Trouble with lichen, p.3
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.3

           John Wyndham
 
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  Her qualifications had satisfied him, her references and recommendations were good, her own letter of application had impressed him very favourably. Indeed, it could be said that all the signals were set in her favour until her arrival qualified them by setting up an amber.

  For, in his near ten years now of managing Darr House Developments, Francis had grown a little cagey. He had fully intended to be, as he was, the inspiration and direction of his venture; what he had failed to foresee, however, was that he would be forced by circumstances to become to some extent the patriarch of the community that he had brought together. This imposition had led him to regard candidates with a split eye, and it was the patriarchal half that now viewed the personable and decorative Miss Brackley with dubiety.

  She looked eminently capable of provoking another of those situations which had set him wondering audibly to Caroline, his wife, whether they had not better change the word ‘Developments’ to ‘Holiday Camp and Lonely Hearts Bureau’.

  Diana herself was puzzled to know why, after good auguries and a promising start, the interview seemed to go less well. The situation would have been clearer to her had she been able to glimpse some of the precedents that were flitting through her prospective employer’s mind. He was recalling less striking persons than Diana who had turned out to be sherbet powder in the waters of his peaceful community.

  The sloe-eyed, somewhat sultry Miss Tregarven, for instance. She had been a biologist of promise, but unfortunately she was also a girl whose room decorations had included a row of small china hearts which she ceremoniously cracked one by one with a special little hammer as circumstances seemed to her to justify raising the score. And, too, there had been Miss Blew, a doll-like creature with an undoubted touch of chemic genius, and an entirely misleading expression of seraphic innocence fraught with great Galahad-rousing power. The widespread desire to be of service to Miss Blew had eventually reached its highest manifestation in a duel – an inexpert contest, staged one dewy dawn in the meadow beside the woods, between a chemist and a biologist, in the course of which the chemist had run the biologist through the left arm, thus enraging the biologist who had then abandoned his weapon in order to knock the chemist out with an honest fist, and Miss Blew, who had sneaked out, straight from bed and mistily clad, to watch the fray from the cover of some bushes, took a severe chill. Also, Miss Cotch. Miss Cotch had been a dab at handling the amino-acids, but less adept at managing her own affairs, being under the handicap of an excessively tender heart. Indeed, so averse was she from hurting anyone’s feelings that she had somehow managed to get herself secretly engaged to three of her fellow-workers at the same time, and then, perceiving no way out of this impasse but flight, had disappeared, leaving a welter of emotional and departmental disorder behind her.

  In view of these and several other such experiences Francis’s hesitation was not unjustified. On the other hand, and in Diana’s favour, he noted that she was taking the interview absolutely straight, depending on her merits, and making no attempt to charm herself into the job. Out of fairness he decided it was a case for a second opinion – for, after all, Caroline also was sometimes called upon to dress the emotional wounds caused by these affairs – so, instead of introducing Diana to the staff dining-room, as he had intended, he invited her to luncheon in the private wing.

  Over the meal his misgivings receded. She talked easily and intelligently to her host and hostess, exchanged some thoughts with Paul, who was then twelve, upon the probable date of a successful Martian expedition, and did her best to get a few words out of Zephanie, who regarded her with round-eyed awe, and was struck almost dumb with admiration.

  Afterwards, he put it to Caroline.

  ‘Do we risk it, or should we be asking for more trouble?’

  Caroline had looked at him sadly.

  ‘Francis, dear, you really must stop burdening yourself with the idea that the place could, or should, run like a machine. It never will.’

  ‘I’m beginning to understand that,’ Francis admitted. ‘All the same, there’s a difference between facing routine crises, and acting in a way that will produce better ones.’

  ‘Well, if you think that putting your applicants through a kind of beauty competition in reverse is going to do anything more than encourage the less-favoured to get above themselves and try their strength, you’d better reconsider. I like the girl. She’s unusual. She’s intelligent – and I rather think she’s got good sense, which is not the same thing. So, if she has the knowledge and ability you need, then let her come.’

  Diana got the job, and joined the staff of Darr.

  Her arrival aroused considerable interest, both hopeful and wary. The quick-off-the-mark types tried their luck forthwith, and found no encouragement. The subtler strategists went to work, and somehow bogged down at quite an early stage. With these preliminaries as a guide, Darr began to make up its mind about her.

  ‘Beautiful but dumb,’ one of the chemists pronounced, sadly.

  ‘Dumb! – For heaven’s sake!’ objected a biologist. ‘Besides, even if it were true, when was that ever a disadvantage? As it is, she talks plenty – to no purpose.’

  ‘That’s what I was meaning,’ the chemist explained patiently. ‘She’s dumb along the wrong lines – the one way almost any good-looking girl isn’t; and oughtn’t to be,’ he added, for clarity.

  Wives and concerned maidens allowed themselves, cautiously, to relax a little.

  ‘Cold!’ they told one another hopefully, not without undertones of self-satisfaction – yet not with unalloyed smugness, either, for a suspicion that someone may be quite indifferent to one’s menfolk is not entirely welcome. However, the majority felt reassured by this provisional classification, though with a reservation caused mainly by her clothes; it was hard to believe that one could cast so much thought and care upon the waters with no expectation but to see it washed tracelessly away…

  When Helen Daley, wife of Austin Daley, the biochemist who came nearest to being Darr’s second-in-command, mentioned the problem, her husband took a divergent view.

  ‘Whenever anyone new comes to this place there’s always this spate of speculative natter. I don’t understand why,’ he complained. ‘The young come bouncing along thinking they’re wonderful, that the world begins with them, just as their parents did, and their grandparents did; they then get into just the same tangles, show the same intensities, and go on making the same mistakes as their parents and grandparents did. Thoroughly monotonous: they’re all going to turn out to be one of four or five types, anyway; and only interesting if one is trying to have one’s youth over again – which God forbid.’

  ‘I enjoyed being young,’ said his wife.

  ‘You enjoy having been young – so do I,’ her husband corrected her. ‘But not again, thank you, not again.’

  ‘But I did enjoy it. Excitement, colours, lovely dresses, wonderful parties, moonlight rides, the thrill of a new affair…’

  ‘Like the wonderful summers of one’s childhood? Forgetting the disappointments, the hatred of rivals, the bitterness of losing, the wretchedness of being left out, the hurt of a careless word, the torments and anxieties, the tears on the pillow…? No, even the memory of youth’s a stuff will not endure. The golden girls and boys lived in a golden age.’

  ‘It’s no good pretending to me that you’re an old cynic, Austin.’

  ‘My love, I am not a cynic, I confess. But neither am I a retrospective visionary. Therefore I am sorry for these young men and maidens who are going through the painful process of sloughing their illusions before emerging as a type, but I still think that for the observer it is a monotonous process.’

  ‘Well, to bring it round to where we were, what type do you think our latest recruit will turn out to be?’

  ‘Young Diana? Early to say. She’s what they call now a late-developer. At present she has a schoolgirl crush on our Francis.’

  ‘Oh, surely not…’

  ‘There’s no surel
y not about it. He may not be your model, but he’s well designed for some others’ father-figure, is Francis. I’ve observed it before. Doubtless I shall observe it again. He, of course, won’t see it at all; he never does. All the same, she is an unusual young woman, and I’d take no bets on what course she’ll follow when it wears off.’

  Whether Austin Daley was right or not, there was certainly no interesting development of Diana’s personality during her first weeks at Darr. She simply continued to go her own way in not unamiable independence. Her acquaintanceship with male members of the staff either kept to a comradely note, or grew distant, and this unpoachful disposition gradually put her on good terms with a number of the young women, so that by degrees she began to scoop out a niche for herself as an oddity. The devotion of so much care to a decorative appearance came, with reservations, to be regarded as a quirk; a kind of art-form, like flower arrangement, or water-colour sketching, practised by Diana apparently for her own entertainment, and its acceptance as such was helped by the discovery that she was willing to give really useful instruction in this hobby, upon request. An arrested form of amusement, it was felt – though not actually troublesome as long as it continued under arrest. Expensive, though. There was general conjecture that all her salary, if not more, must go on her clothes and décor.

  ‘An odd child altogether,’ Caroline Saxover remarked. ‘She has the brains for one kind of life, and some of the tastes that go with quite another. Just at present she seems to be becalmed in a kind of doldrum between them, and not much interested in getting out of it. She’ll probably come to life quite suddenly.’

  ‘Meaning that we shall suddenly find ourselves with another of these emotional divertissements, and lose another good worker?’ Francis said gloomily. ‘I’m beginning to get reactionary. Wondering whether young women above a certain level of plainness should be allowed to squander the time of higher educationalists at all. It’s become one of the expensive items in our economy of waste. Still, I suppose even a plainness test wouldn’t guarantee anything. All the same, I do keep on hoping that some day we shall be able to get together a few girls whose individual purpose is greater than their herd instinct.’

  ‘Wouldn’t you be meaning sex instinct, rather than herd?’ Caroline suggested.

  ‘Would I? I don’t know. Is there any difference where young women are concerned?’ Francis grumbled. ‘Anyway, let’s hope this one resists it for more than a month or two.’

  Mrs Brackley, confiding in her husband, took the opposite view.

  ‘She seems quite contented with the place,’ she observed to her husband, after one of Diana’s weekend visits home. ‘It’s not nice to know that, though, of course, it’s not likely she’ll be there very long. Not a girl like Diana.’

  It was not a statement which seemed to call for comment, so Mr Brackley made none.

  ‘She seems to have a great admiration for this Dr Saxover,’ his wife added.

  ‘So have lots of people,’ Mr Brackley told her. ‘He’s got a considerable reputation among scientists. The people I asked about him were quite impressed when I told them Diana was working there. It apparently counts for something to get taken on at all.’

  ‘He’s married, with two children. A boy of twelve, and a girl nearly ten,’ she remarked.

  ‘Well, that’s all right then. Or do you mean it isn’t?’ he said.

  ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Harold. A man nearly twice her age.’

  ‘All right,’ he agreed peaceably. ‘But what are we talking about?’

  ‘Just that she seems to like it all right at present, but that from what she says it isn’t the sort of place where an attractive girl like Diana ought to bury herself for long. There’s her future to think of.’

  To which Mr Brackley once more said nothing. He could never decide whether Diana’s kindly determination to make common ground with her mother really deceived her, or whether his wife’s notion that every daughter is a sort of production line puppet was simply unconquerable.

  In the meantime Diana settled into Darr. Francis Saxover found her a good worker, and was relieved not to observe any sign of herd instinct that suggested imminent migration. Her relations with her colleagues continued for the most part to be amiable, though somewhat detached. On rare occasions she would let loose a bolt which made some of them blink, look at her twice, and wonder a little. But she used restraint, almost deliberately made little mark upon the community once she had repelled would-be boarders, and kept her own counsel equably enough to be taken for a decorative but otherwise unremarkable part of the scene.

  ‘With us, but not of us,’ Austin Daley remarked of her at the end of the second month. ‘There’s more in that girl than she is allowing to meet the eye. She has a way of smiling at the wrong things. Should be surprising, sooner or later.’

  3

  On a morning after Diana had been some eight months at Darr the door of the room where she was working opened abruptly. She lifted her head from her microscope to perceive Francis Saxover standing in the doorway, with a saucer in his hand, and a pained expression on his face.

  ‘Miss Brackley,’ he said, ‘I am told that it is a kindly concern of yours to see that Felicia is sustained during her nocturnal activities. If it really is necessary – which I doubt, since she doesn’t seem to have touched your gift, but if it is – would you mind placing your saucer in a less traffic-prone situation in future. This is the third time I have almost fallen over my own feet in avoiding it.’

  ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, Dr Saxover,’ Diana apologized. ‘I usually remember to take it away when I come up. She generally does drink it, you know. Perhaps the thunderstorm last night scared her.’

  She took the saucer of milk from his hand, and carried it across to the bench.

  ‘I’ll certainly see that –’ In the act of putting the saucer down she broke off, and bent to look at it more closely.

  During the thundery night the milk in it had ‘turned’. At least, nearly all of it had turned, but there was a spot, a little under half-an-inch in diameter centred upon a dark speck, that looked different. It appeared not to have turned.

  ‘That’s funny,’ she said.

  Francis glanced at the saucer, and then looked at it more carefully.

  ‘What were you working on yesterday, just before you poured this out?’ he asked her.

  ‘That new batch of lichens. The Macdonald lot. I was on them nearly all day,’ she told him.

  ‘H’m,’ said Francis.

  He found a clean slide, fished out the speck, and put it on the slide.

  ‘Can you identify?’ he asked.

  Diana took the slide to the microscope. Francis glanced at the little jumbles of grey-green ‘leaves’ under various glass covers. They had a dreary look. Diana’s inspection did not take long.

  ‘It’s from this lot,’ she said, indicating a pile of desiccated fragments variegated by yellow spots along the edges. ‘Provisionally,’ she explained, ‘I’ve called it Lichenis Imperfectus Tertius Mongolensis Secundus Macdonaldi.’

  ‘Have you indeed,’ remarked Francis.

  ‘Well,’ she told him, defensively, ‘it isn’t easy, you know. Nearly all lichens seem to be imperfecti anyway, and this happens to be the third one I tackled out of the second Macdonald batch.’

  ‘Well, we must remember that the name is provisional,’ Francis said.

  ‘Antibiotic? Do you think?’ Diana asked, glancing at the saucer again.

  ‘It could be. Quite a number of lichens do have some antibiotic properties, so it isn’t unlikely. It’s a hundred to one against it being a useful antibiotic, of course. Still, it doesn’t do to skip chances. I’ll take a look at it, and let you know.’

  He picked up an empty jar and filled it with the lichen, leaving about half the heap still under its cover. Then he turned to go. But before he reached the door Diana’s voice stopped him.

  ‘Dr Saxover, how is Mrs Saxover today?’ she asked.

  He turned ba
ck, looking a different man, as if he had taken off a mask to reveal the wretchedness beneath. He shook his head slowly.

  ‘The hospital says she’s quite cheerful this morning. I hope it’s true. It’s all they can say. She doesn’t know, you see. She still thinks the operation was successful. I suppose it is the best way – oh yes, it is the best way – but, oh God…!’

  Then he turned to the door again, and was gone before Diana could say anything more.

  The lichen went with him, and that was almost the last Diana officially heard of it for a long time.

  Caroline Saxover died a few days later.

  Francis seemed to go about in a trance. His widowed sister, Irene, arrived and did her best to take over that part of the domestic arrangements that Caroline had managed. Francis seemed scarcely to notice her. She tried to get him to go away for a time, but he would not. For a fortnight, or more, he roamed the place like the inversion of a ghost – his body present, but his spirit elsewhere. Then suddenly he was not to be seen at all. He shut himself up in his own laboratory. His sister sent meals up to him, but often they were not touched. He scarcely emerged for days, and often his bed was unused.

  Austin Daley, who more or less forced his way in there, reported that he seemed to be working like a madman on half a dozen things at once, and predicted a breakdown. On the few occasions that he did appear at meals his manner was so distant and strained that the children were half afraid of him. Diana found Zephanie weeping miserably one afternoon. She did her best to comfort her, and took her along to her own lab and let her amuse herself with a microscope. The next day, a Saturday, she took the child for a twelve-mile walk to get her out of the place.

  Meanwhile, the work in hand went on somehow, and Austin Daley did his best to manage what could be dealt with, and keep the place on its feet. Fortunately, he was aware of several projects that Francis had in mind, and was able to start them off. Occasionally he prevailed upon Francis to sign a few necessary papers, but he spent much time stalling off decisions that only Francis could, but would not, make. Darr began to show signs of silting up, and its personnel became restless.

 
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