One of my favourite pieces of comic writing is not by a comic writer at all, but an explorer. Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the youngest to Captain Scott’s party, writes here about his delivery of penguin eggs to the Natural History Museum. It should be noted that he and two others, who later died with Scott, spent a hellish month walking across the Antactic at midwinter to procure these eggs. At the time, penguins were very mysterious creatures, and men of science were keen to know as much about their ways as possible.
And now the reader will ask what became of the three penguins’ eggs for which three human lives had been risked three hundred times a day, and three human frames strained to the utmost extremity of human endurance.
Let us leave the Antarctic for a moment and conceive ourselves in the year 1913 in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. I had written to say that I would bring the eggs at this time. Present, myself, C.-G., the sole survivor of the three, with First or Doorstep Custodian of the Sacred Eggs. I did not take a verbatim report of his welcome; but the spirit of it may be dramatized as follows:
First Custodian. Who are you? What do you want? This ain’t an egg-shop. What call have you to come meddling with our eggs? Do you want me to put the police on to you? Is it the crocodile’s egg you’re after? I don’t know nothing about ‘no eggs. You’d best speak to Mr. Brown: it’s him that varnishes the eggs.
I resort to Mr. Brown, who ushers me into the presence of the Chief Custodian, a man of scientific aspect, with two manners: one, affably courteous, for a Person of Importance (I guess a Naturalist Rothschild at least) with whom he is conversing, and the other, extraordinarily offensive even for an official man of science, for myself.
I announce myself with becoming modesty as the bearer of the penguins’ eggs, and proffer them. The Chief Custodian takes them into custody without a word of thanks, and turns to the Person of Importance to discuss them. I wait. The temperature of my blood rises. The conversation proceeds for what seems to me a considerable period. Suddenly the Chief Custodian notices my presence and seems to resent it.
Chief Custodian. You needn’t wait.
Heroic Explorer. I should like to have a receipt for the eggs, if you please.
Chief Custodian. It is not necessary: it is all right. You needn’t wait.
Heroic Explorer. I should like to have a receipt.
But by this time the Chief Custodian’s attention is again devoted wholly to the Person of Importance. Feeling that to persist in overhearing their conversation would be an indelicacy, the Heroic Explorer politely leaves the room, and establishes himself on a chair in a gloomy passage outside, where he wiles away the time by rehearsing in his imagination how he will tell off the Chief Custodian when the Person of Importance retires. But this the Person of Importance shows no sign of doing, and the Explorer’s thoughts and intentions become darker and darker. As the day wears on, minor officials, passing to and from the Presence, look at him doubtfully and ask his business. The reply is always the same, “I am waiting for a receipt for some penguins’ eggs.” At last it becomes clear from the Explorer’s expression that what he is really waiting for is not to take a receipt but to commit murder. Presumably this is reported to the destined victim: at all events the receipt finally comes; and the Explorer goes his way with it, feeling that he has behaved like a perfect gentleman, but so very dissatisfied with that vapid consolation that for hours he continues his imaginary rehearsals of what he would have liked to have done to that Custodian (mostly with his boots) by way of teaching him manners.
Some time after this I visited the Natural History Museum with Captain Scott’s sister. After a slight preliminary skirmish in which we convinced a minor custodian that the specimens brought by the expedition from the Antarctic did not include the moths we found preying on some of them, Miss Scott expressed a wish to see the penguins’ eggs. Thereupon the minor custodians flatly denied that any such eggs were in existence or in their possession. Now Miss Scott was her brother’s sister; and she showed so little disposition to take this lying down that I was glad to get her away with no worse consequences than a profanely emphasized threat on my part that if we did not receive ample satisfaction in writing within twenty-four hours as to the safety of the eggs England would reverberate with the tale.
This is from The Worst Journey in the World, his wonderful book on the expedition, which ends like this:
Exploration is the physical expression of the Intellectual Passion.
And I tell you, if you have the desire for knowledge and the power to give it physical expression, go out and explore. If you are a brave man you will do nothing: if you are fearful you may do much, for none but cowards have need to prove their bravery. Some will tell you that you are mad, and nearly all will say, “What is the use?” For we are a nation of shopkeepers, and no shopkeeper will look at research which does not promise him a financial return within a year. And so you will sledge nearly alone, but those with whom you sledge will not be shopkeepers: that is worth a good deal. If you march your Winter Journeys you will have your reward, so long as all you want is a penguin’s egg.