“Man!” said McCurdie,
bending across the carriage, and speaking with a curious intensity of voice, “d’ye know I’d give a hundred pounds to be able to answer that question?”
“What do you mean?” asked the Professor, startled.
“I should like to know why I’m sitting in this damned train and going to visit a couple of addle-headed society people whom I’m scarcely acquainted with, when I might be at home in my own good company furthering the progress of science.”
“I myself,” said the Professor, “am not acquainted with them at all.”
It was Sir Angus McCurdie’s turn to look surprised.
“Then why are you spending Christmas with them?”
“I reviewed a ridiculous blank-verse tragedy written by Deverill on the Death of Sennacherib. Historically it was puerile. I said so in no measured terms. He wrote a letter claiming to be a poet and not an archaeologist. I replied that the day had passed when poets could with impunity commit the abominable crime of distorting history. He retorted with some futile argument, and we went on exchanging letters, until his invitation and my acceptance concluded the correspondence.”
McCurdie, still bending his black brows on him, asked him why he had not declined. The Professor screwed up his face till it looked more like a cuneiform than ever. He, too, found the question difficult to answer, but he showed a bold front.
“I felt it my duty,” said he, “to teach that preposterous ignoramus something worth knowing about Sennacherib. Besides I am a bachelor and would sooner spend Christmas, as to whose irritating and meaningless annoyance I cordially agree with you, among strangers than among my married sisters’ numerous and nerve-racking families.”
Sir Angus McCurdie, the hard, metallic apostle of radio-activity, glanced for a moment out of the window at the grey, frost-bitten fields.
Then he said:
“I’m a widower. My wife died many years ago and, thank God, we had no children. I generally spend Christmas alone.”
He looked out of the window again. Professor Biggleswade suddenly remembered the popular story of the great scientist’s antecedents, and reflected that as McCurdie had once run, a barefoot urchin, through the Glasgow mud, he was likely to have little kith or kin. He himself envied McCurdie. He was always praying to be delivered from his sisters and nephews and nieces, whose embarrassing demands no calculated coldness could repress.
“Children are the root of all evil,” said he. “Happy the man who has his quiver empty.”
Sir Angus McCurdie did not reply at once; when he spoke again it was with reference to their prospective host.
“I met Deverill,” said he, “at the Royal Society’s Soiree this year. One of my assistants was demonstrating a peculiar property of thorium and Deverill seemed interested. I asked him to come to my laboratory the next day, and found he didn’t know a damned thing about anything. That’s all the acquaintance I have with him.”
Lord Doyne, the great administrator, who had been wearily turning over the pages of an illustrated weekly chiefly filled with flamboyant photographs of obscure actresses, took his gold glasses from his nose and the black cigar from his lips, and addressed his companions.
“I’ve been considerably interested in your conversation,” said he, “and as you’ve been frank, I’ll be frank too. I knew Mrs. Deverill’s mother, Lady Carstairs, very well years ago, and of course Mrs. Deverill when she was a child. Deverill I came across once in Egypt—he had been sent on a diplomatic mission to Teheran. As for our being invited on such slight acquaintance, little Mrs. Deverill has the reputation of being the only really successful celebrity hunter in England. She inherited the faculty from her mother, who entertained the whole world. We’re sure to find archbishops, and eminent actors, and illustrious divorcees asked to meet us. That’s one thing. But why I, who loathe country house parties and children and Christmas as much as Biggleswade, am going down there to-day, I can no more explain than you can. It’s a devilish odd coincidence.”