ACROSS THE ZODIAC by Percy Greg
Chapter VI—An Official Visit.
At this point of our conversation an ambâ entered the room and made certain signs which my host immediately understood.
“The Zamptâ,” he said, “has called upon me, evidently on your account, and probably with some message from his Suzerain. You need not be afraid,” he added. “At worst they would only refuse you protection, and I could secure you from danger under my own roof, and in the last extremity effect your retreat and return to your own planet; supposing for a moment,” he added, smiling, “that you are a real being and come from a real world.”
The Regent of that dominion, the only Martialist outside my host’s family with whom I had yet been able to converse, awaited us in the hall or entrance chamber. I bowed low to him, and then remained standing. My host, also saluting his visitor, at once took his seat. The Regent, returning the salute and seating himself, proceeded to address us; very little ceremony on either side being observed between this autocratic deputy of an absolute Sovereign and his subjects.
“Esmo dent Ecasfen” said the Regent, “will you point out the person you declare yourself to have rescued from assault and received into your house on the 431st day of this year?”
“That is the person, Regent,” said my host, pointing to me.
The visitor then asked my name, which I gave, and addressing me thereby, he continued—
“The Camptâ has requested me to ascertain the truth regarding your alleged size, so far exceeding anything hitherto known among us. You will permit me, therefore, to measure your height and girth.”
I bowed, and he proceeded to ascertain that I was about a foot taller and some ten inches larger round the waist than himself. Of these facts he took note, and then proceeded—
“The signs you made to those who first encountered you were understood to mean that you descended from the sky, in a vessel which is now left on the summit of yonder mountain, Asnyca.”
“I did not descend from the sky,” I replied, “for the sky is, as we both know, no actual vault or boundary of the atmospheric depths. I ascended from a world nearer to the Sun, and after travelling for forty days through space, landed upon this planet in the vessel you mention.”
“I am directed,” he answered, “to see this vessel, to inspect your machinery and instruments, and to report thereon to the Suzerain. You will doubtless be ready to accompany me thither to-morrow two hours after sunrise. You may be accompanied, if you please, by your host or any members of his family; I shall be attended by one or more of my officers. In the meantime I am to inform you that, until my report has been received and considered, you are under the protection of the law, and need not apprehend any molestation of the kind you incurred at first. You will not, however, repeat to anyone but myself the explanation you have offered of your appearance—which, I understand, has been given in fuller detail to Esmo—until the decision of the Camptâ shall have been communicated to you.”
I simply bowed my assent; and after this brief but sufficient fulfilment of the purpose for which he had called, the Regent took his leave.
“What,” I asked, when we re-entered my chamber, “is the meaning of the title by which the Regent addressed you?”
“In speaking to officials,” he replied, “of rank so high as his, it is customary to address them simply by their titles, unless more than one of the same rank be present, in which case we call them, as we do inferior officials, by their name with the title appended. For instance, in the Court of the Sovereign our Regent would be called Endo Zamptâ. Men of a certain age and social position, but having no office, are addressed by their name and that of their residence; and, asfe meaning a town or dwelling, usage gives me the name of Esmo, in or of the town of Eca.
“I am sorry,” he went on, “that neither my son nor myself can accompany you to-morrow. All the elder members of my family are engaged to attend at some distance hence before the hour at which you can return. But I should not like you to be alone with strangers; and, independently of this consideration, I should perhaps have asked of you a somewhat unusual favour. My daughter Eveena, who, like most of our women” (he laid a special emphasis on the pronoun) “has received a better education than is now given in the public academies, has been from the first greatly interested in your narrative and in all you have told us of the world from which you come. She is anxious to see your vessel, and I had hoped to take her when I meant to visit it in your company. But after to-morrow I cannot tell when you may be summoned to visit the Camptâ, or whether after that visit you are likely to return hither. I will ask you, therefore, if you do not object to what I confess is an unusual proceeding, to take Eveena under your charge to-morrow.”
“Is it,” I inquired, “permissible for a young lady to accompany a stranger on such an excursion?”
“It is very unusual,” returned my host; “but you must observe that here family ties are, as a rule, unknown. It cannot be usual for a maiden to be attended by father or brother, since she knows neither. It is only by a husband that a girl can, as a rule, be attended abroad. Our usages render such attendance exceedingly close, and, on the other hand, forbid strangers to interrupt or take notice thereof. In Eveena’s presence the Regent will find it difficult to draw you into conversation which might be inconvenient or dangerous; and especially cannot attempt to gratify, by questioning you, any curiosity as to myself or my family.”
“But,” I said, “from what you say, it seems that the Regent and anyone who might accompany him would draw inferences which might not be agreeable to you or to the young lady.”
“I hardly understand you,” he replied. “The only conjecture they could make, which they will certainly make, is that you are, or are about to be, married to her; and as they will never see her again, and, if they did, could not recognise her—as they will not to-morrow know anything save that she belongs to my household, and certainly will not speak to her—I do not see how their inference can affect her. When I part with her, it will be to some one of my own customs and opinions; and to us this close confinement of girls appears to transcend reasonable restraint, as it contradicts the theoretical freedom and equality granted by law to the sex, but utterly withheld by the social usages which have grown out of that law.”
“I can only thank you for giving me a companion more agreeable than the official who is to report upon my reality,” I said.
“I do not desire,” he continued, “to bind you to any reserve in replying to questions, beyond what I am sure you will do without a pledge—namely, to avoid betraying more than you can help of that which is not known outside my own household. But on this subject I may be able to speak more fully after to-morrow. Now, if you will come into the peristyle, we shall be in time for the evening meal.”
Eveena’s curiosity had in nowise overcome her silent shyness. She might possibly have completed her tenth year, which epoch in the life of Mars is about equivalent to the seventeenth birthday of a damsel nurtured in North-Western Europe. I hardly think that I had addressed her directly half-a-dozen times, or had received from her a dozen words in return. I had been attracted, nevertheless, not only by her grace and beauty, but by the peculiar sweetness of her voice and the gentleness of her manner and bearing when engaged in pacifying dispute or difficulty among the children, and particularly in dealing with the half-deformed spoilt infant of which I have spoken. This evening that little brat was more than usually exasperating, and having exhausted the patience or repelled the company of all the rest, found itself alone, and set up a fretful, continuous scream, disagreeable even to me, and torturing to Martial ears, which, adapted to hear in that thin air, are painfully alive to strident, harsh, or even loud sounds. Instantly obeying a sign from her mother, Eveena rose in the middle of a conversation to which she had listened with evident interest, and devoted herself for half-an-hour to please and pacify this uncomfortable child. The character and appearance of this infant, so utterly unlike all its companions, had already excited my curiosity, but I had found no opportunity of asking a question without risking an impertinence. On this occasion, however, I ventured to make some remark on the extreme gentleness and forbearance with which not only Eveena but the children treated their peevish and exacting brother.
“He is no brother of theirs,” said Zulve, the mistress of the house. “You would hardly find in any family like ours a child with so irritable a temper or a disposition so selfish, and nowhere a creature so hardly treated by Nature in body as well as mind.”
“Indeed,” I said, hardly understanding her answer.
“No,” said my host. “It is the rule to deprive of life, promptly and painlessly, children to whom, from physical deformity or defect, life is thought unlikely to be pleasant, and whose descendants might be a burden to the public and a cause of physical deterioration to the race. It is, however, one of the exceptional tenets to which I have been obliged to allude, that man should not seek to be wiser than Nature; and that life should neither be cut short, except as a punishment for great crimes, nor prolonged artificially contrary to the manifest intention, or, as our philosophers would say, the common course of Nature. Those who think with me, therefore, always endeavour, when we hear in time of their approaching fate, to preserve children so doomed. Precautions against undue haste or readiness to destroy lives that might, after all, grow up to health and vigour are provided by law. No single physician or physiologist can sign a death-warrant; and I, though no longer a physician by craft, am among the arbiters, one or more of whom must be called in to approve or suspend the decision. On these occasions I have rescued from extinction several children of whose unfitness to live, according to the standard of the State Nurseries, there was no question, and placed them in families, mostly childless, that were willing to receive them. Of this one it was our turn to take charge; and certainly his chance is better for being brought up among other children, and under the influence of their gentler dispositions and less exacting temperaments.”
“And is such ill-temper and selfishness,” I asked, “generally found among the deformed?”
“I don’t think,” replied Esmo, “that this child is much worse than most of my neighbours’ children, except that physical discomfort makes him fretful. What you call selfishness in him is only the natural inheritance derived from an ancestry who for some hundred generations have certainly never cared for anything or anyone but themselves. I thought I had explained to you by what train of circumstances and of reasoning family affection, such as it is reputed to have been thousands of years ago, has become extinct in this planet; and, family affection extinguished, all weaker sentiments of regard for others were very quickly withered up.”
“You told me something of the kind,” I said; “but the idea of a life so utterly swallowed up in self that no one even thinks it necessary to affect regard for and interest in others, was to me so unintelligible and inconceivable that I did not realise the full meaning of your account. Nor even now do I understand how a society formed of such members can be held together. On Earth we should expect them either to tear one another to pieces, or to relapse into isolation and barbarism lower than that of the lowest tribe which preserves social instincts and social organisation. A society composed of men resembling that child, but with the intelligence, force, and consistent purpose of manhood, would, I should have thought, be little better than a congregation of beasts of prey.”
“We have such beasts,” said Esmo, “in the wild lands, and they are certainly unsociable and solitary. But men, at least civilised men, are governed not only by instinct but by interest, and the interest of each individual in the preservation of social co-operation and social order is very evident and very powerful. Experience and school discipline cure children of the habit of indulging mere temper and spite before they come to be men, and they are taught by practice as well as by precept the absolute necessity of co-operation. Egotism, therefore, has no tendency to dissolve society as a mere organisation, though it has utterly destroyed society as a source of pleasure.”
“Does your law,” I asked, “confine the principle of euthanasia to infants, or do you put out of the world adults whose life is supposed, for one reason or another, to be useless and joyless?”
“Only,” he answered, “in the case of the insane. When the doctors are satisfied that a lunatic cannot be cured, an inquest is held; and if the medical verdict be approved, he is quietly and painlessly dismissed from existence. Logically, of course, the same principle should be applied to all incurable disease; and I suspect—indeed I know—that it is applied when the household have become weary, and the patient is utterly unable to protect himself or appeal to the law. But the general application of the principle has been successfully resisted, on the ground that the terror it would cause, the constant anxiety and alarm in which men would live if the right of judging when life had become worthless to them were left to others, would far outweigh any benefit which might be derived from the legalised extinction of existences which had become a prolonged misery; and such cases, as I have told you, are very rare among us. A case of hopeless bodily suffering, not terminating very speedily in death, does not occur thrice a year among the whole population of the planet, except through accident. We have means of curing at the outset almost all of those diseases which the observance for hundreds of generations of sound physical conditions of life has not extirpated; and in the worst instances our anæsthetics seldom fail to extinguish the sense of pain without impairing intellect. Of course, anyone who is tired of his life is at liberty to put an end to it, and anyone else may assist him. But, though the clinging to existence is perhaps the most irrational of all those purely animal instincts on emancipation from which we pride ourselves, it is the strongest and the most lasting. The life of most of my countrymen would be to me intolerable weariness, if only from the utter want, after wealth is attained, of all warmer and less isolated interest than some one pet scientific pursuit can afford; and yet more from the total absence of affection, family duties, and the various mental occupations which interest in others affords. But though the question whether life is worth living has long ago been settled among us in the negative, suicide, the logical outcome of that conviction, is the rarest of all the methods by which life is terminated.”
“Which seems to show that even in Mars logic does not always dominate life and prevail over instinct. But what is the most usual cause of death, where neither disease nor senility are other than rare exceptions?”
“Efflux of time,” Esmo replied with an ironical smile. “That is the chief fatal disease recognised by our physicians.”
“And what is its nature?”
“Ah, that neither I nor any other physician can tell you. Life ‘goes out,’ like a lamp when the materials supplying the electric current are exhausted; and yet here all the waste of which physic can take cognisance is fully repaired, and the circuit is not broken.”
“What are the symptoms, then?”
“They are all reducible to one—exhaustion of the will, the prime element of personality. The patient ceases to care. It is too much trouble to work; then too much trouble to read; then too much trouble to exert even those all but mechanical powers of thought which are necessary to any kind of social intercourse—to give an order, to answer a question, to recognise a name or a face: then even the passions die out, till the patient cannot be provoked to rate a stupid ambâ or a negligent wife; finally, there is not energy to dress or undress, to rise up or sit down. Then the patient is allowed to die: if kept alive perforce, he would finally lack the energy to eat or even to breathe. And yet, all this time, the man is alive, the self is there; and I have prolonged life, or rather renewed it, for a time, by some chance stimulus that has reached the inner sight through the thickening veil, and shocked the essential man into willing and thinking once more as he thought and willed when he was younger than his grandchildren are now…. It is well that some of us who know best how long the flesh may be kept in life, are, in right of that very knowledge, proof against the wish to keep the life in the flesh for ever.”
CONTINUES NEXT WEEK