The Poison Belt : Professor Challenger by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Poison Belt
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Published in The Strand Magazine, April to August 1913
First UK book edition: Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1913
First US book edition: George H. Doran Co., New York, 1913
Being an account of another adventure of Prof. George E.
Challenger, Lord John Roxton, Prof. Summerlee, and
Mr. E.D. Malone, the discoverers of “The Lost World”
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY HARRY ROUNTREE
The Poison Belt Contents
The Poison Belt Chapter I. The Blurring Of Lines
The Poison Belt Chapter II. The Tide Of Death
The Poison Belt Chapter III. Submerged
The Poison Belt Chapter IV. A Diary Of The Dying
The Poison Belt Chapter V. The Dead World
The Poison Belt Chapter VI. The Great Awakening
The Poison Belt Chapter I. The Blurring Of Lines
IT is imperative that now at once, while these stupendous events are still clear in my mind, I should set them down with that exactness of detail which time may blur. But even as I do so, I am overwhelmed by the wonder of the fact that it should be our little group of the “Lost World”—Professor Challenger, Professor Summerlee, Lord John Roxton, and myself—who have passed through this amazing experience.
When, some years ago, I chronicled in the Daily Gazette our epoch- making journey in South America, I little thought that it should ever fall to my lot to tell an even stranger personal experience, one which is unique in all human annals and must stand out in the records of history as a great peak among the humble foothills which surround it. The event itself will always be marvellous, but the circumstances that we four were together at the time of this extraordinary episode came about in a most natural and, indeed, inevitable fashion. I will explain the events which led up to it as shortly and as clearly as I can, though I am well aware that the fuller the detail upon such a subject the more welcome it will be to the reader, for the public curiosity has been and still is insatiable.
It was upon Friday, the twenty-seventh of August—a date forever memorable in the history of the world—that I went down to the office of my paper and asked for three days’ leave of absence from Mr. McArdle, who still presided over our news department. The good old Scotchman shook his head, scratched his dwindling fringe of ruddy fluff, and finally put his reluctance into words.
“I was thinking, Mr. Malone, that we could employ you to advantage these days. I was thinking there was a story that you are the only man that could handle as it should be handled.”
“I am sorry for that,” said I, trying to hide my disappointment. “Of course if I am needed, there is an end of the matter. But the engagement was important and intimate. If I could be spared—”
“Well, I don’t see that you can.”
It was bitter, but I had to put the best face I could upon it. After all, it was my own fault, for I should have known by this time that a journalist has no right to make plans of his own.
“Then I’ll think no more of it,” said I with as much cheerfulness as I could assume at so short a notice. “What was it that you wanted me to do?”
“Well, it was just to interview that deevil of a man down at Rotherfield.”
“You don’t mean Professor Challenger?” I cried.
“Aye, it’s just him that I do mean. He ran young Alec Simpson of the Courier a mile down the high road last week by the collar of his coat and the slack of his breeches. You’ll have read of it, likely, in the police report. Our boys would as soon interview a loose alligator in the zoo. But you could do it, I’m thinking—an old friend like you.”
“Why,” said I, greatly relieved, “this makes it all easy. It so happens that it was to visit Professor Challenger at Rotherfield that I was asking for leave of absence. The fact is, that it is the anniversary of our main adventure on the plateau three years ago, and he has asked our whole party down to his house to see him and celebrate the occasion.”
“Capital!” cried McArdle, rubbing his hands and beaming through his glasses. “Then you will be able to get his opeenions out of him. In any other man I would say it was all moonshine, but the fellow has made good once, and who knows but he may again!”
“Get what out of him?” I asked. “What has he been doing?”
“Haven’t you seen his letter on ‘Scientific Possibeelities’ in to-day’s Times?”
McArdle dived down and picked a copy from the floor.
“Read it aloud,” said he, indicating a column with his finger. “I’d be glad to hear it again, for I am not sure now that I have the man’s meaning clear in my head.”
This was the letter which I read to the news editor of the Gazette:—
“Sir,—I have read with amusement, not wholly unmixed with some less complimentary emotion, the complacent and wholly fatuous letter of James Wilson MacPhail which has lately appeared in your columns upon the subject of the blurring of Fraunhofer’s lines in the spectra both of the planets and of the fixed stars. He dismisses the matter as of no significance. To a wider intelligence it may well seem of very great possible importance—so great as to involve the ultimate welfare of every man, woman, and child upon this planet. I can hardly hope, by the use of scientific language, to convey any sense of my meaning to those ineffectual people who gather their ideas from the columns of a daily newspaper. I will endeavour, therefore, to condescend to their limitation and to indicate the situation by the use of a homely analogy which will be within the limits of the intelligence of your readers.”
“Man, he’s a wonder—a living wonder!” said McArdle, shaking his head reflectively. “He’d put up the feathers of a sucking-dove and set up a riot in a Quakers’ meeting. No wonder he has made London too hot for him. It’s a peety, Mr. Malone, for it’s a grand brain! We’ll let’s have the analogy.”
“We will suppose,” I read, “that a small bundle of connected corks was launched in a sluggish current upon a voyage across the Atlantic. The corks drift slowly on from day to day with the same conditions all round them. If the corks were sentient we could imagine that they would consider these conditions to be permanent and assured. But we, with our superior knowledge, know that many things might happen to surprise the corks. They might possibly float up against a ship, or a sleeping whale, or become entangled in seaweed. In any case, their voyage would probably end by their being thrown up on the rocky coast of Labrador. But what could they know of all this while they drifted so gently day by day in what they thought was a limitless and homogeneous ocean?
“Your readers will possibly comprehend that the Atlantic, in this parable, stands for the mighty ocean of ether through which we drift and that the bunch of corks represents the little and obscure planetary system to which we belong. A third-rate sun, with its rag tag and bobtail of insignificant satellites, we float under the same daily conditions towards some unknown end, some squalid catastrophe which will overwhelm us at the ultimate confines of space, where we are swept over an etheric Niagara or dashed upon some unthinkable Labrador. I see no room here for the shallow and ignorant optimism of your correspondent, Mr. James Wilson MacPhail, but many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend.”
“Man, he’d have made a grand meenister,” said McArdle. “It just booms like an organ. Let’s get doun to what it is that’s troubling him.”
“The general blurring and shifting of Fraunhofer’s lines of the spectrum point, in my opinion, to a widespread cosmic change of a subtle and singular character. Light from a planet is the reflected light of the sun. Light from a star is a self-produced light. But the spectra both from planets and stars have, in this instance, all undergone the same change. Is it, then, a change in those planets and stars? To me such an idea is inconceivable. What common change could simultaneously come upon them all? Is it a change in our own atmosphere? It is possible, but in the highest degree improbable, since we see no signs of it around us, and chemical analysis has failed to reveal it. What, then, is the third possibility? That it may be a change in the conducting medium, in that infinitely fine ether which extends from star to star and pervades the whole universe. Deep in that ocean we are floating upon a slow current. Might that current not drift us into belts of ether which are novel and have properties of which we have never conceived? There is a change somewhere. This cosmic disturbance of the spectrum proves it. It may be a good change. It may be an evil one. It may be a neutral one. We do not know. Shallow observers may treat the matter as one which can be disregarded, but one who like myself is possessed of the deeper intelligence of the true philosopher will understand that the possibilities of the universe are incalculable and that the wisest man is he who holds himself ready for the unexpected. To take an obvious example, who would undertake to say that the mysterious and universal outbreak of illness, recorded in your columns this very morning as having broken out among the indigenous races of Sumatra, has no connection with some cosmic change to which they may respond more quickly than the more complex peoples of Europe? I throw out the idea for what it is worth. To assert it is, in the present stage, as unprofitable as to deny it, but it is an unimaginative numskull who is too dense to perceive that it is well within the bounds of scientific possibility.
“Yours faithfully, “GEORGE EDWARD CHALLENGER.
“THE BRIARS, ROTHERFIELD.”
“It’s a fine, steemulating letter,” said McArdle thoughtfully, fitting a cigarette into the long glass tube which he used as a holder. “What’s your opeenion of it, Mr. Malone?”
I had to confess my total and humiliating ignorance of the subject at issue. What, for example, were Fraunhofer’s lines? McArdle had just been studying the matter with the aid of our tame scientist at the office, and he picked from his desk two of those many-coloured spectral bands which bear a general resemblance to the hat-ribbons of some young and ambitious cricket club. He pointed out to me that there were certain black lines which formed crossbars upon the series of brilliant colours extending from the red at one end through gradations of orange, yellow, green, blue, and indigo to the violet at the other.
“Those dark bands are Fraunhofer’s lines,” said he. “The colours are just light itself. Every light, if you can split it up with a prism, gives the same colours. They tell us nothing. It is the lines that count, because they vary according to what it may be that produces the light. It is these lines that have been blurred instead of clear this last week, and all the astronomers have been quarreling over the reason. Here’s a photograph of the blurred lines for our issue to-morrow. The public have taken no interest in the matter up to now, but this letter of Challenger’s in the Times will make them wake up, I’m thinking.”
“And this about Sumatra?”
“Well, it’s a long cry from a blurred line in a spectrum to a sick nigger in Sumatra. And yet the chiel has shown us once before that he knows what he’s talking about. There is some queer illness down yonder, that’s beyond all doubt, and to-day there’s a cable just come in from Singapore that the lighthouses are out of action in the Straits of Sundan, and two ships on the beach in consequence. Anyhow, it’s good enough for you to interview Challenger upon. If you get anything definite, let us have a column by Monday.”
I was coming out from the news editor’s room, turning over my new mission in my mind, when I heard my name called from the waiting-room below. It was a telegraph-boy with a wire which had been forwarded from my lodgings at Streatham. The message was from the very man we had been discussing, and ran thus:—
MALONE, 17, HILL STREET, STREATHAM.—BRING OXYGEN.— CHALLENGER.
“Bring oxygen!” The Professor, as I remembered him, had an elephantine sense of humour capable of the most clumsy and unwieldly gambollings. Was this one of those jokes which used to reduce him to uproarious laughter, when his eyes would disappear and he was all gaping mouth and wagging beard, supremely indifferent to the gravity of all around him? I turned the words over, but could make nothing even remotely jocose out of them. Then surely it was a concise order—though a very strange one. He was the last man in the world whose deliberate command I should care to disobey. Possibly some chemical experiment was afoot; possibly—Well, it was no business of mine to speculate upon why he wanted it. I must get it. There was nearly an hour before I should catch the train at Victoria. I took a taxi, and having ascertained the address from the telephone book, I made for the Oxygen Tube Supply Company in Oxford Street.
As I alighted on the pavement at my destination, two youths emerged from the door of the establishment carrying an iron cylinder, which, with some trouble, they hoisted into a waiting motor-car. An elderly man was at their heels scolding and directing in a creaky, sardonic voice. He turned towards me. There was no mistaking those austere features and that goatee beard. It was my old cross-grained companion, Professor Summerlee.
“What!” he cried. “Don’t tell me that you have had one of these preposterous telegrams for oxygen?”
I exhibited it.
“Well, well! I have had one too, and, as you see, very much against the grain, I have acted upon it. Our good friend is as impossible as ever. The need for oxygen could not have been so urgent that he must desert the usual means of supply and encroach upon the time of those who are really busier than himself. Why could he not order it direct?”
I could only suggest that he probably wanted it at once.
“Or thought he did, which is quite another matter. But it is superfluous now for you to purchase any, since I have this considerable supply.”
“Still, for some reason he seems to wish that I should bring oxygen too. It will be safer to do exactly what he tells me.”
Accordingly, in spite of many grumbles and remonstrances from Summerlee, I ordered an additional tube, which was placed with the other in his motor-car, for he had offered me a lift to Victoria.
I turned away to pay off my taxi, the driver of which was very cantankerous and abusive over his fare. As I came back to Professor Summerlee, he was having a furious altercation with the men who had carried down the oxygen, his little white goat’s beard jerking with indignation. One of the fellows called him, I remember, “a silly old bleached cockatoo,” which so enraged his chauffeur that he bounded out of his seat to take the part of his insulted master, and it was all we could do to prevent a riot in the street.
These little things may seem trivial to relate, and passed as mere incidents at the time. It is only now, as I look back, that I see their relation to the whole story which I have to unfold.
The chauffeur must, as it seemed to me, have been a novice or else have lost his nerve in this disturbance, for he drove vilely on the way to the station. Twice we nearly had collisions with other equally erratic vehicles, and I remember remarking to Summerlee that the standard of driving in London had very much declined. Once we brushed the very edge of a great crowd which was watching a fight at the corner of the Mall. The people, who were much excited, raised cries of anger at the clumsy driving, and one fellow sprang upon the step and waved a stick above our heads. I pushed him off, but we were glad when we had got clear of them and safe out of the park. These little events, coming one after the other, left me very jangled in my nerves, and I could see from my companion’s petulant manner that his own patience had got to a low ebb.
But our good humour was restored when we saw Lord John Roxton waiting for us upon the platform, his tall, thin figure clad in a yellow tweed shooting- suit. His keen face, with those unforgettable eyes, so fierce and yet so humorous, flushed with pleasure at the sight of us. His ruddy hair was shot with grey, and the furrows upon his brow had been cut a little deeper by Time’s chisel, but in all else he was the Lord John who had been our good comrade in the past.
“Hullo, Herr Professor! Hullo, young fella!” he shouted as he came toward us.
He roared with amusement when he saw the oxygen cylinders upon the porter’s trolly behind us. “So you’ve got them too!” he cried. “Mine is in the van. Whatever can the old dear be after?”
“Have you seen his letter in the Times?” I asked.
“What was it?”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Summerlee harshly.
“Well, it’s at the bottom of this oxygen business, or I am mistaken,” said I.
“Stuff and nonsense!” cried Summerlee again with quite unnecessary violence. We had all got into a first-class smoker, and he had already lit the short and charred old briar pipe which seemed to singe the end of his long, aggressive nose.
“Friend Challenger is a clever man,” said he with great vehemence. “No one can deny it. It’s a fool that denies it. Look at his hat. There’s a sixty- ounce brain inside it—a big engine, running smooth, and turning out clean work. Show me the engine-house and I’ll tell you the size of the engine. But he is a born charlatan—you’ve heard me tell him so to his face—a born charlatan, with a kind of dramatic trick of jumping into the limelight. Things are quiet, so friend Challenger sees a chance to set the public talking about him. You don’t imagine that he seriously believes all this nonsense about a change in the ether and a danger to the human race? Was ever such a cock-and-bull story in this life?”
He sat like an old white raven, croaking and shaking with sardonic laughter.
A wave of anger passed through me as I listened to Summerlee. It was disgraceful that he should speak thus of the leader who had been the source of all our fame and given us such an experience as no men have ever enjoyed. I had opened my mouth to utter some hot retort, when Lord John got before me.
“You had a scrap once before with old man Challenger,” said he sternly, “and you were down and out inside ten seconds. It seems to me, Professor Summerlee, he’s beyond your class, and the best you can do with him is to walk wide and leave him alone.”
“Besides,” said I, “he has been a good friend to every one of us. Whatever his faults may be, he is as straight as a line, and I don’t believe he ever speaks evil of his comrades behind their backs.”
“Well said, young fellah-my-lad,” said Lord John Roxton. Then, with a kindly smile, he slapped Professor Summerlee upon his shoulder. “Come, Herr Professor, we’re not going to quarrel at this time of day. We’ve seen too much together. But keep off the grass when you get near Challenger, for this young fellah and I have a bit of a weakness for the old dear.”
But Summerlee was in no humour for compromise. His face was screwed up in rigid disapproval, and thick curls of angry smoke rolled up from his pipe.
“As to you, Lord John Roxton,” he creaked, “your opinion upon a matter of science is of as much value in my eyes as my views upon a new type of shot-gun would be in yours. I have my own judgment, sir, and I use it in my own way. Because it has misled me once, is that any reason why I should accept without criticism anything, however far-fetched, which this man may care to put forward? Are we to have a Pope of science, with infallible decrees laid down ex cathedra, and accepted without question by the poor humble public? I tell you, sir, that I have a brain of my own and that I should feel myself to be a snob and a slave if I did not use it. If it pleases you to believe this rigmarole about ether and Fraunhofer’s lines upon the spectrum, do so by all means, but do not ask one who is older and wiser than yourself to share in your folly. Is it not evident that if the ether were affected to the degree which he maintains, and if it were obnoxious to human health, the result of it would already be apparent upon ourselves?” Here he laughed with uproarious triumph over his own argument. “Yes, sir, we should already be very far from our normal selves, and instead of sitting quietly discussing scientific problems in a railway train we should be showing actual symptoms of the poison which was working within us. Where do we see any signs of this poisonous cosmic disturbance? Answer me that, sir! Answer me that! Come, come, no evasion! I pin you to an answer!”
I felt more and more angry. There was something very irritating and aggressive in Summerlee’s demeanour.
“I think that if you knew more about the facts you might be less positive in your opinion,” said I.
Summerlee took his pipe from his mouth and fixed me with a stony stare.
“Pray what do you mean, sir, by that somewhat impertinent observation?”
“I mean that when I was leaving the office the news editor told me that a telegram had come in confirming the general illness of the Sumatra natives, and adding that the lights had not been lit in the Straits of Sunda.”
“Really, there should be some limits to human folly!” cried Summerlee in a positive fury. “Is it possible that you do not realize that ether, if for a moment we adopt Challenger’s preposterous supposition, is a universal substance which is the same here as at the other side of the world? Do you for an instant suppose that there is an English ether and a Sumatran ether? Perhaps you imagine that the ether of Kent is in some way superior to the ether of Surrey, through which this train is now bearing us. There really are no bounds to the credulity and ignorance of the average layman. Is it conceivable that the ether in Sumatra should be so deadly as to cause total insensibility at the very time when the ether here has had no appreciable effect upon us whatever? Personally, I can truly say that I never felt stronger in body or better balanced in mind in my life.”
“That may be. I don’t profess to be a scientific man,” said I, “though I have heard somewhere that the science of one generation is usually the fallacy of the next. But it does not take much common sense to see that, as we seem to know so little about ether, it might be affected by some local conditions in various parts of the world and might show an effect over there which would only develop later with us.”
“With ‘might’ and ‘may’ you can prove anything,” cried Summerlee furiously. “Pigs may fly. Yes, sir, pigs may fly—but they don’t. It is not worth arguing with you. Challenger has filled you with his nonsense and you are both incapable of reason. I had as soon lay arguments before those railway cushions.”
“I must say, Professor Summerlee, that your manners do not seem to have improved since I last had the pleasure of meeting you,” said Lord John severely.
“You lordlings are not accustomed to hear the truth,” Summerlee answered with a bitter smile. “It comes as a bit of a shock, does it not, when someone makes you realize that your title leaves you none the less a very ignorant man?”
“Upon my word, sir,” said Lord John, very stern and rigid, “if you were a younger man you would not dare to speak to me in so offensive a fashion.”
Summerlee thrust out his chin, with its little wagging tuft of goatee beard.
“I would have you know, sir, that, young or old, there has never been a time in my life when I was afraid to speak my mind to an ignorant coxcomb —yes, sir, an ignorant coxcomb, if you had as many titles as slaves could invent and fools could adopt.”
For a moment Lord John’s eyes blazed, and then, with a tremendous effort, he mastered his anger and leaned back in his seat with arms folded and a bitter smile upon his face. To me all this was dreadful and deplorable. Like a wave, the memory of the past swept over me, the good comradeship, the happy, adventurous days—all that we had suffered and worked for and won. That it should have come to this—to insults and abuse! Suddenly I was sobbing—sobbing in loud, gulping, uncontrollable sobs which refused to be concealed. My companions looked at me in surprise. I covered my face with my hands.
“It’s all right,” said I. “Only—only it is such a pity!”
“You’re ill, young fellah, that’s what’s amiss with you,” said Lord John. “I thought you were queer from the first.”
“Your habits, sir, have not mended in these three years,” said Summerlee, shaking his head. “I also did not fail to observe your strange manner the moment we met. You need not waste your sympathy, Lord John. These tears are purely alcoholic. The man has been drinking. By the way, Lord John, I called you a coxcomb just now, which was perhaps unduly severe. But the word reminds me of a small accomplishment, trivial but amusing, which I used to possess. You know me as the austere man of science. Can you believe that I once had a well-deserved reputation in several nurseries as a farmyard imitator? Perhaps I can help you to pass the time in a pleasant way. Would it amuse you to hear me crow like a cock?”
“No, sir,” said Lord John, who was still greatly offended, “it would not amuse me.”
“My imitation of the clucking hen who had just laid an egg was also considered rather above the average. Might I venture?”
“No, sir, no—certainly not.”
But in spite of this earnest prohibition, Professor Summerlee laid down his pipe and for the rest of our journey he entertained—or failed to entertain—us by a succession of bird and animal cries which seemed so absurd that my tears were suddenly changed into boisterous laughter, which must have become quite hysterical as I sat opposite this grave Professor and saw him—or rather heard him—in the character of the uproarious rooster or the puppy whose tail had been trodden upon. Once Lord John passed across his newspaper, upon the margin of which he had written in pencil, “Poor devil! Mad as a hatter.” No doubt it was very eccentric, and yet the performance struck me as extraordinarily clever and amusing.
Whilst this was going on, Lord John leaned forward and told me some interminable story about a buffalo and an Indian rajah which seemed to me to have neither beginning nor end. Professor Summerlee had just begun to chirrup like a canary, and Lord John to get to the climax of his story, when the train drew up at Jarvis Brook, which had been given us as the station for Rotherfield.
And there was Challenger to meet us. His appearance was glorious. Not all the turkey-cocks in creation could match the slow, high-stepping dignity with which he paraded his own railway station and the benignant smile of condescending encouragement with which he regarded everybody around him. If he had changed in anything since the days of old, it was that his points had become accentuated. The huge head and broad sweep of forehead, with its plastered lock of black hair, seemed even greater than before. His black beard poured forward in a more impressive cascade, and his clear grey eyes, with their insolent and sardonic eyelids, were even more masterful than of yore.
He gave me the amused hand-shake and encouraging smile which the head master bestows upon the small boy, and, having greeted the others and helped to collect their bags and their cylinders of oxygen, he stowed us and them away in a large motor-car which was driven by the same impassive Austin, the man of few words, whom I had seen in the character of butler upon the occasion of my first eventful visit to the Professor. Our journey led us up a winding hill through beautiful country. I sat in front with the chauffeur, but behind me my three comrades seemed to me to be all talking together. Lord John was still struggling with his buffalo story, so far as I could make out, while once again I heard, as of old, the deep rumble of Challenger and the insistent accents of Summerlee as their brains locked in high and fierce scientific debate. Suddenly Austin slanted his mahogany face toward me without taking his eyes from his steering-wheel.
“I’m under notice,” said he.
“Dear me!” said I.
Everything seemed strange to-day. Everyone said queer, unexpected things. It was like a dream.
“It’s forty-seven times,” said Austin reflectively.
“When do you go?” I asked, for want of some better observation. “I don’t go,” said Austin.
The conversation seemed to have ended there, but presently he came back to it.
“If I was to go, who would look after ‘im?” He jerked his head toward his master. “Who would ‘e get to serve ‘im?”
“Someone else,” I suggested lamely.
“Not ‘e. No one would stay a week. If I was to go, that ‘ouse would run down like a watch with the mainspring out. I’m telling you because you’re ‘is friend, and you ought to know. If I was to take ‘im at ‘is word—but there, I wouldn’t have the ‘eart. ‘E and the missus would be like two babes left out in a bundle. I’m just everything. And then ‘e goes and gives me notice.”
“Why would no one stay?” I asked.
“Well, they wouldn’t make allowances, same as I do. ‘E’s a very clever man, the master—so clever that ‘e’s clean balmy sometimes. I’ve seen ‘im right off ‘is onion, and no error. Well, look what ‘e did this morning.”
“What did he do?”
Austin bent over to me.
“‘E bit the ‘ousekeeper,” said he in a hoarse whisper.
“Yes, sir. Bit ‘er on the leg. I saw ‘er with my own eyes startin’ a marathon from the ‘all-door.”
“So you’d say, sir, if you could see some of the goings on. ‘E don’t make friends with the neighbors. There’s some of them thinks that when ‘e was up among those monsters you wrote about, it was just ”Ome, Sweet ‘Ome’ for the master, and ‘e was never in fitter company. That’s what they say. But I’ve served ‘im ten years, and I’m fond of ‘im, and, mind you, ‘e’s a great man, when all’s said an’ done, and it’s an honor to serve ‘im. But ‘e does try one cruel at times. Now look at that, sir. That ain’t what you might call old-fashioned ‘ospitality, is it now? Just you read it for yourself.”
The car on its lowest speed had ground its way up a steep, curving ascent. At the corner a notice-board peered over a well-clipped hedge. As Austin said, it was not difficult to read, for the words were few and arresting:—
“No, it’s not what you might call ‘earty,” said Austin, shaking his head and glancing up at the deplorable placard. “It wouldn’t look well in a Christmas card. I beg your pardon, sir, for I haven’t spoke as much as this for many a long year, but to-day my feelings seem to ‘ave got the better of me. ‘E can sack me till ‘e’s blue in the face, but I ain’t going, and that’s flat. I’m ‘is man and ‘e’s my master, and so it will be, I expect, to the end of the chapter.”
We had passed between the white posts of a gate and up a curving drive, lined with rhododendron bushes. Beyond stood a low brick house, picked out with white woodwork, very comfortable and pretty. Mrs. Challenger, a small, dainty, smiling figure, stood in the open doorway to welcome us.
“Well, my dear,” said Challenger, bustling out of the car, “here are our visitors. It is something new for us to have visitors, is it not? No love lost between us and our neighbors, is there? If they could get rat poison into our baker’s cart, I expect it would be there.”
“It’s dreadful—dreadful!” cried the lady, between laughter and tears. “George is always quarreling with everyone. We haven’t a friend on the countryside.”
“It enables me to concentrate my attention upon my incomparable wife,” said Challenger, passing his short, thick arm round her waist. Picture a gorilla and a gazelle, and you have the pair of them. “Come, come, these gentlemen are tired from the journey, and luncheon should be ready. Has Sarah returned?”
The lady shook her head ruefully, and the Professor laughed loudly and stroked his beard in his masterful fashion.
“Austin,” he cried, “when you have put up the car you will kindly help your mistress to lay the lunch. Now, gentlemen, will you please step into my study, for there are one or two very urgent things which I am anxious to say to you.”