"Catch her!" Miss Snow exclaimed in Terran.
Everything had gone maroon for Tarb again. As she fell, she could hear a sudden thump. It was, she later discovered, Drosmig falling off his perch again--the result of insecure grip, she was given to understand, rather than excessive empathy.
"I didn't mean, of course, to give you the impression that we actually produce the individual copies of the papers ourselves," Stet explained over the dinner table that night. "We have native printers who do that. They've turned out some really remarkable Fizbian type fonts." "Very clever of them," Tarb said, knowing that was what she was expected to say. She glanced around the restaurant. In their low-cut evening garments, the Terrestrial females looked much less Fizboid than they had during the day. All that naked-looking skin; one would think they'd want to cover it. Probably they were sick with jealousy of her beautiful rose-colored down--what they could see of it, anyway.
"Of course, our real problem is getting proofreaders. The proofing machines won't operate here either, of course, and so we need human personnel. But what Fizbian would do such degrading work? We had thought of convict labor, but--"
"Why mustn't I take off my wrap?" Tarb interrupted. "No one else is wearing one."
Stet coughed. "You'll feel much less self-conscious about your wings if you keep it on. And try not to use your feet so conspicuously. I'm sure everyone understands you need them to eat with, but--"
"But I'm not in the least self-conscious about my wings. On Fizbus, they were considered rather nice-looking, if I do say so myself."
"It's better," he said firmly, "not to emphasize the differences between the natives and ourselves. You didn't object to wearing a Terrestrial costume, did you?"
"No, I realize I must make some concessions to native prudery, but--"
"Matter of fact, I've been thinking it would be a good idea for you to wear a stole or a cape or something in the daytime when you go to and from the office. You wouldn't want to make yourself or the Times conspicuous, I'm sure.... No, waiter, no coffee. We'll take champagne."
"I want to try coffee," Tarb said mutinously. "Champagne! You'd think I was a fledgling, giving me that bubbly stuff!"
He looked at her. "Now don't be silly, Miss Morfatch ... Tarb. I can't let you indulge in such rash experiments. You realize I am responsible for you."
Tarb muttered darkly into her coupe maison.
Stet raised his eyebrows. "What did you say?"
"I was only wondering whether you'd remembered to check on whether that young man--Bloxx--ever did get out of jail."
Stet snapped his toes. "Glad you reminded me. Completely slipped my mind. Let's go and see what happened to him, shall we?"
As they rose to leave, a dumpy Earthwoman rushed up to them, enthusiastically babbling in Terran. Seizing Tarb's foot, she clung to it before the Fizbian girl could do anything to prevent her. Tarb had to spread her wings wide to retain her balance. Her cloak flew off and an adjoining table of diners disappeared beneath it.
Stet and the headwaiter rushed to the rescue with profuse apologies, Stet's crest undulating as if it concealed a nest of snakes. But Tarb was too much frightened to be calmed.
"Is this a hostile attack?" she shrieked frantically at Stet. "Because the handbook never said shaking feet was an Earth custom!"
"No, no, she's a friend!" Stet yelled, leaving the diners still struggling with the cloak as he sped back to her. "And shaking feet isn't an Earth custom; she thinks it's a Fizbian one. You see.... Oh, hell, never mind--I'll explain the whole thing to you later. But she's just greeting you, trying to put you at your ease. It's Belinda Romney, a very important Terrestrial. She owns the Solar Press--you must have heard of it even on Fizbus--biggest news service on the planet. Absolutely wouldn't do to offend her. Mrs. Romney, may I present Miss Morfatch?"
The woman beamed and continued to gush endlessly.
"Tell her to let go my foot!" Tarb demanded. "It's getting so it feels carbonated."
He smiled deprecatingly. "Now, Tarb, we mustn't be rude--"
For the first time in her life, Tarb spoke Terran to a Terrestrial. She formed the words slowly and carefully: "Sorry we must leave, but we have to go to jail."
She looked to Stet for approval ... and didn't get it. He started to explain something quickly to the woman. Every time she'd heard him speak Terran, Tarb thought, he seemed to be introducing, explaining or apologizing.
It turned out that, through some oversight, the usually thoughtful Terran police department had neglected to inform the Fizbian consul that one of his people had been incarcerated, for the young man had already been tried, found guilty of assault plus contempt of court, and sentenced to pay a large fine. However, after Stet had given his version of the circumstances to a sympathetic judge, the sum was reduced to a nominal one, which the Times paid.
"But I don't see why you should have paid anything at all," Bloxx protested ungratefully. "I didn't do anything wrong. You should have made an issue of it."
"According to Earth laws, you did do wrong," Stet said wearily, "and this is Earth. What's more, if we take the matter up, it will naturally get into print. You don't want your employers to hear about it, do you--even if you don't care about making Fizbians look ridiculous to Terrestrials?"
"I suppose I wouldn't like FizbEarth to find out," Bloxx conceded. "As it is, I'll have to do some fast explaining to account for my not having shown up for nearly a week. I'll say I caught some horrible Earth disease--that'll scare them so much, they'll probably beg me to take another week off. Though I do wish you fellows over at the Times would answer your mail sooner. I'm a regular subscriber, you know."
"But the same kind of thing's going to happen over and over again, isn't it, Stet?" Tarb asked as a taxi took them back to the hotel in which most of the Times staff was domiciled. "If privacy doesn't exist on Earth, it's bound to keep occurring."
"Eh?" Stet took his attention away from her toes with some difficulty. "Some Earth people like privacy, too, but they have to fight for it. Violations aren't legally punishable--that's the only difference."
"Then surely the Terrestrials would understand about us, wouldn't they?" she asked eagerly. "If they knew how strongly we felt about privacy, maybe they wouldn't violate it--not as much, anyway. I'm sure they're not vicious, just ignorant. And you can't just keep on getting Fizbians out of jail each time they run up against the problem. It would be too expensive, for one thing."
"Don't worry," he said, pressing her toes. "I'll take care of the whole thing."
"An article in the paper wouldn't really help much," she persisted thoughtfully, "and I suppose you must have run at least one already. It would explain to the Fizbians that Terrestrials don't regard invasion of privacy as a crime, but it wouldn't tell the Terrestrials that Fizbians do. We'll have to think of--"
"You're surely not going to tell me how to run my paper on your first day here, are you?"
He tried to take the sting out of his words by twining his toes around hers, but she felt guilty. She had been presumptuous. Probably there were lots of things she couldn't understand yet--like why she shouldn't polish her eyeballs in public. Stet had finally explained to her that, while Terrestrial women did make up in public, they didn't scour their irises, ever, and would be startled and horrified to see someone else doing so.
"But I was horrified to see them raking their feathers in public!" Tarb had contended.
"Combing their hair, my dear. And why not? This is their planet."
That was always his answer. I wonder, she speculated, whether he would expect a Terrestrial visitor to Fizbus to fly ... because, after all, Fizbus is our planet. But she didn't dare broach the question.
However, if it was presumptuous of her to make helpful suggestions the first day, it was more than presumptuous of Stet to ask her up to his rooms to see his collection of rare early twentieth-century Terrestrial milk bottles and other antiques. So she just told him courteously that she was tired and wanted to go to roost. And, since the hotel had a whole section fitted up to suit Fizbian requirements, she spent a more comfortable night than she had expected.
She awoke the next day full of enthusiasm and ready to start in on the great work at once. Although she might have been a little too forward the previous night, she knew, as she took a reassuring glance in the mirror, that Stet would forgive her.
In the office, she was, at first, somewhat self-conscious about Drosmig, who hung insecurely from his perch muttering to himself, but she soon forgot him in her preoccupation with duty. The first letter she picked up--although again oddly unlike the ones she'd read in the paper on Fizbus--seemed so simple that she felt she would have no difficulty in answering it all by herself: Heidelberg Dear Senbot Drosmig: I am a professor of Fizbian History at a local university. Since my salary is a small one, owing to the small esteem in which the natives hold culture, I must economize wherever I can in order to make both ends meet. Accordingly, I do my own cooking and shop at the self-service supermarket around the corner, where I have found that prices are lower than in the service groceries and the food no worse.
However, the manager and a number of the customers have objected to my shopping with my feet. They don't so much mind my taking packages off the shelves with them, but they have been quite vociferous on the subject of my pinching the fruit with my toes. Unripe fruit, however, makes me ill. What shall I do?
Sincerely yours, Grez B'Groot Tarb dictated an unhesitating reply: Dear Professor B'Groot: Why don't you explain to the manager of the store that Fizbians have wings and feet rather than arms and hands?
I'm sure his attitude and the attitudes of his customers will change when they learn that your pinching the fruit with your feet is not mere pedagogical eccentricity, but the regular practice on our planet. Point out to him that your feet are covered and, therefore, more sanitary than the bare hands of his other customers.
And always put on clean socks before you go shopping.
Helpfully yours, Senbot Drosmig Miss Snow raised pale eyebrows.
"Is something wrong?" Tarb asked anxiously. "Should I have put in that bit about work, study, meditate? It seems inappropriate somehow."
"Oh, no, not that. It's just that your letter--well, violates Mr. Zarnon's precept that, in Rome, one must do as the Romans do."
"But this isn't Rome," Tarb replied, bewildered. "It's New York."
"He didn't make the saying up," Miss Snow replied testily. "It's a Terrestrial proverb."
"Oh," Tarb said.
She resented this creature's trying to tell her how to do her job. On the other hand, Tarb was wise enough to realize that Miss Snow, unpleasant though she might be, probably did know Stet well enough to be able to predict his reactions.
So Tarb not only was reluctant to show Stet what she had already done, but hesitated about answering another and even more urgent letter that had just been brought in by special messenger. She tried to compromise by submitting the letters to Drosmig--for, technically speaking, it was he who was her immediate superior--but he merely groaned, "Tell 'em all to drop dead," from his perch and refused to open his eyes.
In the end, Tarb had to take the letters to Stet's office. Miss Snow trailed along behind her, uninvited. And, since this was a place of business, Tarb could not claim a privacy violation. Even if it weren't a place of business, she remembered, she couldn't--not here on Earth. Advanced spirituality, hah!
Advanced pain in the pinions!
Stet read the first letter and her answer smilingly. "Excellent, Tarb--" her hearts leaped--"for a first try, but I'd like to suggest a few changes, if I may."
"Well, of course," she said, pretending not to notice the smirk on Miss Snow's face.
"Just write this Professor B'Goot that he should do his shopping at a grocery that offers service and practice his economies elsewhere. A professor, of all people, is expected to uphold the dignity of his own race--the idea, sneering at a culture that was thousands of years old when we were still building nests! Terrestrials couldn't possibly have any respect for him if they saw him prodding kumquats with his toes."
"It's no sillier than writing with one's vestigial wings!" Tarb blazed.
"Well!" Miss Snow exclaimed in Terran. "Well, really!"
Tarb started to stick out her tongue, then remembered. "I didn't mean to offend you, Miss Snow. I know it's your custom. But wouldn't you understand if I typewrote with my feet?"
Miss Snow tittered.
"If you want the honest truth, hon, it would make you look like a feathered monkey."
"If you want the honest truth about what you look like to me, dearie--it's a plucked chicken!"
"Tarb, I think you should apologize to Miss Snow!"
"All right!" Tarb stuck out her tongue. Miss Snow promptly thrust out hers in return.
"Ladies, ladies!" Stet cried. "I think there has been a slight confusion of folkways!" He quickly changed the subject. "Is that another letter you have there, Tarb?"
"Yes, but I didn't try to answer it. I thought you'd better have a look at it first, since Miss Snow didn't seem to think much of the job I did with the other one."
"Miss Snow always has the Times' welfare at heart," Stet remarked ambiguously, and read: Chicago Dear Senbot Drosmig: I am employed as translator by the extraterrestrial division of Burns and Deerhart, Inc., the well-known interstellar mail-order house. As the company employs no other Fizbians and our offices are situated in a small rural community where no others of our race reside, I find myself rather lonely. Moreover, being a bachelor, with neither chick nor child on Fizbus, I have nothing to look forward to upon my return to the Home Planet some day.
Accordingly, I decided to adopt a child to cheer my declining years. I dispatched an interstellargram to a reliable orphanage on Fizbus, outlining my hopes and requirements in some detail. After they had satisfied themselves as to my income, strength of character, etc., they sent me a fatherless and motherless egg in cold storage, which I was supposed to hatch upon arrival.
However, when the egg came to Earth, it was impounded by Customs. They say it is forbidden to import extrasolar eggs. I have tried to explain to them that it is not at all a question of importation but of adoption; however, they cannot or will not understand.
Please tell me what to do. I fear that they may not be keeping the egg at the correct Fizbian freezing point--which, as you know, is a good deal lower than Earth's. The fledgling may hatch by itself and receive a traumatic shock that might very well damage its entire psyche permanently.
Frantically yours, Glibmus Gluyt "Oh, for the stars' sake!" Stet exploded. "This is really too much! Viz our consul, Miss Snow. That egg must go back to Fizbus at once, before any Terrestrials hear of it! And I must notify the government back on the Home Planet to keep a close check on all egg shipments. Something like this must certainly not occur again."
"Why shouldn't the Terrestrials hear of it?" Tarb asked, outraged. "And I think it's mean of you to send back a poor little orphan egg like that when it has a chance of getting a good home."
"An egg!" Miss Snow repeated incredulously. "You mean you really...?" She gave me one mad little hoot of laughter and then stopped and strangled slightly. Her face turned purple in her efforts to restrain mirth. Really, Tarb thought, she looks so much better that color.
Stet's crest twitched violently. "I hope--" he began. "I do hope you will keep this ... knowledge to yourself, Miss Snow."
"But of course," she assured him, calming down. "I'm dreadfully sorry I was so rude. Naturally I wouldn't dream of telling a soul, Mr. Zarnon. You can trust me."
"I'm sure I can, Miss Snow."
Tarb almost choked with indignation. "You mean you've been keeping the facts of our life from Terrestrials? As if they were fledglings ... no, even fledglings are told these days."
"One could hardly blame him for it, Miss Morfatch," Miss Snow said. "You wouldn't want people to know that Fizbians laid eggs, would you?"
"And why not?"
"Tarb," Stet intervened, "you don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, don't I? You're ashamed of the fact that we bear our children in a clean, decent, honorable way instead of--" She stopped. "I'm being as bad as you two are. Probably the Terrestrials' way of reproduction doesn't seem dirty to them--but, since they do reproduce that way, they could scarcely find our way objectionable!"
"Tarb, that's not how a young girl should talk!"
"Oh, go lay an egg!" she said, knowing that she had overstepped the limits of propriety, but unable to let him get away with that. "I hope to be a wife and mother some day," she added, "and I only hope that when that time comes, I'll be able to lay good eggs."
"Miss Morfatch," Stet said, keeping control of his temper with a visible effort, "that will be enough from you. If common decency doesn't restrain you, please remember that I am your employer and that I set the policies on my paper. You'll do what you're told and keep a civil tongue in your head or you'll be sent back to Fizbus. Do I make myself clear?"
"You do, indeed," Tarb said. How could she ever have thought he was charming and handsome? Well, perhaps he still was handsome, but fine feathers do not make fine deeds. And, if it came to that, it wasn't his paper.
"We have the same thing on Terra," Miss Snow murmured sympathetically to Stet. "These young whippersnappers think they can start in running the paper the very first day. Why, Belinda Romney herself--she's a distant cousin of mine, you know--told me--"
"Miss Snow," Tarb said, "I hope for the sake of Earth that you are not a typical example of the Terrestrial species."
"And you, hon," Miss Snow retorted, "don't belong on a paper, but in a chicken coop."
"Ladies!" Stet said helplessly. "Women," he muttered, "certainly do not belong on a newspaper. Matter of fact, they don't belong anywhere; their place is in the home only because there's nowhere else to put them."
Both females glared at him.
During the next fortnight, Tarb gained fluency in Terran and also learned to operate a Terrestrial typewriter equipped with Fizbian type--mostly so that she could dispense with the services of the invaluable Miss Snow. She didn't like typing, though--it chipped her toenails and her temper. Besides, Drosmig kept complaining that the noise prevented him from sleeping and she preferred him to sleep rather than hang there making irrelevant and, sometimes, unpleasantly relevant remarks.