Penguin Blues Chapter 1

Penguin Blues Chapter 1

In which an eminent naturalist accepts a wager and decides to venture out in pursuit of a highly improbably notion.

It could certainly be said of Doctor Thaddeus Monkhampton that he was very highly thought of, at least, in the scientific and academic circles in which he mostly moved. And many people did say such things, in the right company, albeit with muttered asides, when none of his close friends were present, concerning his failures in the realm of the social niceties expected of one of his class and upbringing. Even those who were close to him would doubtless agree, but in his defence, they would point out that he did observe the social niceties when he remembered, albeit in a somewhat stilted manner, as if he had to think about them. Even Thaddeus himself would probably agree, were he to think about it, but then he regarded such things as non-essential fripperies of ephemeral importance when compared to the scientific endeavour.

It was in the realm of scientific endeavour that he was most admired, and for such, most were prepared to accept his ‘little foibles’ as they were kindly described. Certainly the Honourable Clara Barrington-Smythe, who had been brought up in a very proper household indeed, held him in very considerable regard, with an admiration that, were she ever to admit it to herself, went beyond the purely professional. It was for this very admiration that she overcame the objections of her family, who considered science as something marginally less reprehensible than folk-dancing, and put herself through university, overcame the various obstacles placed in her way as a result of her gender, and got herself accepted for a position at the Natural History Museum, where Thaddeus worked, as his assistant.

Thus was formed a great scientific partnership. As well as being a very able assistant, Clara was well versed in the social niceties and took it upon herself to coach Thaddeus when the occasion demanded. Outside of social circles, she cared as little for them as he did, and so their relationship was very informal and shaped by a very real mutual respect, for among the social niceties that he ignored was the one that assumed ladies should restrict themselves to delicate habits and activities. Clara was no delicate flower and accompanied him on research expeditions to jungle and tundra with as little care for the hardships involved as she had for the social opprobrium that descended when it was learned that she had accompanied him on these expeditions with no chaperone other than Thaddeus’ manservant, Henri Perdue and whatever assorted native guides and porters were necessary to get to their destinations. She dealt with it by ignoring it, her family dealt with it by means of icy glares at anyone who dared comment, and Thaddeus did not deal with it at all, since the very idea of there being anything inappropriate about it would not even occur to him, since it had nothing to do with science.

It was science then, that took them to the far continent of Australia, an expedition that many would have scorned, or considered too dangerous or too far. In fact, it was scorn that prompted the expedition in the first place. Thaddeus and Clara were taking lunch in the museum’s staff dining room along with a colleague, Dr Randolph Carstairs, who was primarily a botanist. He had been reading the newspaper while they dined, he being no more inclined to everyday politeness than his colleagues, when he snorted and tossed the paper onto the tabletop with disdain.

“Darned travellers get the strangest notions,” he said, with a short laugh. Thaddeus barely glanced at the paper. It was not a scientific publication, and therefore did not command much of his attention. By extension, therefore, its contents were similarly of little or no interest. It was left to Clara to respond.

“And what notion would that be, Dr Carstairs?” She asked politely, nudging Thaddeus under the table with her foot. Thus reminded, he looked up at his colleague and composed his face into an expression of polite interest.

“There’s a fellow here who has come back from Australia,” explained Carstairs, gesturing at the paper. “He reckons he saw some flightless birds in the desert, building mazes out of twigs. I think he must have been spending too much time out in the sun. I’m told it’s hot down there.” He pushed the newspaper away and picked up his cup of tea. “Birds building mazes indeed. What a ridiculous idea.” Thaddeus allowed an expression of professional interest cross his face and reached across the table for the newspaper, handling it somewhat delicately, as if he expected it to be somehow contaminated.

“Not necessarily, my good fellow,” he replied. “I, personally, have observed quite complex behaviour in some bird species when it comes to the construction of their nests. Did you not read my paper on those African Weaver Birds, erm, two years ago?” He looked across at Clara for confirmation, relying on her excellent memory for such things as dates. She nodded her agreement.  Carstairs shrugged.

“Well, that’s as maybe, but there is a different between constructing a safe environment for eggs and creating a maze. What possible use could a bird have for a maze? It’s a ridiculous notion.” Thaddeus glanced through the newspaper article and shook his head.

“I disagree, Carstairs,” he said. “I think it is a topic very worthy of investigation. It’s about time I decided on my next subject for field research and this looks like an excellent thing to investigate.” Carstairs laughed.

“A ridiculous idea, Thaddeus,” he said with a laugh, “You’ll never get the board to agree to the funding, and you will just end up looking ridiculous when the whole thing turns out to be a fantasy fuelled by too much drink and too much sun. You would be crazy to even try.”

“On the contrary,” replied Thaddeus, stiffly, somewhat nettled by Carstairs’ doubtful attitude. “I believe that investigating such a complex behaviour would definitely be a viable proposal.” Carstairs got to his feet and laughed.

“I still think you are crazy,” he said as he prepared to return to his laboratory. “In fact, I’ll bet you a thousand guineas that you will find nothing.”

“A thousand guineas?” Thaddeus said, similarly rising to his feet. “I would be ashamed to take your money. But, if you insist, then so be it.” He reached across the table and shook Carstair’s hand. “Very well, Carstairs, I will take your wager.” He turned and addressed his assistant, who had already pulled out her notebook in anticipation. “Clara, start putting the proposal to the board together this afternoon.”

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