The Professor was congratulating Earth’s first visitor from another planet on his wisdom in getting in touch with a cultural anthropologist before contacting any other scientists (or governments, God forbid!), and in learning English from radio and TV before landing from his orbit-parked rocket, when the Martian stood up and said hesitantly, “Excuse me, please, but where is it?”
That baffled the Professor and the Martian seemed to grow anxious--at least his long mouth curved upward, and he had earlier explained that it curling downward was his smile--and he repeated, “Please, where is it?”
He was surprisingly humanoid in most respects, but his complexion was textured so like the rich dark armchair he’d just been occupying that the Professor’s pin-striped gray suit, which he had eagerly consented to wear, seemed an arbitrary interruption between him and the chair--a sort of Mother Hubbard dress on a phantom conjured from its leather.
The Professor’s Wife, always a perceptive hostess, came to her husband’s rescue by saying with equal rapidity, “Top of the stairs, end of the hall, last door.”
The Martian’s mouth curled happily downward and he said, “Thank you very much,” and was off.
Comprehension burst on the Professor. He caught up with his guest at the foot of the stairs.
“Here, I’ll show you the way,” he said.
“No, I can find it myself, thank you,” the Martian assured him.
Something rather final in the Martian’s tone made the Professor desist, and after watching his visitor sway up the stairs with an almost hypnotic softly jogging movement, he rejoined his wife in the study, saying wonderingly, “Who’d have thought it, by George! Function taboos as strict as our own!”
“I’m glad some of your professional visitors maintain ‘em,” his wife said darkly.
“But this one’s from Mars, darling, and to find out he’s--well, similar in an aspect of his life is as thrilling as the discovery that water is burned hydrogen. When I think of the day not far distant when I’ll put his entries in the cross-cultural index...”
He was still rhapsodizing when the Professor’s Little Son raced in.
“Pop, the Martian’s gone to the bathroom!”
“Hush, dear. Manners.”
“Now it’s perfectly natural, darling, that the boy should notice and be excited. Yes, Son, the Martian’s not so very different from us.”
“Oh, certainly,” the Professor’s Wife said with a trace of bitterness. “I don’t imagine his turquoise complexion will cause any comment at all when you bring him to a faculty reception. They’ll just figure he’s had a hard night--and that he got that baby-elephant nose sniffing around for assistant professorships.”
“Really, darling! He probably thinks of our noses as disagreeably amputated and paralyzed.”
“Well, anyway, Pop, he’s in the bathroom. I followed him when he squiggled upstairs.”
“Now, Son, you shouldn’t have done that. He’s on a strange planet and it might make him nervous if he thought he was being spied on. We must show him every courtesy. By George, I can’t wait to discuss these things with Ackerly-Ramsbottom! When I think of how much more this encounter has to give the anthropologist than even the physicist or astronomer...”
He was still going strong on his second rhapsody when he was interrupted by another high-speed entrance. It was the Professor’s Coltish Daughter.
“Mom, Pop, the Martian’s--”
“Hush, dear. We know.”
The Professor’s Coltish Daughter regained her adolescent poise, which was considerable. “Well, he’s still in there,” she said. “I just tried the door and it was locked.”
“I’m glad it was!” the Professor said while his wife added, “Yes, you can’t be sure what--” and caught herself. “Really, dear, that was very bad manners.”
“I thought he’d come downstairs long ago,” her daughter explained. “He’s been in there an awfully long time. It must have been a half hour ago that I saw him gyre and gimbal upstairs in that real gone way he has, with Nosy here following him.” The Professor’s Coltish Daughter was currently soaking up both jive and Alice.
When the Professor checked his wristwatch, his expression grew troubled. “By George, he is taking his time! Though, of course, we don’t know how much time Martians ... I wonder.”
“I listened for a while, Pop,” his son volunteered. “He was running the water a lot.”
“Running the water, eh? We know Mars is a water-starved planet. I suppose that in the presence of unlimited water, he might be seized by a kind of madness and ... But he seemed so well adjusted.”
Then his wife spoke, voicing all their thoughts. Her outlook on life gave her a naturally sepulchral voice.
“What’s he doing in there?“
Twenty minutes and at least as many fantastic suggestions later, the Professor glanced again at his watch and nerved himself for action. Motioning his family aside, he mounted the stairs and tiptoed down the hall.
He paused only once to shake his head and mutter under his breath, “By George, I wish I had Fenchurch or von Gottschalk here. They’re a shade better than I am on intercultural contracts, especially taboo-breakings and affronts...”
His family followed him at a short distance.
The Professor stopped in front of the bathroom door. Everything was quiet as death.
He listened for a minute and then rapped measuredly, steadying his hand by clutching its wrist with the other. There was a faint splashing, but no other sound.
Another minute passed. The Professor rapped again. Now there was no response at all. He very gingerly tried the knob. The door was still locked.
When they had retreated to the stairs, it was the Professor’s Wife who once more voiced their thoughts. This time her voice carried overtones of supernatural horror.
“What’s he doing in there?“
“He may be dead or dying,” the Professor’s Coltish Daughter suggested briskly. “Maybe we ought to call the Fire Department, like they did for old Mrs. Frisbee.”
The Professor winced. “I’m afraid you haven’t visualized the complications, dear,” he said gently. “No one but ourselves knows that the Martian is on Earth, or has even the slightest inkling that interplanetary travel has been achieved. Whatever we do, it will have to be on our own. But to break in on a creature engaged in--well, we don’t know what primal private activity--is against all anthropological practice. Still--”
“Dying’s a primal activity,” his daughter said crisply.
“So’s ritual bathing before mass murder,” his wife added.
“Please! Still, as I was about to say, we do have the moral duty to succor him if, as you all too reasonably suggest, he has been incapacitated by a germ or virus or, more likely, by some simple environmental factor such as Earth’s greater gravity.”