The Beckoning Hand, and Other Stories
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"Netta," he said, imploringly, recognizing immediately what it was she meant, "come with me now into the laboratory, and see what it is that I have got in the cupboard."
Netta, all trembling and wondering, followed him in a perfect flutter of doubt and anxiety. Cyril slowly unlocked the cupboard, then unfastened a small drawer, and last of all took out a long flat object, wrapped up mysteriously in a clean handkerchief. He laid it down reluctantly upon the table, and Netta, amazed and puzzled, beheld a small smooth slab of soft clay-stone, scored with what seemed like the fossil marks of a few insignificant bones and feathers. The little woman drew a long breath.
"Well, Cyril?" she said interrogatively, looking at it in a dubious mood.
"Why, Netta," cried her husband, half angry at her incomprehensible calmness, "don't you see what it is? It's terrible, terrible!"
"A fossil, Cyril, isn't it? A bird, I should say."
"No, not a bird, Netta; nor yet a lizard; but that half-way thing, that intermediate link you read about just now over yonder in the paper."
"But why do you hide it, Cyril? You haven't taken it anywhere from a museum."
"Oh, Netta! Don't you understand? Don't you see the implications? It's a creature, half bird and half reptile, and it proves, absolutely proves, Netta, beyond the faintest possibility of a doubt, that the evolutionists are quite right – quite scientific. And if it once comes to be generally recognized, I don't know, I'm sure, what is ever to become of religion and of science. We shall every one of us have to go and turn evolutionists!"
It is very sad to relate, but poor Netta, her pent-up feelings all let loose by the smallness of the evil, as it seemed to her, actually began to smile, and then to laugh merrily, in the very face of this awful revelation. "Then you haven't really got tired of me, Cyril?" she cried eagerly. "You're not in love with somebody else? You don't regret ever having married me?"
Cyril stared at her in mute surprise. What possible connection could these questions have with the momentous principles bound up implicitly in the nature-printed skeleton of Arch?opteryx lithographica? It was a moment or so before he could grasp the association of ideas in her womanly little brain, and understand the real origin of her natural wife-like fears and hesitations.
"Oh, Cyril," she said again, after a minute's pause, looking at the tell-tale fossil with another bright girlish smile, "is it only that? Only that wretched little creature? Oh, darling, I am so happy!" And she threw her arms around his neck of her own accord, and kissed him fervently twice or thrice over.
Cyril was pleased indeed that she had recovered her trust in him so readily, but amazed beyond measure that she could look at that horrible anti-scriptural fossil absolutely without the slightest symptom of flinching. "What a blessed thing it must be," he thought to himself, "to be born a woman! Here's the whole universe going to rack and ruin, physically and spiritually, before her very eyes, and she doesn't care a fig as soon as she's quite satisfied in her own mind that her own particular husband hasn't incomprehensibly fallen in love with one or other of the Mortiscombe ladies!" It was gratifying to his personal feelings, doubtless; but it wasn't at all complimentary, one must admit, to the general constitution of the universe.
"What ought I to do with it, Netta?" he asked her simply, pointing to the fossil; glad to have any companionship, even if so unsympathetic, in his hitherto unspoken doubts and difficulties.
"Do with it? Why, show it to the Geological Society, of course, Cyril.It's the Truth, you know, dearest, and why on earth should you wish to conceal it? The Truth shall make you perfect."
Cyril looked at her with mingled astonishment and admiration. "Oh, Netta," he answered, sighing profoundly, "if only I could take it as quietly as you do! If only I had faith as a grain of mustard-seed! But I have been reduced almost to abject despair by this crushing piece of deadly evidence. It seems to me to proclaim aloud that the evolutionists are all completely right at bottom, and that everything we have ever loved and cherished and hoped for, turns out an utter and absolute delusion."
"Then I should say you were still bound, for all that, to accept the evidence," said Netta quietly. "However, for my part, I may be very stupid and silly, and all that sort of thing, you know, but it doesn't seem to me as if it really mattered twopence either way."
Cyril looked at her again with fresh admiration. That was a point of view that had not yet even occurred to him as within the bounds of possibility. He had gone on repeating over and over again to his congregation and to himself that if evolution were true, religion and morality were mere phantoms, until at last he had ceased to think any other proposition on the subject could be even thinkable. That a man might instantly accept the evidence of his strange fossil, and yet be after all an indifferent honest citizen in spite of it, was an idea that had really never yet presented itself to him. And he blushed now to think that, in spite of all his frequent professions of utter fidelity, Netta had proved herself at last more loyal to the Truth in both aspects than he himself had done. Her simple little womanly faith had never faltered for a moment in either direction.
That night was a very happy one for Netta: it was a somewhat happier one than of late, even for Cyril. He had got rid of the cloud between himself and his wife: he had made at least one person a confidante of his horrid secret: and, above all, he had learnt that some bold and ruthless German geologist had taken off his own shoulders the responsibility of announcing the dreadful discovery.
Still, it was some time before Cyril quite recovered from the gloomy view of things generally into which his chance unearthing of the strange fossil had temporarily thrown him. Two things mainly contributed to this result.
The first was that a few Sundays later he made up his mind he ought in common honesty to exhibit his compromising fossil to the congregation in the upper chamber, and make a public recantation of his recent confident but untenable statements. He did so with much misgiving, impelled by a growing belief that after all he must trust everything implicitly to the Truth. It cost him a pang, too, to go back upon his own deliberate words, so lately spoken; but he faced it out, for the Truth's sake, like an honest man, as he had always tried to be – save for those few days when the wicked little slab of slate lay carefully hidden away in the inmost recesses of the laboratory cupboard. To his immense surprise, once more, the brethren seemed to think little more of it than Netta herself had done. Perhaps they were not so logical or thorough-going as the young professor: perhaps they had more of unquestioning faith: perhaps they had less of solid dogmatic leaven; but in any case they seemed singularly little troubled by the new and startling geological discovery. However, they were all much struck by the professor's honesty of purpose in making a straightforward recantation of his admitted blunder; he had acted honest and honourable, they said, like a man, and they liked him better for it in the end, than if he'd preached, and hedged, and shilly-shallied to them about it for a whole year of Sundays together. Now, the mere fact that his good congregation didn't mind the fossil much reacted healthily on Cyril Milliter, who began to suspect that perhaps after all he had been exaggerating the religious importance of speculative opinions on the precise nature of the cosmogony.
The second thing was that, shortly after the great discovery, he happened to make the acquaintance of the brilliant young evolutionist from London, and found to his surprise that on the whole most of their opinions agreed with remarkable unanimity. True, the young evolutionist was not a Gospel Evangelist, and did not feel any profound interest in the literal or mystical interpretation of the first chapter of Genesis. But in all essentials he was as deeply spiritual as Cyril Milliter himself; and the more Cyril saw of him and talked with him, the more did he begin to suspect that the truth may in reality have many facets, and that all men may not happen to see it in exactly the self-same aspect. It dawned upon him slowly that all the illumination in the world might not be entirely confined to the narrow circle of the Gospel Evangelists. Even those terrible evolutionists themselves, it seemed, were not necessarily wholly given over to cutting throats or robbing churches. They might have their desires and aspirations, their faith and their hope and their charity, exactly like other people, only perhaps in a slightly different and more definite direction. In the end, Cyril and his former bugbear became bosom friends, and both worked together amicably side by side in the self-same laboratory at the College of Science.
To this day, Professor Milliter still continues to preach weekly to the Gospel Evangelists, though both he and they have broadened a good deal, in a gradual and almost imperceptible fashion, with the general broadening of ideas and opinions that has been taking place by slow degrees around us during the last two decades. His views are no doubt a good deal less dogmatic and a good deal more wide and liberal now than formerly. Netta and he live happily and usefully together; and over the mantelpiece of his neat little study, in the cottage at Mortiscombe, stands a slab of polished slate containing a very interesting oolitic fossil, of which the professor has learnt at last to be extremely proud, the first discovered and most perfect existing specimen of Arch?opteryx lithographica. He can hardly resist a quiet smile himself, nowadays, when he remembers how he once kept that harmless piece of pictured stone wrapt up carefully in a folded handkerchief in his laboratory cupboard for some weeks together, as though it had been a highly dangerous and very explosive lump of moral dynamite, calculated to effect at one fell swoop the complete religious and ethical disintegration of the entire divine universe.
IN STRICT CONFIDENCE
Harry Pallant was never more desperately in love with his wife Louie than on the night of that delightful dance at the Vernon Ogilvies'. She wore her pale blue satin, with the low bodice, and her pretty necklet of rough amber in natural lumps, which her husband had given her for a birthday present just three days earlier. Harry wasn't rich, and he wasn't able to do everything that he could have wished for Louie – a young barrister, with no briefs to speak of, even if he ekes out his petty professional income with literary work, can't afford to spend very much in the way of personal adornment upon the ladies of his family – but he loved his pretty little wife dearly, and nothing pleased him better than to see Louie admired as she ought to be by other people. And that evening, to be sure, she was looking her very sweetest and prettiest. Flushed a little with unwonted excitement, in the glow of an innocent girlish flirtation, as she stood there talking to Hugh Ogilvie in the dim recess by the door of the conservatory, Harry, watching her unobserved from a nook of the refreshment-room, thought he had never in his life seen her look more beautiful or more becomingly animated. Animation suited Louie Pallant, and Hugh Ogilvie thought so too, as he half whispered his meaningless compliments in her dainty little ear, and noted the blush that rose quickly to her soft cheek, and the sudden droop of her long eyelashes above her great open hazel-grey eyes.
"Hugh's saying something pretty to Louie, I'm sure," Harry thought to himself with a smile of pleasure, as he looked across at the sweet little graceful girlish figure. "I can see it at once in her face, and in her hands, playing so nervously with the edge of her fan. Dear child, how she lets one read in her eyes and cheeks her every tiny passing feeling! Her pretty wee mouth is like an open book! Hugh's telling her confidentially now that she's the belle of the evening. And so she is; there's not a doubt about it. Not a girl in the place fit to hold a candle to my Louie; especially when she blushes – she's sweet when she blushes. Now she's colouring up again. By Jove, yes, he must be positively making love to her. There's nothing I enjoy so much as seeing Louie enjoying herself, and being made much of. Too many girls, bright young girls, when they marry early, as Louie has done, settle down at once into household drudges, and never seem to get any happiness worth mentioning out of their lives in any way. I won't let it be so with Louie. Dear little soul, she shall flit about as much as she likes, and enjoy herself as the fancy seizes her, like a little butterfly, just like a butterfly. I love to see it!" And he hugged one clasped hand upon the other silently.
Whence the astute reader will readily infer that Harry Pallant was still more or less in love with his wife Louie, although they had been married for five years and upwards.
Presently Louie and Hugh went back into the ballroom, and for the first time Harry noticed that the music had struck up some minutes since for the next waltz, for which he was engaged to Hugh's sister, Mrs. Wetherby Ferrand. He started hastily at the accusing sound, for in watching his wife he had forgotten his partner. Returning at once in search of Mrs. Ferrand, he found her sitting disconsolate in a corner waiting for him, and looking (as was natural) not altogether pleased at his ungallant treatment.
"So you've come at last, Harry!" Mrs. Ferrand said, with evident pique. They had been friends from childhood, and knew one another well enough to use both their Christian names and the critical freedom of old intimacy.
"Yes, Dora, I've come at last," Harry answered, with an apologetic bow, as he offered her his arm, "and I'm so sorry I've kept you waiting; but the fact is I was watching Louie. She's been dancing with Hugh, and she looks perfectly charming, I think, this evening."
Mrs. Ferrand bit her lip. "She does," she answered coldly, with half a pout. "And you were so busy watching her, it seems, you forgot all about me, Harry."
Harry laughed. "It was pardonable under the circumstances, you know, Dora," he said lightly. "If it had been the other way, now, Louie might have had some excuse for being jealous."
"Who said I was jealous?" Mrs. Ferrand cried, colouring up. "Jealous of you, indeed! What right have I got to be jealous of you, Harry? She may dance with Hugh all night long, for all I care for it. She's danced with him now three times already, and I dare say she'll dance with him as often again. You men are too conceited. You always think every woman on earth is just madly in love with you."
"My dear child," Harry answered, with a faint curl of his lip, "you quite misunderstand me. Heaven knows I at least am not conceited. What on earth have I got to be conceited of? I never thought any woman was in love with me in all my life except Louie; and what in the name of goodness even she can find to fall in love with in me – a fellow like me – positively passes my humble comprehension."
"She's going to dance the next waltz but one with Hugh, he tells me," Mrs. Ferrand replied drily, as if changing the conversation.
"Is she? Hugh's an excellent fellow," Harry answered carelessly, resting for a moment a little aside from the throng, and singling out Louie at once with his eye among the whirling dancers. "Ah, there she is, over yonder. Do you see? – there, with that Captain Vandeleur. How sweetly she dances, Dora! And how splendidly she carries herself! I declare, she's the very gracefullest girl in all the room here."
Mrs. Ferrand dropped half a mock curtsey. "A polite partner would have said 'bar one,' Harry," she murmured petulantly. "How awfully in love with her you are, my dear boy. It must be nice to have a man so perfectly devoted to one… And I don't believe either she half appreciates you. Some women would give their very eyes, do you know, to be as much loved by any man as she's loved by you, Harry." And she looked at him significantly.
"Well, but Ferrand – "
"Ah, poor Wetherby! Yes, yes; of course, of course, I quite agree with you. You're always right, Harry. Poor Wetherby is the worthiest of men, and in his own way does his very best, no doubt, to make me happy. But there is devotion and devotion, Harry. Il y a fagots et fagots. Poor dear Wetherby is no more capable – "
"Dora, Dora, for Heaven's sake, I beg of you, no confidences. As a legal man, I must deprecate all confidences, otherwise than strictly in the way of business. What got us first into this absurd groove, I wonder? Oh yes, I remember – Louie's dancing. Shall we go on again? You must have got your breath by this time. Why, what's the matter, Dora? You look quite pale and flurried."
"Nothing, Harry. Nothing – nothing, I assure you. Not quite so tight, please; go quietly – I'm rather tired… Yes, that'll do, thank you. The room's so very hot and close this evening. I can hardly breathe, I feel so stifled. Tight-lacing, I suppose poor dear Wetherby would say. I declare, Louie isn't dancing any longer. How very odd! She's gone back again now to sit by Hugh there. What on earth can be the reason, I wonder!"
"Captain Vandeleur's such an awfully bad waltzer, you know," Harry answered unconcernedly. "I dare say she was glad enough to make some excuse or other to get away from him. The room's so very hot and stifling."
"Oh, you think so," and Dora Ferrand gave a quiet little smile, as one who sees clearly below the surface. "I dare say. And she's not sorry either to find some good reason for another ten minutes' chat with Hugh, I fancy."
But Harry, in his innocence, never noticed her plain insinuation. "He's as blind as a bat," Dora Ferrand thought to herself, half contemptuously. "Just like poor dear Wetherby! Poor dear Wetherby never suspects anything! And that girl Louie doesn't half appreciate Harry either. Just like me, I suppose, with that poor dear stupid old stockbroker. Stockbroker, indeed! What in the name of all that's sensible could ever have induced me to go and marry a blind old stick of a wealthy stockbroker? If Harry and I had only our lives to live again – but there, what's the use of bothering one's head about it? We've only got one life apiece, and that we generally begin by making a mull of."
Three days later Harry Pallant went down as usual to his rooms in the Temple, and set to work upon his daily labour. The first envelope he opened of the batch upon his table was from the editor of the Young People's Monitor. It contained the week's correspondence. Harry Pallant glanced over the contents hastily, and singled out a few enclosures from the big budget with languid curiosity.
Of course everybody knows the Young People's Monitor. It is one of the most successful among the penny weeklies, and in addition to its sensational stories and moral essays, it gives advice gratis to all and sundry in its correspondence columns upon every conceivable subject that our common peccant or ignorant humanity can possibly inquire about. Now, Harry Pallant happened to be the particular person employed by the editor of this omniscient journal to supply the answers to the weekly shoals of anxious interrogators de omni scibili. His legal learning came in handy for the purpose, and being a practised London journalist as well, his knowledge of life stood him in good stead at this strange piece of literary craftsmanship. But the whole affair was "in strict confidence," as the Monitor announced. It was a point of honour between himself and the editor that the secret of the correspondence column should be jealously guarded from all and several; so Harry Pallant, accustomed, lawyer-like, to keeping secrets, had never mentioned his connection with the Monitor in this matter even to Louie. It came as part of his week's work at his chambers in the Temple, and it was duly finished and sent off to press, without note or comment, on the same day, in true business-like barrister fashion.
The first letter that Harry opened and listlessly glanced through with his experienced eye was one of the staple Monitor kind – Stella or Euphemia had quarrelled, in a moment of pique, with her lover, and was now dying of anxiety to regain his affections. Harry scribbled a few words of kindly chaff and sound advice in reply upon a blank sheet of virgin foolscap, and tossed the torn fragments of letter number one into the capacious mouth of his waste-paper basket.
The second letter requested the editor's candid opinion upon a short set of amateur verses therewith enclosed. Harry's candid opinion, muttered to himself beneath his moustache, was too unparliamentary for insertion in full; but he toned its verbal expression down a little in his written copy, and passed on hastily to the others in order.
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