Darwin’s Guest – Frederick Highland

From the Private Journal of Charles Darwin
Downe House: Downe, Kent
August 23, 1870


Most of the commotion has died down, although I heard the report of Jasper’s fowling piece a few moments ago followed by a mordant howl. It sounded as if it were coming from the wood that borders our property. Emma and the girls are safely secured upstairs and Emma has the pistol. She pleaded with me to stay. I have never seen her so frightened. Perhaps it is unwise of me to return to the study, the scene of this evening’s troubling encounter, but I feel compelled to write down the details while they are still fresh in my mind . . .

It is my custom to spend the late evening hours in the study revising manuscripts for publication. Tonight, as well as for the past few weeks, I have been preparing my The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex , a book with which I have had great difficulty and which I fear will have me pilloried from every pulpit in the kingdom. By comparison, On the Origin of the Species, which I served up to the incredulous public thirteen years ago, will seem a harmless child’s fable.

I am not sure when I was first aware of someone else’s presence in the room. It has been a warm summer evening, most warm, and I opened the French doors to catch a hint of a breeze, barely enough to stir the muslin curtain. I did not hear something so much as I smelled something different, a feral scent, and for a moment I thought my daughter Elizabeth was up to her old tricks again—trying to scare her papa with a mongoose or some such creature. But the hour was very late and I had sent her off to bed with a kiss long ago. When I turned in my chair, I rubbed my eyes—which often play tricks on me at the end of a long day—for it seemed someone was sitting in the stuffed chair some feet away, just beyond the reach of my lamp. Naturally, I reached to turn up the wick.

“I would not do that if I were you, Mr. Darwin.” The voice was most unusual, and not known to me. It had a foreign tonality, as one unused to the English tongue, and there was an implicit note of menace in those words too. “I prefer to keep the level of the light where it is.” I removed my fingers from the lamp. “You do not know me”—the voice went on, as if anticipating my question— “by sight.”

My surprise gave way to anger. “I do not relish the idea of a stranger stealing into my study. Remove yourself, whoever you are. Or be removed.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t recommend that, Mr. Darwin. For I am one not unlike yourself. And I shall remove myself presently, after my business is done.”

“What business could you possibly have with me—business that cannot be conducted during the day and in the proper manner?”

“Alas, my manner may be a bit unorthodox. But there was no other way.”

“Come to the point, sir. I have no time for riddles.”

“It is Madame, Mr. Darwin.” The stranger seemed to sigh, a sigh not unlike the soughing of the wind through the trees. “I have come to persuade you, Mr. Darwin, not to publish The Descent of Man.”

“How could you possibly know about this manuscript? Who has been speaking to you? Was it Henslowe?”

“Oh heavens, not Henslowe. Nor any other intimate of yours. Let’s say I’ve been involved in your argument from the start.”

“And what argument is that?”

“That the fossil evidence you have examined points to the close family ties of the higher primates— and man.”

“That’s an oversimplification, madame.”

“But to the point.”

“Not only the fossil record. The behavior and physiology of the primates is too similar to ignore.”

“Perhaps you see what you want to see, Mr. Darwin.”

“This is mere effrontery. First you sneak into my study like a common burglar, then you have the nerve the insult me. What do you know of these matters anyway? Who are you?”

The visitor leaned forward slightly but did not come into the light. “I am— Let us say I am a Lamarckian.”

“There—that explains it. You people are absolute fanatics. The Frenchman was a philosopher, not a scientist. He couldn’t tell a toe joint from a knuckle bone.”

“Come now, Mr. Darwin, you are disingenuous. You borrowed some of your own notions of evolution from Lamarck.”

I was taken aback. “All right,” I conceded, “some ideas of Lamarck’s had merit. However, his conclusion—that an organism can aspire to a higher state. It is the notion of a mystic, not a scientist.”

“Where you would deny human beings—all life, in fact—a soul.”

“There!” I clapped my hands now that I knew the drift of her thinking. “You are the wife of another disgruntled cleric. You have come to tell me that I am about to deal the death blow to the notion of Homo sapiens as the direct creation of the All Mighty.”

“I have come to tell you, sir,” my visitor replied in a solemn tone, “that your theory of natural selection is a doctrine of despair– and a dangerous folly. To apes, as well as men.”

“And I suppose you have evidence to the contrary.”

“Oh indeed I do, Mr. Darwin. I have studied the higher primates for many years.”

“In the wild, I suppose.”

“Oh yes. In Africa—and other places. In a manner of speaking, you might say they are my clients.”

“Your clients?” I must admit, at this point, my curiosity was piqued, despite my visitor’s abrupt dismissal of my life’s work. However, when I nodded for her to continue, I little suspected the tale that was about to unfold.

“I can tell you that the primate clans are deeply disturbed by the reductionist nature of your natural selection theory, Mr. Darwin. In their view, natural selection reduces the living organism to a mere agglomeration of matter that is pushed about and prodded by environmental changes. The clans are not happy at being denied—robbed might be a better word—of purpose. Besides, the imminent publication of The Descent of Man, could well interfere with their ongoing research into the nature of Homo sapiens.”

“Let me understand you, madame— the apes are studying men?”

“Oh, indeed, Mr. Darwin, and have been doing so for many, many generations.”

I don‘t know what stopped me from ending this interview with a madwoman then and there; perhaps it was a lapse in my own reason, or the very compelling tone of her voice. My visitor assured me that not only had the higher primates—specifically the mountain gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans—been observing the behavior of human beings, they had gone to extraordinary lengths to learn their languages, cultures, customs, history, and science. Since the possession of such knowledge would be dangerous, given the envious and violent nature of humans, they had committed everything to memory. This meant developing an elaborate ruse to deceive humans into thinking that the clans were simply herbivorous clowns and mimics whose tool-making skills had not extended beyond using a twig to scoop ants out of holes in the ground.

To get closer to their subjects, many clan members over the years had volunteered to be caught by humans and held in captivity—in laboratories, circuses, and zoos, where they could get a closer look at this bizarre species. Their observations were then relayed telepathically to the clan leaders in the wild. Many had sacrificed their lives for learning, my visitor concluded, with an audible catch in her throat.

“And to what end is this—if you will excuse the expression—gorilla science?”

“Not all of the evidence is in,” my visitor replied. “but it is fairly certain that when the vote of the clans comes up next year, they will choose an entirely different evolutionary path.”

“As opposed to the human.”

“Oh yes. The human intellect is admirable, the wonder of all species, but the development of the spirit has not kept pace. Humans lack understanding—thus they forge tools that should enhance and sustain life into engines of destruction. They have not learned how to care for each other or other species. They have not learned how to—“


“How to love, Mr. Darwin. Those who cannot love cannot become wise.” The visitor nodded in grave assent and leaned forward just enough so that I was looking into a pair of eyes so deeply intelligent and penetrating that I caught my breath.

“So—what has this to do with my Descent of Man?” I mumbled.

“My clients need more time,” said the other. “If your book makes print, my clients will be hounded out of every forest, jungle, and savanna. It will mean their end.”

There was a soft rap on the study door and a moment later, it swung open. I spun around to see my dear Emma’s face shift from a gentle smile of greeting to a twisted grimace of sheer terror. The tea tray she bore flew up in the air with her scream.

The next thing I knew my chair was upended and the lamp on my desk fell to the floor with a clatter. I struggled to my feet in the darkness, and comforted my distraught wife. Presently, I could hear Jasper scrambling down the hall until he burst in the room with a candle. I told him to go out the front door to see if he could cut off the intruder. Taking the candle, I pulled aside the curtain and stepped onto the terrace.

The full moon hung in solitary splendor over the wide stretch of lawn, the banks of summer flowers, the poplars and the elms. It was a beautiful summer evening, perfectly still, except for the flutter of a ghostly moth about my lamp. I looked down and saw bright, black drops on the slate stones. I followed them back to the study. I found their source in the inkpot that had been knocked from my desk to the floor. I lowered the flame, and it shook in my hand.

There where she had stood, towering over me for just a moment before she fled, was the imprint of my visitor’s foot. Foot. Unshod. Bearing the unmistakable curvature of a pongid ape, a female, but of a species heretofore unknown.

That gunshot. I will see what Jasper has bagged. A moonlight burial may be required. And a very deep hole.






Frederick Highland has been, according to the seasons and the tides, a tropical agriculturalist, merchant seaman, and university lecturer. A former Peace Corps Volunteer, he has traveled widely, lived in the Far East, the Middle East, and Europe and currently resides in Washington State. His novels Ghost Eater (2003) and Night Falls on Damascus (2006) are published by St. Martin’s Press. He is an active member of the Authors Guild and Mystery Writers of America.


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