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Chapter 11 — A LULL IN WORK
1. The Feather Story

WHEN I went home on that abortive mission I travelled again across Siberia, and again I had adventures. The Harbin- Irkutsk train got snowed up and delayed and we missed our connection, as in those days the trains ran only once a week.

So we had five days to stay at Irkutsk. I had forgathered with a Russian Colonel and an English mining engineer, both good companions, and the latter a great wag. The hotel being full, the Engineer and I were accommodated in a spare reception room. The night was also full of happenings and noise; guests left the dinner tables or were carried from them at eight in the morning; there were public entertainments that began at 2 a.m., and after them the dining-room again. The Russians were incredible eaters and drinkers, and voracious for excitement; and all the time their country toppled on the brink.

And there, in that hotel, occurred the feather story.

The three of us were sitting drinking beer in that converted room, when the door opened and there entered a middle-aged man and a youth, the latter the nephew, as we later heard. Apologies for the intrusion showed that they were English, so I invited them to join us, which they did. It seemed to me that it was for the uncle, who was much senior to us, to make the opening remark. So I waited for it, and waited till the silence was embarrassing, and then at last he made it in this astounding form: ' Do you know anything about feathers? '

Now when one is caught in an emergency the best that can happen is for one's subconscious mind to take control and guide. It did so in this case, and I answered promptly: ' No, that is not one of my subjects. It is surely an uncommon one; but as it happens, my friend here,' and I indicated the Miner, ' is an enthusiastic feather expert.' — ` Now that is a stroke of luck,' said the uncle, turning to the Miner. ` I am making a study of feathers and cognate matters in the Far East and hope soon to visit Manchuria. If I could get some data about it before I go there it would be of the greatest use to me. I trust you will not mind if I take notes of the information you provide me with ? ' The Miner merely nodded in assent; he was pulling himself together, as it were, for the part that I had put upon him; and then the inquiry began.

The subject of eggs is so intimately connected with that of feathers that you are, of course, equally conversant with it.

Can you tell me anything about the relation between the major and the minor axis of the eggs of the Chinese hen? ' My faith in the Miner was justified, for his answer came at once. ' Why yes, I should think I can. It is a detail to which I have given special attention. My investigations show that the average proportion is one-point-six-nine-eight-four. If I had my notebook I could give it to you to ten places of decimals. It will interest you to hear that the average variation from the average is point-one-five-three, while the maximum variation, owing to deformities, has no significance.'

As he listened to this information I caught a gleam of the keenest satisfaction and appreciation in the uncle's eye, and I wondered what it meant. I once knew a man, quite sane on every other subject, who collected road flints by the thousand in the insane belief that they were valuable palaeoliths. Was there something similar about this man?

My dear sir, I am in the greatest luck to have met you. Excuse me, I must record every word you said. Now can you tell me something about the rachis and of the hypnorachis of the feathers of the Langshan cock? '

I did not hear the answer to this question, for, fearing that either the Russian or I would betray the situation, I pleaded an engagement for the pair of us and said we would return in twenty minutes' time.

Subsequently the Miner told me that, when he was given a question which was entirely unintelligible to him, as was the one about the feathers of the Langshan cock, he explained that that particular subject belonged to the colleague with whom he was working in collaboration. In the great majority of cases, however, he was able to supply imaginary information which had the greatest interest for the inquirer, if judged by the avidity with which he recorded the answers.

In due course the Colonel and I returned, and, as we sat down, the Miner said: ` Yes, it is a unique condition, existing nowhere else, as far as I am aware, in all the world. In explanation it should be remembered that Chinese civilization is counted in millenaries, not in centuries, and so the domestication of the fowl in China has existed for an incomparably longer time than elsewhere, and thus they have had time to adjust themselves to an environment so foreign to their habitat in nature, which, as of course you know, is sub-tropical. That I am sure is the explanation of how, in the extreme climatic conditions of North China, the chicken sheds its feathers in the winter and grows fur instead.'

The uncle completed his notes on this feature of his subject, and he looked as if he had gathered in a gem. He thanked the Miner in particular and the rest of us in general for a most interesting and instructive time, informed us that his east-bound train was leaving shortly, hoped we might meet again some day, and then said good-bye and left.

The Miner was obviously a genius, and one wonders in what line of life he could have put to some profitable purpose that great talent of prompt imagination. It was some days later, when we had continued our journey, that an Englishman — a resident in Siberia — boarded our train at Omsk. In due course I told him the story of the feathers. ` So you thought you pulled his leg? ' And then he told us that the uncle was a great cold-storage owner and expert; he was intensely keen on his business and was always on the look-out for information concerning it; it was an idiosyncrasy of his to disguise at first the nature and the reason for his interest in the subject, and to approach it by somewhat circuitous routes. ` He is a great wag himself; and, of course, spotted at once the situation and played up to it.' (1)
1 — I am sorry that the uncle, to whose sense of humour this story is so great a tribute, declines for business reasons to let me name him.

That journey was curiously full of interesting incidents, but I must not give space except to just one more.

An onlooker could not have been otherwise than greatly puzzled by the little scene that was being enacted on the platform of the Moscow railway station. The express was about to leave for the German frontier. There was the usual bustle of hurrying passengers, with their porters and their baggage; but some had wisely come in ample time, had settled in their coupés and now were spending the last few moments on the platform. Among these were a middle-aged couple and a very pretty girl of twenty-one or so. They were speaking Russian and quite obviously were people of position. Where they stood was abreast of the restaurant car, in which were seated and drinking beer three hard-case looking men of middle-age — they were Englishmen on their way home from China, and one of them later proved to be a most obnoxious beast. At an adjacent window sat another man — myself — and I was later told that in my travel-worn condition I looked as hard a case as any of the others.

What was puzzling in the scene was the pretty girl's behaviour about which her companions were quietly protesting with her, and with undoubted cause; for she was giving the glad-eye in a most unequivocal manner to those four men in the restaurant car. The situation was saved — for the moment — by the signal that the train was going to start.

Now when from the restaurant car I saw that scene I sensed that the girl's behaviour must have some special explanation.

It was not the girl herself — appearances are most deceptive — but her companions that made it impossible to believe that that glad-eye was of the common kind, to say nothing of the fact of our obvious unattractiveness; and I was terrified of some unseemly conduct by those three, who, being what they were, might well have formed a wrong opinion of the girl.

For myself I just continued to be greatly puzzled. The next morning we reached the frontier where a change of trains took place, and in the interval we all went, as was the general custom, to a hotel. There in a writing cubicle I saw her and, deciding to solve the puzzle and give a word of warning, I took the seat that faced her. She looked up with that charmingly friendly smile of hers. I said ' Good morning; do you speak English ? ' She nodded. ` Then may I speak a little to you ? ' ` Oh thank you, yes. I have longed that you should speak to me; but please let me do the talking first; I must explain myself; I know quite well you have wondered at my conduct, but I feel sure you won't mind when I tell you why I have shown my eagerness to know you.' There was a moment's pause, then she went on: ` Before I went to the University I had an English governess. From her I learnt to know you Englishmen — how nice you are, how kind, how chivalrous, how interesting as companions. Our Russian men, young and old, are full of politics and so terribly in earnest, or, if they are not, they are wild and bad and drink. You cannot imagine how tired and bored I am with them, and ever since I was quite small I have wanted to know an Englishman, but I have never, never had the chance. So now, going on the grand tour with my uncle and my aunt, I told them I must make the acquaintance of the very first Englishman I met. They tried to tell me I was wrong and I would get myself in trouble, but I knew that with you English no mistake was possible — my governess always told me that; I do so hope you do not think I have been too bold. So that 's my explanation, which I had to make in private; but now it 's done, let us consider the convenances, so come along and let me introduce you to my aunt, and then we'll have a lovely talk.' So this most delightful young creature took me by the hand and ran across the hall towards the salon, with me trailing after her.

And then occurred the tragedy — an appalling and outrageous tragedy.

Possibly that governess had in her youth a love affair with some nice boy, who died and to whom she raised an altar, and at that altar had taught our Russian girl to worship, and so created an ideal of Englishmen. And now at one fell swoop, by the act of a drunken beast, that image of perfection was to be transmuted to an obscene and leering satyr. For, as we crossed the hall, I trailing after her, from out the buffet came those three, the evil one in front with drunken leering menace.

' And what the hell are you doing with my bloody girl? ' For a moment my little friend stood still, then hid her eyes behind her hands as if to shut out the dreadful vision of her disillusionment; and then she fled. And I never saw her any more.

I thought, of course, of an explanation to her uncle. But what was the use? It was not me that she was interested in but Englishmen in general; and now her beautiful but exaggerated image of them lay broken in the mud.

It is many years ago that this sad thing happened, but the pain of it still smarts.

There is a sequel to this story. By a strange coincidence I, some days later, met the uncle on the Berlin-Paris train; and then I had the chance to make my explanations and to send a message to the girl of my profound regret. He also made his explanation. His niece was an orphan and a great heiress; he, a barrister, was her guardian, and now that she was of age and her own mistress she was a source of great anxiety to him.

In her independence she is a product of these revolutionary times, and that sentimental governess of hers had filled her up with all sorts of exaggerated nonsense about you Englishmen.

I told her at the station — excuse me that I say it — that I did not like the look of any of you; but it did not make the slightest difference. I don't regret the incident. It will be a lesson to her that she won't so easily forget. Of course I understand how you regret it; it is not nice to be put upon a pedestal and then knocked down.'

Then he went on to speak about his country. ` I have five fine sons, and we are all of the intelligentsia. A little time ago one of them was arrested and condemned to Siberia; but it happens that the Minister concerned is a great friend of mine, so I went to see him, and he managed to get the sentence changed to banishment to Paris. Absurd ? Oh yes, in this case, of course, it was; but in hosts of others there is nothing but appalling tragedy. My country's state is hopeless as regards reforms; there is no conceivable evolution that can lead us to a civilized prosperity; so revolution is the only thing; and we can only reach our goal through seas of blood.

Those five fine boys of mine ! And I am prepared to sacrifice them and, of course, myself for my country's good. Not only prepared; I am eager that the thing should happen in my time. Fanatical ? Of course, but it is only by the fanatic that so great a thing can ever happen. Oh yes, I know quite well that the French Revolution will dwindle into insignificance compared with what must happen in my country.'

' And in this great scheme of yours what about your pretty niece and other Russian girls ? What about your wives and all the children ? '

` Ah ! there you have me, I confess. I dare not think about it; I cannot speak of it.'

And so I had my glimpse into that seething cauldron where stewed the varied and widely discordant factors of the country — the self-seeking and intriguing of the crowd at court, the love of wild pleasure while the country toppled on the brink; the mad crowd hypnosis of the intelligentsia, the Eastern fanaticism that the Golden Horde had left behind them. And the stock within that cauldron was an anti-matrix of mutual hate, like mercury on glass. The various cooks stirred this witches' broth — each with their own patterned spoon of ignorance — and then the foul mess exploded into the poison gas of Bolshevism.

In addition to the leave given by the Viceroys, I had six months' extension from the Customs. It may have been the disappointment of my recent failures that made me seek some other outlet for my activities. For first I published a booklet named The Dimensional Idea as an Aid to Religion, which attracted some attention in America and the Colonies but not in England; and then I put forward a pamphlet which I had printed at Shanghai, The Psycho-physical Aspect of Climate and a Theory concerning Sensation Scales, which sounds more important than it was. But some notice was taken of it and there was talk of my being invited to lecture on the subject at Cambridge, which however came to nothing; but in connection with it I had the minor distinction of being the sole guest at a Royal Society dinner. That paper was my magnum opus of amateur endeavours.

When the first dreadnought was launched at Glasgow I was invited to the ceremony, and while there was offered by the builders a very handsome salary to be their agent at Peking to sell battleships to the Chinese Government; but as I disapproved strongly of China buying any ships for some years to come, that offer was of no use to me.

To add to what I crowded in those few months' leave, I married. I was forty-one and she was twenty-six, and I never formed a better judgment or had a better stroke of luck. And then my very dear mother died. She was French, her father having been General le Comte de Beseaucèle, the title descending from father to son since medieval times. My father had taken her from her gay and distinguished home in Paris and immured her in a lonely village vicarage; but as we carry within our bodies the salt water in which swam our far distant ancestors, so my mother brought with her to that village life an aura of light-hearted joyfulness, and lived all her time in it.