"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 is a perfectly impossible person--absolutely impossible. If you are 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 injured through doing that. Afterwards there is a public scandal and it reflects upon me and all of us. I suppose it wasn't about South America you wanted to see him?"
I could not lie to a lady.
"Dear me! That is his most dangerous subject. You won't believe a word he 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 may get through all right. Remember he believes it himself. Of that you may be assured. A more honest man never lived. Don't wait any longer or he may suspect. If you find him dangerous--really dangerous--ring the bell and hold him off until I come. Even at his worst I can usually control him."
With these encouraging words the lady handed me over to the taciturn Austin, who had waited like a bronze statue of discretion during our short interview, and I was conducted to the end of the passage. 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, which was covered with books, maps, and diagrams. As I entered, his seat spun round to face me. His appearance made me gasp. I was prepared for something strange, but not for so overpowering a personality as this. It was his size which took one's breath away--his size and his imposing presence. His head was enormous, the largest I have ever seen upon a human being. I am sure that his top-hat, had I ever ventured to don it, would have slipped over me entirely and rested on my shoulders. He had the face and beard which I associate with an Assyrian bull; the former florid, the latter so black as almost to have a suspicion of blue, spade-shaped and rippling down over his chest. The hair was peculiar, plastered down in front in a long, curving wisp over his massive forehead. The eyes were blue-gray under great black tufts, very clear, very critical, and very masterful. A huge spread of shoulders and a chest like a barrel were the other parts of him which appeared above the table, save for two enormous hands covered with long black hair. This and a bellowing, roaring, rumbling voice made up my first impression of the 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 understand plain English, are you? My general conclusions you are good enough to approve, 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 doubly valuable. Well, at least you are better than that herd of swine in Vienna, whose gregarious grunt is, however, not more offensive than the isolated effort of the British hog." He glared at me as the present representative of the beast.
"They seem to have behaved abominably," said I.
"I assure you that I can fight my own battles, and that I have no possible need of your sympathy. Put me alone, sir, and with my back to the wall. G. E. C. is happiest then. Well, sir, let us do what we can to curtail this visit, which can hardly be agreeable to you, and is inexpressibly irksome to me. You had, as I have been led to believe, some comments to make upon the proposition which I advanced in my thesis."
There was a brutal directness about his methods which made evasion difficult.