussionat the Zoological Congress of Vienna. Recreations: Walking, Alpineclimbing. Address: Enmore Park, Kensington, W.'
"There, take it with you. I've nothing more for youto-night."
I pocketed the slip of paper.
"One moment, sir," I said, as I realized that it was a pink baldhead, and not a red face, which was fronting me. "I am not veryclear yet why I am to interview this gentleman. What has hedone?"
The face flashed back again.
"Wentto South America on a solitary expedeetion two years ago.Came back last year. Had undoubtedly been to South America, butrefused to say exactly where. Began to tell his adventures in avague way, but somebody started to pick holes, and he just shut uplike an oyster. Something wonderful happened—or the man's achampion liar, which is the more probable supposeetion. Had somedamaged photographs, said to be fakes. Got so touchy that heassaults anyone who asks questions, and heaves reporters down thestairs.In my opinion he's just a homicidal megalomaniac with a turnfor science. That's your man, Mr. Malone. Now, off you run, and seewhat you can make of him. You're big enough to look after yourself.Anyway, you are all safe. Employers' Liability Act, you know."
A grinning red face turned once more into a pink oval, fringedwith gingery fluff; the interview was at an end.
I walked across to the Savage Club, but instead of turning intoit I leaned upon the railings of Adelphi Terrace and gazedthoughtfully fora long time at the brown, oily river. I can alwaysthink most sanely and clearly in the open air. I took out the listof Professor Challenger's exploits, and I read it over under theelectric lamp. Then I had what I can only regard as an inspiration.As aPressman, I felt sure from what I had been told that I couldnever hope to getinto touch with this cantankerous Professor. Butthese recriminations, twice mentioned in his skeleton biography,could only mean that he was a fanatic in science. Was there not anexposed margin there upon which he might be accessible? I wouldtry.
I entered the club. It was just after eleven, and the big roomwas fairly full, though the rush had not yet set in. I noticed atall, thin, angular man seated in an arm-chair by thefire. Heturned as I drew my chair up to him. It was the man of all otherswhom I should have chosen—Tarp Henry, of the staff of Nature,a thin, dry, leathery creature, who was full, to those who knewhim, of kindly humanity. I plunged instantly into my subject.
"What do you know of Professor Challenger?"
"Challenger?" He gathered his brows in scientific disapproval."Challenger was the man who came with some cock-and-bull story fromSouth America."
"Oh, it was rank nonsense about some queer animals he haddiscovered. I believe he has retracted since. Anyhow, he hassuppressed it all. He gave an interview to Reuter's, and there wassuch a howl that he saw it wouldn't do. It was a discreditablebusiness. There were one or two folk who were inclined to take himseriously, but he soon choked them off."
"Well, by his insufferable rudeness and impossible behavior.There was poor old Wadley, of the Zoological Institute. Wadley senta message: 'The President of the Zoological Institute presentshiscompliments to Professor Challenger, and would take it as apersonal favor if he would do them the honor to come to their nextmeeting.' The answer was unprintable."
"You don't say?"
"Well, a bowdlerized version of it would run: 'ProfessorChallenger presents his compliments to the President of theZoological Institute, and would take it as a personal favor if hewould go to the devil.'"
"Yes, I expect that's what old Wadley said. I remember his wailat the meeting, which began: 'In fifty years experience ofscientific intercourse——' It quite broke the old manup."
"Anything more about Challenger?"
"Well, I'm a bacteriologist, you know. I live in anine-hundred-diameter microscope. I can hardly claim to takeserious notice of anything that Ican see with my naked eye. I'm afrontiersman from the extreme edge of the Knowable, and I feelquite out of place when I leave my study and come into touch withall you great, rough, hulking creatures. I'm too detached to talkscandal, and yet at scientific conversaziones I HAVE heardsomething of Challenger, for heis one of those men whom nobody canignore. He's as clever as they make 'em—a full-chargedbattery of force and vitality, but a quarrelsome, ill-conditionedfaddist, and unscrupulous at that.He had gone the length of fakingsome photographs over the South American business."
"You say he is a faddist. What is his particular fad?"
"He has a thousand, but the latest is something about Weissmannand Evolution. He had a fearful row about it in Vienna, Ibelieve."
"Can't you tell me the point?"
"Not at the moment, but a translation of the proceedings exists.We have it filed at the office. Would you care to come?"
"It's just what I want. I have to interview the fellow, and Ineed some lead up to him.It's really awfully good of you to give mea lift. I'll go with you now, if it is not too late."
Half an hour later I was seated in the newspaper office with ahuge tome in front of me, which had been opened at the article"Weissmann versus Darwin," withthe sub heading, "Spirited Protestat Vienna. Lively Proceedings." My scientific education having beensomewhat neglected, I was unable to follow the whole argument, butit was evident that the English Professor had handled his subjectin a very aggressive fashion, and had thoroughly annoyed hisContinental colleagues. "Protests," "Uproar," and "General appealto the Chairman" were three of the first brackets which caught myeye. Most of the matter might have been written in Chinese for anydefinite meaning that it conveyed to my brain.
"I wish you could translate it into English for me," I said,pathetically, to my help-mate.
"Well, it is a translation."
"Then I'd better try my luck with the original."
"It is certainly rather deep for a layman."
"If I could only get a single good, meaty sentence which seemedto convey some sort of definite human idea, it would serve my turn.Ah, yes, this one will do. I seem in a vague way almost tounderstand it. I'll copy it out. This shall be my link with theterrible Professor."
"Nothing else I can do?"
"Well, yes; I propose to write to him. If I could frame theletter here, and use your address it would give atmosphere."
"We'll have the fellow round here making a row and breaking thefurniture."
"No, no; you'll see theletter—nothing contentious, Iassure you."
"Well, that's my chair and desk. You'll find paper there. I'dlike to censor it before it goes."
It took some doing, but I flatter myself that it wasn't such abad job when it was finished. I read it aloud to thecriticalbacteriologist with some pride in my handiwork.
"DEAR PROFESSOR CHALLENGER," it said, "As a humble student ofNature, I have always taken the most profound interest in yourspeculations as to the differences between Darwin and Weissmann. Ihave recently had occasion to refresh my memory byre-reading——"
"You infernal liar!" murmured Tarp Henry.
—"by re-reading your masterly address at Vienna. Thatlucid and admirable statement seems to be the last word in thematter. There is one sentence in it,however—namely: 'Iprotest strongly against the insufferable and entirely dogmaticassertion that each separate id is a microcosm possessed of anhistorical architecture elaborated slowly through the series ofgenerations.' Have you no desire, in view oflater research, tomodify this statement? Do you not think that it isover-accentuated? With your permission, I would ask the favor of aninterview, as I feel strongly upon the subject, and have certainsuggestions which I could only elaborate in a personalconversation. With your consent, I trust to have the honor ofcalling at eleven o'clock the day after to-morrow (Wednesday)morning.
"I remain, Sir, with assurances of profound respect, yours verytruly,EDWARD D. MALONE."
"How's that?" I asked, triumphantly.
"Well if your conscience can stand it——"
"It has never failed me yet."
"But what do you mean to do?"
"To get there. Once I am in his room I may see some opening. Imay even go the length of open confession. If he is a sportsman hewill be tickled."
"Tickled, indeed! He's much more likely to do the tickling.Chain mail, or an American football suit—that's what you'llwant. Well, good-bye. I'll have the answer for you here onWednesday morning—if he ever deigns to answer you. He is aviolent, dangerous, cantankerous character, hated by everyone whocomes across him, and the butt of the students, so far as they daretake a liberty with him. Perhaps it would be best for you if younever heard from the fellow at all."
My friend's fear or hope was not destined to be realized. When Icalled on Wednesday there was a letter with the West Kensingtonpostmark upon it, and my name scrawled across the envelope in ahandwriting which looked like a barbed-wirerailing. The contentswere as follows:—
"ENMORE PARK, W.
"SIR,—I have duly received your note, in which you claimto endorse my views, although I am not aware that they aredependent upon endorsement either from you or anyone else. You haveventured to use the word 'speculation' with regard to my statementupon the subject of Darwinism, and I would call your attention tothe fact that such a word in such a connection is offensive to adegree. The context convinces me, however, that you have sinnedratherthrough ignorance and tactlessness than through malice, so Iam content to pass the matter by. You quote an isolated sentencefrom my lecture, and appear to have some difficulty inunderstanding it. I should have thought that only a sub-humanintelligencecould have failed to grasp the point, but if it reallyneeds amplification I shall consent to see you at the hour named,though visits and visitors of every sort are exceeding distastefulto me. As to your suggestion that I may modify my opinion, I wouldhave you know that it is not my habit to do so after a deliberateexpression of my mature views. You will kindly show the envelope ofthis letter to my man, Austin, when you call, as he has to takeevery precaution to shield me from the intrusive rascals who callthemselves 'journalists.'
"Yours faithfully, "GEORGE EDWARDCHALLENGER."
This was the letter that I read aloud to Tarp Henry, who hadcome down early to hear the result of my venture. His only remarkwas, "There's some new stuff, cuticura orsomething, which is betterthan arnica." Some people have such extraordinary notions ofhumor.
It was nearly half-past ten before I had received my message,but a taxicab took me round in good time for my appointment. It wasan imposing porticoed house atwhich we stopped, and theheavily-curtained windows gave every indication of wealth upon thepart of this formidable Professor. The door was opened by an odd,swarthy, dried-up person of uncertain age, with a dark pilot jacketand brown leather gaiters. Ifound afterwards that he was thechauffeur, who filled the gaps left by a succession of fugitivebutlers. He looked me up and down with a searching light blueeye.
"Expected?" he asked.
"Got your letter?"
I produced the envelope.
"Right!"He seemed to be a person of few words. Following himdown the passage I was suddenly interrupted by a small woman, whostepped out from what proved to be the dining-room door. She was abright, vivacious, dark-eyed lady, more French than English in hertype.
"One moment," she said. "You can wait, Austin. Step in here,sir. May I ask if you have met my husband before?"
"No, madam, I have not had the honor."
"Then I apologize to you in advance. I must tell you that he isa perfectly impossible person—absolutely impossible. If youare forewarned you will be the more ready to make allowances."
"It is most considerate of you, madam."
"Get quickly out of the room if he seems inclined to be violent.Don't wait to argue with him. Several people have been injuredthrough doing that. Afterwards there is a public scandal and itreflects upon me and all of us. I suppose it wasn't about SouthAmerica you wanted to see him?"
I could not lie to a lady.
"Dear me! That is his most dangerous subject. You won't believea wordhe says—I'm sure I don't wonder. But don't tell him so,for it makes him very violent. Pretend to believe him, and you mayget through all right. Remember he believes it himself. Of that youmay be assured. A more honest man never lived. Don't wait anylonger or he may suspect. If you find himdangerous—reallydangerous—ring the bell and hold him off until I come. Evenat his worst I can usually control him."
With these encouraging words the lady handed me over to thetaciturn Austin, who had waited like abronze statue of discretionduring our short interview, and I was conducted to the end of thepassage. There was a tap at a door, a bull's bellow from within,and I was face to face with the Professor.
He sat in a rotating chair behind a broad table, whichwascovered with books, maps, and diagrams. As I entered, his seat spunround to face me. His appearance made me gasp. I was prepared forsomething strange, but not for so overpowering a personality asthis. It was his size which took one's breath away—his sizeand his imposing presence. His head was enormous, the largest Ihave ever seen upon a human being. I am sure that his top-hat, hadI ever ventured to don it, would have slipped over me entirely andrested on my shoulders. He had the face and beard which I associatewith an Assyrian bull; the former florid, the latter so black asalmost to have a suspicion of blue, spade-shaped and rippling downover his chest. The hair was peculiar, plastered down in front in along, curving wisp over his massive forehead. The eyes wereblue-gray under great black tufts, very clear, very critical, andvery masterful. A huge spread of shoulders and a chest like abarrel were the other parts of him which appeared above the table,save for two enormous hands covered withlong black hair. This and abellowing, roaring, rumbling voice made up my first impression ofthe notorious Professor Challenger.
"Well?" said he, with a most insolent stare. "What now?"
I must keep up my deception for at least a little time longer,otherwise here was evidently an end of the interview.
"You were good enough to give me an appointment, sir," said I,humbly, producing his envelope.
He took my letter from his desk and laid it out before him.
"Oh, you are the young person who cannot understandplainEnglish, are you? My general conclusions you are good enough toapprove, as I understand?"
"Entirely, sir—entirely!" I was very emphatic.
"Dear me! That strengthens my position very much, does it not?Your age and appearance make your support doublyvaluable. Well, atleast you are better than that herd of swine in Vienna, whosegregarious grunt is, however, not more offensive than the isolatedeffort of the British hog." He glared at me as the presentrepresentative of the beast.
"They seem to have behaved abominably," said I.
"I assure you that I can fight my own battles, and that I haveno possible need of your sympathy. Put me alone, sir, and with myback to the wall. G. E. C. is happiest then. Well, sir, letus dowhat we can to curtail this visit, which can hardly be agreeable toyou, and is inexpressibly irksome to me. You had, as I have beenled to believe, some comments to make upon the proposition which Iadvanced in my thesis."
There was a brutal directness about his methods which madeevasion difficult. I must still make play and wait for a betteropening. It had seemed simple enough at a distance. Oh, my Irishwits, could they not help me now, when I needed help so sorely? Hetransfixed me with two sharp, steely eyes. "Come, come!" herumbled.
"I am, of course, a mere student," said I, with a fatuous smile,"hardly more, I might say, than an earnest inquirer. At the sametime, it seemed to me that you were a little severe upon Weissmannin this matter. Has not the general evidence since thatdate tendedto—well, to strengthen his position?"
"What evidence?" He spoke with a menacing calm.
"Well, of course, I am aware that there is not any what youmight call DEFINITE evidence. I alluded merely to the trend ofmodern thought and the generalscientific point of view, if I mightso express it."
He leaned forward with great earnestness.
"I suppose you are aware," said he, checking off points upon hisfingers, "that the cranial index is a constant factor?"
"Naturally," said I.
"And that telegonyis still sub judice?"
"And that the germ plasm is different from the parthenogeneticegg?"
"Why, surely!" I cried, and gloried in my own audacity.
"But what does that prove?" he asked, in a gentle, persuasivevoice.
"Ah, what indeed?" I murmured. "What does it prove?"
"Shall I tell you?" he cooed.
"It proves," he roared, with a sudden blast of fury, "that youare the damnedest imposter in London—a vile, crawlingjournalist, who has no more science than he has decency in hiscomposition!"
He had sprung to his feet with a mad rage in his eyes. Even atthat moment of tension I found time for amazement at the discoverythat he was quite a short man, his head not higher than myshoulder—a stunted Hercules whose tremendous vitality had allrun to depth, breadth, and brain.
"Gibberish!" he cried, leaning forward, with his fingers on thetable and his face projecting. "That's what I have been talking toyou, sir—scientific gibberish! Did you think you could matchcunning with me—you with your walnut of a brain? You thinkyou are omnipotent, you infernal scribblers, don't you? That yourpraise can make a man and your blame can break him? We must all bowto you, and try to get a favorable word, must we? This man shallhave a leg up, and this man shall have a dressing down! Creepingvermin, I know you! You've got out of your station. Time was whenyour ears were clipped. You've lost your sense of proportion.Swollen gas-bags! I'll keep you in your proper place. Yes, sir, youhaven't got over G. E. C. There's one man who is still your master.He warned you off, but if you WILL come, by the Lord you do it atyour own risk. Forfeit, my good Mr. Malone, I claim forfeit! Youhave played a rather dangerous game, and it strikes me that youhave lost it."
"Look here, sir," said I, backing to the door and opening it;"you can be as abusive as you like. But there is a limit. You shallnot assault me."
"Shall I not?" He was slowly advancing in a peculiarly menacingway, but he stopped now and put his big hands into the side-pocketsof a rather boyish short jacket which he wore. "I have thrownseveral of you out of the house. You will be the fourth or fifth.Three pound fifteen each—that is how it averaged. Expensive,but very necessary. Now, sir, why should you not follow yourbrethren? I rather think you must." He resumed his unpleasant andstealthy advance, pointing his toes as he walked, like a dancingmaster.
I could have bolted for the hall door, but it would have beentoo ignominious. Besides, a little glow of righteous anger wasspringing up within me. I had been hopelessly in the wrong before,but this man's menaces were putting me in the right.
"I'll trouble you to keep your hands off, sir. I'll not standit."
"Dear me!" His black moustache lifted and awhite fang twinkledin a sneer. "You won't stand it, eh?"
"Don't be such a fool, Professor!" I cried. "What can you hopefor? I'm fifteen stone, as hard as nails, and play centerthree-quarter every Saturday for the London Irish. I'm not theman——"
It wasat that moment that he rushed me. It was lucky that I hadopened the door, or we should have gone through it. We did aCatharine-wheel together down the passage. Somehow we gathered up achair upon our way, and bounded on with it towards the street. Mymouth was full of his beard, our arms were locked, our bodiesintertwined, and that infernal chair radiated its legs all roundus. The watchful Austin had thrown open the hall door. We went witha back somersault down the front steps. I have seen the two Macsattempt something of the kind at thehalls, but it appears to takesome practise to do it without hurting oneself. The chair went tomatchwood at the bottom, and we rolled apart into the gutter. Hesprang to his feet, waving his fists and wheezing like anasthmatic.
"Had enough?" he panted.
"You infernal bully!" I cried, as I gathered myselftogether.
Then and there we should have tried the thing out, for he waseffervescing with fight, but fortunately I was rescued from anodious situation. A policeman was beside us, his notebook in hishand.
"What's all this? You ought to be ashamed" said the policeman.It was the most rational remark which I had heard in Enmore Park."Well," he insisted, turning to me, "what is it, then?"
"This man attacked me," said I.
"Did you attack him?" asked the policeman.
The Professor breathed hard and said nothing.
"It's not the first time, either," said the policeman, severely,shaking his head. "You were in trouble last month for the samething. You've blackened this youngman's eye. Do you give him incharge, sir?"
"No," said I, "I do not."
"What's that?" said the policeman.
"I was to blame myself. I intruded upon him. He gave me fairwarning."
The policeman snapped up his notebook.
"Don't let us have any more such goings-on," said he. "Now,then! Move on, there, move on!" This to a butcher's boy, a maid,and one or two loafers who had collected. He clumped heavily downthe street, driving this little flock before him. The Professorlooked at me, and there was something humorous at the back of hiseyes.
"Come in!" said he. "I've not done with you yet."
The speech had a sinister sound, but I followed him none theless into the house. The man-servant, Austin, like a wooden image,closed the door behind us.
Hardly was it shut when Mrs. Challenger darted out from thedining-room. The small woman was in a furious temper. She barredher husband's way like an enraged chicken in front of a bulldog. Itwasevident that she had seen my exit, but had not observed myreturn.
"You brute, George!" she screamed. "You've hurt that nice youngman."
He jerked backwards with his thumb.
"Here he is, safe and sound behind me."
She was confused, but not unduly so.
"I amso sorry, I didn't see you."
"I assure you, madam, that it is all right."
"He has marked your poor face! Oh, George, what a brute you are!Nothing but scandals from one end of the week to the other.Everyone hating and making fun of you. You've finished mypatience.This ends it."
"Dirty linen," he rumbled.
"It's not a secret," she cried. "Do you suppose that the wholestreet—the whole of London, for that matter—— Getaway, Austin, we don't want you here. Do you suppose they don't alltalk about you? Whereis your dignity? You, a man who should havebeen Regius Professor at a great University with a thousandstudents all revering you. Where is your dignity, George?"
"How about yours, my dear?"
"You try me too much. A ruffian—a common brawlingruffian—that'swhat you have become."
"Be good, Jessie."
"A roaring, raging bully!"
"That's done it! Stool of penance!" said he.
To my amazement he stooped, picked her up, and placed hersitting upon a high pedestal of black marble in the angle of thehall. It was at least seven feet high, and so thin thatshe couldhardly balance upon it. A more absurd object than she presentedcocked up there with her face convulsed with anger, her feetdangling, and her body rigid for fear of an upset, I could notimagine.
"Let me down!" she wailed.
"You brute, George! Let me down this instant!"
"Come into the study, Mr. Malone."
"Really, sir——!" said I, looking at the lady.
"Here's Mr. Malone pleading for you, Jessie. Say 'please,' anddown you come."
"Oh, you brute!Please! please!"
He took her down as if she had been a canary.
"You must behave yourself, dear. Mr. Malone is a Pressman. Hewill have it all in his rag to-morrow, and sell an extra dozenamong our neighbors. 'Strange story of high life'—you feltfairly high on that pedestal, did you not? Then a sub-title,'Glimpse of a singular menage.' He's a foul feeder, is Mr. Malone,a carrion eater, like all of his kind—porcus ex gregediaboli—a swine from the devil's herd. That's it,Malone—what?"
"You are really intolerable!" said I, hotly.
He bellowed with laughter.
"We shall have a coalition presently," he boomed, looking fromhis wife to me and puffing out his enormous chest. Then, suddenlyaltering his tone, "Excuse this frivolous family badinage, Mr.Malone. I called you back for some more serious purpose than to mixyou up with our little domestic pleasantries. Run away, littlewoman, and don't fret." He placed a huge hand upon each of hershoulders. "All that you say is perfectly true. I should be abetter manif I did what you advise, but I shouldn't be quite GeorgeEdward Challenger. There are plenty of better men, my dear, butonly one G. E. C. So make the best of him." He suddenly gave her aresounding kiss, which embarrassed me even more than his violencehad done. "Now, Mr. Malone," he continued, with a great accessionof dignity, "this way, if YOU please."
We re-entered the room which we had left so tumultuously tenminutes before. The Professor closed the door carefully behind us,motioned me into an arm-chair, and pushed a cigar-box under mynose.