Emma Darwin was doing the household accounts but was glad to stop. The man’s card read:
She bustled into the drawing room and offered her hand, Americans, she knew, being less formal than the English.
“Mr Salt. My husband is out at the moment.”
Charles was on the sandwalk, which he paced around for several hours each day, thinking. He said walking helped clarify his ideas. Like butter, Emma had remarked.
It seemed Mr Salt had completed a difficult journey today and was impatient. He was in possession of a powerful new idea that must be brought to Mr Darwin’s notice.
She offered her visitor a seat.
Mrs Darwin was a believer, Mr Salt understood, an Episcopalian?
“Church of England,” corrected Emma.
Mr Salt was on his feet again, the powerful new idea bursting out of him. Intelligent Design. Mr Darwin must not publish his infamous book again.
Over the years, Emma had become a gatekeeper to the stream of callers at Down House. Sometimes these were gentlemen from the Royal Society, fellow scientists or explorers. Sometimes they were not gentlemen at all. Naturally, selection of who would usefully disturb her husband had fallen to her.
“Perhaps you would like tea while you wait.”
Salutary experiences with servants had taught her to be firm.
He declined tea. Also cake or biscuits. Likewise sherry. He had no polite conversation and finally Emma excused herself to see to Cook, but could not settle.
Americans drank coffee. She returned. “Mr Salt…”
The drawing room was empty.
Once more she martyred herself with the accounts book, wondering if Annie should be sent to inform her father, conscious that this itself would constitute the interruption she sought to avoid. While Emma prevaricated, the maid announced a second visitor.
“Mrs Darwin, this is an honour,” exclaimed a plump American. Her gaze took in his shirt, which displayed an advertisement for a Harvard University. He too bore the faintest whiff of ozone.
“Your husband is justly famous, but your own contribution to The Origin is neglected I think.”
“The origin of.. ”
“Exactly. I’m here to encourage your husband. To remove any doubts about the problems he identified. His great work must be published this time.”
Emma often told Charles that knowing little instils more confidence than great knowledge.
“I wonder do you know Mr Salt, a fellow countryman of yours?”
“Salt? Here? But I thought…”
“He also had advice for my husband.”
“So much for the Truce!” With a hurried apology the American rose and left. Charles returned at four-thirty, detouring through the kitchen to wash his hands after visiting his pigeons.
As the tea brewed, Emma related her interesting afternoon, while Charles absently smoothed his thinning hair across his head. A few more years and not even that subterfuge would suffice, the poor lamb.
“Your book, Charles…”
“I wish they would make up their minds. I have delayed for twenty years.”
There was a commotion outside, and raised voices. From the window they watched the two Americans grappling on the gravelled drive.
“They seem to feel very strongly about it,” observed Emma.
The visitors panted past the window, the pursuer brandishing a young shrub.
“Prunus insititia,” said Charles, regretfully. “My favorite damson plum.”
“Survival of the fittest, my dear.”
Charles raised his forefinger, a caution that he was about to be droll. “The fleetest.”
Emma was struck once more by the strangeness of the future. She wondered what year they were from.
“Your tea is growing cold.”
David Barber lives anonymously in the UK. He used to be a scientist, though he is retired now and writing stories. He is a puzzle to his friends.
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