He leaned back in his chair and listened.
Polter, the famous novelist, was there, a brilliant man with a subtle mind, which he used too often to avoid obvious truth and to defend some impossible position for the sake of the empty dialectic exercise. He was holding forth now to an admiring, but not entirely a subservient audience.
"Science," said he, "is gradually sweeping the world clear of all these old cobwebs of superstition. The world was like some old, dusty attic, and the sun of science is bursting in, flooding it with light, while the dust settles gradually to the floor."
"By science," said someone maliciously, "you mean, of course, men like Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge, Sir William Barrett, Lombroso, Richet, and so forth."
Polter was not accustomed to be countered, and usually became rude.
"No, sir, I mean nothing so preposterous," he answered, with a glare. "No name, however eminent, can claim to stand for science so long as he is a member of an insignificant minority of scientific men."
"He is, then, a crank," said Pollifex, the artist, who usually played jackal to Polter.
The objector, one Millworthy, a free-lance of journalism, was not to be so easily silenced.
"Then Galileo was a crank in his day," said he. "And Harvey was a crank when he was laughed at over the circulation of the blood."
"It's the circulation of the Daily Gazette which is at stake," said Marrible, the humorist of the club. "If they get off their stunt I don't suppose they care a tinker's curse what is truth or what is not."
"Why such things should be examined at all, except in a police court, I can't imagine," said Polter. "It is a dispersal of energy, a misdirection of human thought into channels which lead nowhere. We have plenty of obvious, material things to examine. Let us get on with our job."
Atkinson, the surgeon, was one of the circle, and had sat silently listening. Now he spoke.
"I think the learned bodies should find more time for the consideration of psychic matters."
"Less," said Polter.
"You can't have less than nothing. They ignore them altogether. Some time ago I had a series of cases of telepathic rapport which I wished to lay before the Royal Society. My colleague Wilson, the zoologist, also had a paper which he proposed to read. They went in together. His was accepted and mine rejected. The title of his paper was 'The Reproductive System of the Dung-Beetle'."
There was a general laugh.
"Quite right, too," said Polter. "The humble dung-beetle was at least a fact. All this psychic stuff is not."
"No doubt you have good grounds for your views," chirped the mischievous Millworthy, a mild youth with a velvety manner. "I have little time for solid reading, so I should like to ask you which of Dr. Crawford's three books you consider the best?"
"I never heard of the fellow."
Millworthy simulated intense surprise.
"Good Heavens, man! Why, he is the authority. If you want pure laboratory experiments those are the books. You might as well lay down the law about zoology and confess that you had never heard of Darwin."
"This is not science," said Polter, emphatically.
"What is really not science," said Atkinson, with some heat, "is the laying down of the law on matters which you have not studied. It is talk of that sort which has brought me to the edge of Spiritualism, when I compare this dogmatic ignorance with the earnest search for truth conducted by the great Spiritualists. Many of them took twenty years of work before they formed their conclusions."
"But their conclusions are worthless because they are upholding a formed opinion."
"But each of them fought a long fight before he formed that opinion. I know a few of them, and there is not one who did not take a lot of convincing." Polter shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, they can have their spooks if it makes them happier so long as they let me keep my feet firm on the ground."
"Or stuck in the mud," said Atkinson.
"I would rather be in the mud with sane people thin in the air with lunatics," said Polter.