Trouble with lichen, p.4
Trouble With Lichen, p.4John Wyndham
Francis, however, did not have a breakdown. He was probably saved from it by getting pneumonia. He got it badly too, but when he slowly started to pick up strength again, it appeared to have broken the trauma, for it was almost as his normal self that he gradually revived.
But it was his normal self with a difference.
‘Daddy’s quieter than he used to be, and sort of gentler, too,’ Zephanie confided to Diana. ‘Sometimes it makes me want to cry.’
‘He was very, very fond of your mother. He must be feeling terribly lonely without her,’ said Diana.
‘Yes,’ agreed Zephanie, ‘but he does talk about her now, and that’s much better. He likes to talk about her, even if it does make him sad. But he spends an awful lot of time just sitting and thinking, and not looking sad at all. More like somebody working out sums.’
‘I expect that’s what he is doing,’ Diana told her. ‘It takes a lot of working out of sums to keep Darr going, you know. And things did get a bit out of hand while he was ill. Probably he’s just thinking about tidying everything up again, and it’ll be all right once it’s straight.’
‘I hope so. He looks as if they’re such awfully difficult sums,’ said Zephanie.
What with one thing and another the question of the possible antibiotic qualities of Lichenis Tertius Etcetera dropped out of Diana’s mind, and only recurred there after a few months. She felt sure that it must have been driven out of Francis’s too, or she would have heard something. For one of Francis’s scrupulosities was not to poach credit. Discoveries, and the patents and copyrights that covered them, became the property of Darr House Developments, but credit belonged to individuals, or to teams. Human nature being what it is, it cannot be said that everyone was always entirely satisfied with his degree of credit – it is, for instance, a matter of some nicety to apportion fairly between the man who had the idea itself, and the man who supplied the germ of it – but it was generally conceded, and appreciated, that Francis took pains to be just, and to see to it that no suggestion was either incorrectly ascribed, or lost in anonymity – nor allowed to sink without trace. Had things been normal, therefore, Diana was quite sure that she would have heard something of Lichenis Tertius, positive, negative, or interim. As conditions were, she assumed, when she did recollect the matter several months later, that the jar of lichen must have been put aside somewhere about the time of Caroline Saxover’s death, and its contents left to moulder away. With Francis’s recovery, however, it recurred to her that a note of some kind should be entered regarding the nature of the properties observed in Tertius, if only for the record. She decided that at some convenient moment she would remind him, and then kept on forgetting to do so when discussion on other matters drove it out of her mind. In the end, it was during one of the monthly soirées that Caroline had instituted to help Darr’s sense of community that the recollection and the opportunity came together, prompted, possibly, by the arrival of another bale of botanical oddments from the far-wandering Mr Macdonald.
During refreshments, Francis, now almost his former self again, was following his usual practice of chatting with one and another of his staff. Encountering Diana, he thanked her for the kindnesses she had shown to his daughter.
‘It’s made a great difference to her. Somebody to take an interest in her and rouse her own interests was just what she needed most in the circumstances, poor child,’ he told her. ‘It’s meant a lot to her, I know, and I am immensely grateful to you.’
‘Oh, but I enjoy it,’ Diana told him. ‘We get on well together. She makes me feel like a not too elder sister, and I try to make her feel like a not too young one. I always regretted I didn’t have a sister of my own, so perhaps I’m compensating. At any rate Zephanie’s much too good company for me ever to have thought it a chore.’
‘I’m glad. She’s full of your praises. But you mustn’t let her impose upon you.’
‘I won’t,’ Diana assured him. ‘Not that it’s like to be necessary. She’s a very perceptive child, you know.’
And then, a few minutes later, when he had been about to continue his round, the question had jumped into her mind.
‘Oh, by the way, Dr Saxover, I’ve been meaning to ask you before, do you remember that Macdonald lichen – the Tertius one, back in June or July? – Did it turn out to be interesting?’
She asked the question almost casually, half-expecting him to say he’d forgotten about it. To her surprise, for a brief but unmistakable moment, he looked startled. He covered up quickly, but the look had been there, and, too, he hesitated for a moment before he replied. Then he said:
‘Oh, dear! How reprehensible of me. I ought to have let you know long ago. No, I’m afraid I was mistaken there. It turned out not to be an antibiotic after all.’
A few moments later he had moved on to speak to someone else.
At the time Diana had only half-consciously noted that there was something a little amiss with that reply. It was later that she began to appreciate that it was a silly thing for Francis to have said. And even then she was half-inclined to attribute it to the strain and illness he had suffered. But it went on niggling at the back of her mind. If he had told her that he had forgotten all about it, been too busy with other things to deal with it, or that its action was too widely toxic for it to be worth following up, or given one of half a dozen other reasons, she would quite likely have been satisfied. But for some reason the question had caught him off-balance, and brought an ill-considered reply – a reply, which, when you thought about it, dodged a direct answer. Why should he want to dodge it?
Somehow she found herself recognizing ‘turned out not to be an antibiotic’ not only for a slip, but for a particular kind of slip. The sort of slip that would be made by a man taken by surprise who was too naturally truthful to be swift with a lie…
On closer consideration, then, the implication of the unguarded reply was scarcely to be escaped: the Tertius lichen certainly had a property which looked antibiotic; but if it had turned out not to be antibiotic, then what had it turned out to be…?
And why should Francis wish to conceal it…?
Why the question went on worrying away in the second layer of her thoughts to the extent it did, Diana never quite understood. Later, she tentatively ascribed it to incongruity: the apparently petty evasiveness which was in such contrast with her opinion of Francis, with his reputation, and with his usual manner. All she knew at the time was that it did go on niggling.
Then came another factor. The stores department sent a note asking her to turn in her materials for quantity checking. Obediently, she began to list them, and then, when she reached Lichenis Tertius, etc., in her list, two observations suddenly linked themselves together: one was that only a few days before she had mentioned Tertius to Francis at the soirée; the other, that the stores department’s request came, as a matter of routine, on a Monday, not on a Friday, and that the regular quarterly checking was due to take place in two weeks’ time, anyway.
Diana sat looking at the item for several minutes. She was attempting to resist an urge – not an ordinary temptation for it had none of the flavour of temptation, nor any prospect of gain, but something more like curiosity raised to a compulsion. And in the end it won.
‘I did,’ she said later on, ‘I did a thing I despised, that I had thought myself incapable of. I deliberately falsified my returns. And what was so queer was that I felt no guilt or shame as I did it, but rather as if it were a distasteful necessity.’
And so the bundle of Lichenis Tertius that had been sorted out of the latest Macdonald parcel never appeared on the register at all.
In the early stages of her investigation of the lichen, Diana had one advantage over Francis; she was not working under the impression that she was dealing with an antibiotic. She knew only that she was seeking something which had one property that looked antibiotic, but was not. She decided also from Francis’s manner that it was something unusual, possibly dangerous
Years later she said:
‘It wasn’t intuition, and it wasn’t common sense. It began with a logical inference, was all but wrecked by prejudice, and then saved by system. I could have easily missed it and gone on the wrong lines for months, so I suppose there was an element of luck, too. Even when I’d checked and re-checked, I didn’t really believe it – at least I was in a kind of schizoid state; my professional self had proved it and failed to disprove it, so it had to believe it; but my off-duty self couldn’t genuinely accept it any more intimately than one accepts the proposition that the world is round. I suppose that is what made me so astonishingly dumb about it. I just did not begin to see the implications that were staring me in the face; not for weeks, months afterwards. It was simply an interesting scientific discovery which I intended to develop to a useful stage, so I concentrated on the real job of isolating the active agent, and gave scarcely a thought to the consequences. A bit like people who breed on religious principles, when you come to think of it.’
The work became a challenge to Diana. It took almost all her spare time, and she frequently worked late into the evenings. Her weekend visits home became irregular, and she was restless when she was there. Zephanie, who had been sent off to boarding school, was disappointed to see little of her during the holidays.
‘You’re always working,’ she complained. ‘You look tired, too.’
‘It won’t be much longer now, I think,’ Diana told her. ‘Unless something very unexpected crops up I ought to be through with it in a month or two.’
‘What is it all about?’ Zephanie wanted to know. But Diana had shaken her head.
‘Too complicated,’ she said. ‘I just couldn’t explain it to anyone who hasn’t done a lot of chemistry.’
Her experiments were conducted mostly upon mice, and by the late autumn, more than a year after Caroline Saxover’s death, she was beginning to have real confidence in her results. In the meantime, she had discovered the group of animals that Francis had been using for his tests, and it was encouraging to be able to keep an eye on them, too. By that time the true work was over. The results were proved beyond any doubt. What remained was steady experimentation which would provide enough data to give close, reliable control of the process – routine work which took comparatively little time, and allowed her to relax – And it was not until she did begin to relax that she really started to think about what she had found…
In the early stages of the work she had occasionally speculated on Francis’s attitude, and wondered what he intended to do with his findings. Now she started to give the matter her full attention. Uneasily she realized that his work must have been fully six months ahead of hers. He must have been perfectly sure of his findings, and of the practicability of their application, right back in the summer, yet there had not been a whisper of them. That in itself was odd. Francis trusted his staff. He maintained that secrecy, unless it was absolutely necessary, lowered efficiency, and deteriorated the sense of corporate endeavour. His staff responded, and there had seldom been any premature leakages from Darr. On the other hand, it meant that inside Darr there was seldom any project in hand that you could not pick up at least a few hints about if you tried. But of this there had been nothing; not the least zephyr. As far as she could tell he had done all the work on it himself, and kept the results entirely to himself. It might be that he had negotiations for its large-scale production by manufacturers in hand, but somehow she thought not – even at that stage she was half aware that it was too big a matter to be handled in the usual way. So she decided that he would probably read a paper on it before one of the Societies. In that case, she would of course have to hand over her own work at once – but if he did so intend, she did not altogether understand the need for so efficient a cloak of secrecy among his own staff at a stage when his data must be quite complete.…
So Diana decided to wait and see.…
She felt troubled, too, by her ethical position which looked more than a little moot. Not the legal position; there, she was fairly and squarely in the wrong. Under the usual clause in her contract any discovery made by her while in the employ of Darr House Developments Ltd became the property of Darr House. Legally, she was aware, she should have handed the whole thing over to Francis straight away. But ethically was different.… Well, look at it. If she had not dropped the lichen in the milk there’d have been no discovery. If Francis had not brought in the saucer the effect might never have been noticed. If she had not noticed it, he would have missed it, She had not stolen Francis’s work in any way. Really, you could say, she had been prompted by curiosity into investigating a phenomenon which she had observed for herself. She had worked hard on it, and arrived under her own steam. It struck her as pretty grim to have to let it all go – unless it were really necessary. So she would temporize and see what move Francis intended to make.
Waiting gave more time for thinking; and thinking gave more grounds for uneasiness. She found herself able to stand back a little so that the trees merged into a wood, and a pretty ominous-looking wood it came to seem. Implications that she had never thought of before started to crawl out of it in all directions. Gradually she perceived that Francis must have perceived them, too, and she began to have some understanding of the considerations that might be holding him back.
And, little by little, as she went on waiting, the wider view of the whole position built itself up like a jigsaw puzzle in her mind until the vista alarmed her. Only then did she begin to appreciate that this was not just another interesting discovery, but something cardinal: that they were holding one of the most valuable, and explosive, secrets in the world. And only after that was she gradually forced to the realization that Francis, Francis Saxover of all people, did not know what to do with it.…
Years later she said: ‘I think now that I made a mistake in doing nothing then – in just going on waiting. Once I began to understand a little about the consequences, I should have gone to him, and told him what I’d done. At the very least, it would have given him someone to talk to about it – and that might have helped him to decide how to deal with it. But he was a famous man. He was my boss. I was nervous because my position was – well, equivocal, to put it kindly. Worst of all, I was young enough to be badly shocked.’
That, perhaps, was the real barrier. Even back in her schooldays Diana had accepted as an article of faith the proposition that knowledge was no less a gift of God than life itself; from which it followed that the suppression of knowledge was a sin against the light. She would no longer have used such terms to express herself, but the sense of them held firm. The seeker after knowledge did not seek for himself; he was under a special Commandment: to deliver to all men whatever he might be privileged to learn.
The thought that one of the leaders in her calling could seem to be breaking that Commandment appalled her; that it should be Francis Saxover, whom she venerated and had regarded as the epitome of professional integrity hurt her so deeply that she was utterly bewildered.…
‘I was young for my age – still hard and perfectionist. Francis had been an ideal, and he wasn’t running true to the type I had cast him for. It’s all very self-centred really. I couldn’t forgive him for clay-feet; it seemed as if he had let me down. I was in a frightful muddle, and all skewered through with my own rigid ideas. It was hell. One of those growing shocks, the worst I ever had, when it seems as if something had gone out, and the world can never be the same again – and, of course, it never is.…’
The consequence of the shock was a hardening of her resolution. She would not even contemplate l
So then Diana began to consider the effects more fully, which turned out to mean, largely, that she was studying obstacles. The closer the attention she gave the matter, the more dismayed she became by the number and variety of interests that were not going to welcome the lichen derivative. It turned out to be far from the straightforward choice, to speak, or not to speak, that it had appeared. She began to have a much clearer understanding of the dilemma that Francis must have reached months before. But she would not let it be a sympathetic understanding; instead, it was a challenge: if he could not solve it, she would….
She went on pondering the problem through the winter, but when the spring came, she was no nearer a solution.
On her twenty-fifth birthday she came into her inheritance from her grandfather’s estate, and was astonished to find herself well off. She celebrated by buying some clothes from famous houses that she had never hoped to enter, and a small car. To her mother’s amazement she did not decide to leave Darr at once.
‘But why should I, Mummy? What should I do with myself? I like the country there, and the work’s interesting and useful,’ she said.
‘But now that you have an independent income –’ her mother protested.
‘I know, darling. A sensible girl would go out and buy herself a husband.’
‘I certainly wouldn’t put it like that, dear. But, after all, a woman ought to be married; she’s happier that way. You’re twenty-five now, you know. If you don’t think seriously about raising a family now – well, time doesn’t stand still. Thirty’s on you before you know it, then forty. Life isn’t very long. You see that plainly when you begin to look at it from the other end. Not time to do very much.’
Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham / Science Fiction / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes