The thought was banished, however, by the voice of the lady from the inner room crying:--
"George, George, I am stifling!"
"It is all right, Mrs. Challenger," I answered as the others started to their feet. "I have just turned on a fresh supply."
Even at such a moment I could not help smiling at Challenger, who with a great hairy fist in each eye was like a huge, bearded baby, new wakened out of sleep. Summerlee was shivering like a man with the ague, human fears, as he realized his position, rising for an instant above the stoicism of the man of science. Lord John, however, was as cool and alert as if he had just been roused on a hunting morning.
"Fifthly and lastly," said he, glancing at the tube. "Say, young fellah, don't tell me you've been writin' up your impressions in that paper on your knee."
"Just a few notes to pass the time."
"Well, I don't believe anyone but an Irishman would have done that. I expect you'll have to wait till little brother amoeba gets grown up before you'll find a reader. He don't seem to take much stock of things just at present. Well, Herr Professor, what are the prospects?"
Challenger was looking out at the great drifts of morning mist which lay over the landscape. Here and there the wooded hills rose like conical islands out of this woolly sea.
"It might be a winding sheet," said Mrs. Challenger, who had entered in her dressing-gown. "There's that song of yours, George, `Ring out the old, ring in the new.' It was prophetic. But you are shivering, my poor dear friends. I have been warm under a coverlet all night, and you cold in your chairs. But I'll soon set you right."
The brave little creature hurried away, and presently we heard the sizzling of a kettle. She was back soon with five steaming cups of cocoa upon a tray.
"Drink these," said she. "You will feel so much better."
And we did. Summerlee asked if he might light his pipe, and we all had cigarettes. It steadied our nerves, I think, but it was a mistake, for it made a dreadful atmosphere in that stuffy room. Challenger had to open the ventilator.
"How long, Challenger?" asked Lord John.
"Possibly three hours," he answered with a shrug.
"I used to be frightened," said his wife. "But the nearer I get to it, the easier it seems. Don't you think we ought to pray, George?"
"You will pray, dear, if you wish," the big man answered, very gently. "We all have our own ways of praying. Mine is a complete acquiescence in whatever fate may send me--a cheerful acquiescence. The highest religion and the highest science seem to unite on that."
"I cannot truthfully describe my mental attitude as acquiescence and far less cheerful acquiescence," grumbled Summerlee over his pipe. "I submit because I have to. I confess that I should have liked another year of life to finish my classification of the chalk fossils."
"Your unfinished work is a small thing," said Challenger pompously, "when weighed against the fact that my own MAGNUM OPUS, `The Ladder of Life,' is still in the first stages. My brain, my reading, my experience--in fact, my whole unique equipment--were to be condensed into that epoch-making volume. And yet, as I say, I acquiesce."
"I expect we've all left some loose ends stickin' out," said Lord John. "What are yours, young fellah?"
"I was working at a book of verses," I answered.
"Well, the world has escaped that, anyhow," said Lord John. "There's always compensation somewhere if you grope around."
"What about you?" I asked.
"Well, it just so happens that I was tidied up and ready. I'd promised Merivale to go to Tibet for a snow leopard in the spring. But it's hard on you, Mrs. Challenger, when you have just built up this pretty home."
"Where George is, there is my home. But, oh, what would I not give for one last walk together in the fresh morning air upon those beautiful downs!"
Our hearts re-echoed her words. The sun had burst through the gauzy mists which veiled it, and the whole broad Weald was washed in golden light.