Theodore Savage (19)

By: Cicely Hamilton
July 15, 2013

HILOBROW is pleased to present the nineteenth installment of our serialization of Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage (also known as Lest Ye Die). New installments will appear each Monday for 25 weeks.

When war breaks out in Europe — war which aims successfully to displace entire populations — British civilization collapses utterly and overnight. The ironically named Theodore Savage, an educated and dissatisfied idler, must learn to survive by his wits in the new England, where 20th-century science, technology, and culture are regarded with superstitious awe and terror.

The book — by a writer best known today for her suffragist plays, treatises, and activism — was published in 1922. In September 2013, HiLoBooks will publish it in a gorgeous paperback edition, with an Introduction by Gary Panter.

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There was no immediate answer, but suddenly he knew that the silence around him had ceased to be threatening and tense. The old man’s eyes had left his own; they were moving round the room and searching, as it seemed, for assent…. In the end they came back to Theodore — and judgment was given.

“If you are what you say you are, we will take you; but if you have lied to us and you know what is forbidden, we shall find you out sooner or later and, as sure as you stand there, we will kill you. If you are what you say you are — a plain man like us and without devil’s knowledge — you may come to us and bring your woman, if she also is without devil’s knowledge. That is, if you can feed her; we have only enough for ourselves. And from this day forward you will be our man; and tomorrow you will take the oath to be what we are and live as we do, and be our man against all our enemies and perils. Are you agreed to that?”


He was saved and Ada with him — so much he knew; but as yet it was not clear what had saved him. He was to be their man — take an oath and be one with them — and there was the phrase “devil’s knowledge,” twice repeated…. He stared stupidly at the man who had granted his life — realizing that his ordeal was over only when the packed room emptied itself and the old man turned back to his fire.


It was the phrase “devil’s knowledge” that, when his first bewilderment was over, gave Theodore the clue to the meaning of the scene he had lived through and the outlook of those whose man he would become on the morrow. That and the sudden memory of Markham… on the crest of the centuries, on the night when the crest curled over…

He was so far taken into tribal fellowship that he had ceased to be openly a prisoner; but the two men who, for the rest of the night, shared with him the shelter of a lean-to hut, took care to bestow themselves between their guest and the entrance. He got little out of them in the way of enlightenment, for they were asleep almost as they flung themselves down on their moss; but for hours, while they snored, Theodore lay open-eyed, piecing together his fragmentary information of the world into which he had strayed.

“Without devil’s knowledge”— that, if he understood aright, was the qualification for admission to the life that had survived disaster. “Devil’s knowledge” being — if he was not mad — the scientific, mechanical, engineering lore which was the everyday acquirement of thousands on thousands of ordinary civilized men. The everyday acquirements of ordinary men were anathema; if he was not mad, his own life had been granted him for the reason only that he was unskilled and devoid of them. Ignorant, even as the men who spared him, of practical science and mechanics — a plain man, like unto them…. Ignorance was prized here, esteemed as a virtue — the old man’s query, “You’re a college man?” had been accusation disguised.

In a flash it was clear to him, and he saw through the farce whereby he had been tested and tempted; understood the motive that had prompted its cruel low cunning and all that the cunning implied of acceptance of barbarism, insistence on it…. What these outcasts, these remnants of humanity feared above all things was a revival of the science, the mechanical powers, that had wrecked their cities, their houses and their lives and made them — what they were…. In knowledge was death and in ignorance alone was a measure of peace and security; hence, fearing lest he was of those who knew too much, they had tempted him to confess to forbidden knowledge, to boast of it — that, having boasted, they might kill him without mercy, make an end of his wits with his life. In the torments inflicted by science destructive they had turned upon science and renounced it; and, that their terrors might not be renewed in the future, they were setting up against it an impassable barrier of ignorance. They had put devil’s knowledge behind them — with intention for ever…. If when they questioned him and led him on, he had yielded to the natural impulse to lie, they would have knocked him on the head — like vermin — without scruple; and the sweat broke out on him as he remembered how nearly he had lied….

He sat up, sweating and staring at darkness, and thrust back the hair from his forehead…. He was back among men — who, of set purpose and deliberately, had turned their faces from the knowledge their fathers had acquired by the patience and toil of generations! Who, of set purpose and deliberately, sought to filch from their children the heritage of the ages, the treasure of the mind of man!… That was what it meant — the treasure of the mind of man! Renunciation of all that long generations had striven for with patience and learning and devotion…. The impossibility and the treason of it — to know nothing, to forget all their fathers had won for them…. He remembered old talk of education as a birthright and the agitations of reformers and political parties. To this end.

Who were they, he asked himself, these people who had made a decision so terrible — what manner of men in the old life? Now they were seeking to live as the beasts live, and not only the world material had died to them, but the world of human aspiration…. To this they had come, these people who once were human — the beast in them had conquered the brain… and like fire there blazed into his brain the commandment: “Thou shalt not eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge! Thou shalt not eat… lest ye die.”

The command, the prohibition, had suddenly a new significance. Was this, then, the purport of a legend hitherto meaningless? Was this the truth behind the childish symbol? The deadly truth that knowledge is power of destruction — power of destruction too great for the human, the fallible, to wield?… Odd that he had never thought of it before — that, familiar all his life with a deadly truth, he had read it as primitive childishness!


“Of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat… lest ye die….”

He sat numbly repeating the words half aloud till there flashed into his brain a memory, a vision of Markham. In his room off Great Smith Street on the night when war was declared — talking rapidly with his mouth full of biscuit. “Only one thing I’m fairly certain about —I ought to have been strangled at birth…. If the human animal must fight, it should kill off its scientific men. Stamp out the race of ’em!”… What was that but a paraphrase, a modern application of the command laid upon Adam. “Of the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat… lest ye die.”

To his first impulse — of amazement and shrinking, as from treason — succeeded understanding of the outlook of these men and their decision. More, he wondered why, even in the worst of his despair, he had always believed in the persistence, the re-birth, of the civilization that had bred him…. These people — he saw it — were logical, as Markham had been logical — were wise after the event as Markham had been wise before it; and it amazed him that in his porings and guessings at a world reviving he had never hit upon their simple solution of the eternal problem of war. Markham’s solution; which, till this moment, he had not taken literally…. “You can’t combine the practice of science and the art of war; in the end it’s one or the other. We, I think, are going to prove that — very definitely.” One or the other. The fighting instinct or knowledge!

Man, because he fights, must deny himself knowledge — which is power over the forces of nature; the secrets of nature must be veiled from him by his own ignorance — lest, when the impulse to strife wells up in him, they serve him for infinite destruction. These renegades, in agony, had made confession of their sin, of the corporate sin of a world; had faced the brutality of their own nature; had denied themselves the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and led themselves out of temptation. Since fight they must, being men with men’s passions, they would limit their powers of destruction…. So he read their strange self-denying ordinance.

The thought led him on to wonder whether they were alone in their self-denying ordinance…. Surely not — unless they lived hidden, in complete isolation, out of contact with others of their kind. And obviously they did not live isolated; they had spoken of others who were stronger, and of land that was theirs — implying a system of boundary and penalty for trespass and theft. Further, the phrase “against all enemies ” indicated at least a possibility of the contact that was bloodshed — yet enemies who had not renounced the advantage of mechanical and scientific knowledge would be enemies who could overwhelm at the first encounter a community fighting as barbarians…. What, then, was their relation to a world more civilized and communities that had not renounced?…

In the end, from sheer exhaustion, he ceased to surmise and argue with himself — and slept suddenly and heavily, huddling for warmth on his moss-bed against the body of his nearest gaoler.

It was a thrust from a foot that awakened him, and he crawled out shivering into the half-light of dawn and the chill of a frost-bitten morning; the camp was alive and emerging from its shelters, the women already occupied in cooking the morning meal. Theodore and his guardians shared a bowl of steaming mess; a mingling of potatoes, dried green-stuff and gobbets of meat which he guessed to be rat-flesh. They shared it wolfishly, each man eating fast lest his fellows had more than their portion; the meal over, the bowl was flung back to the women for washing, and his gaolers — his mates now — relaxed; there was no further reason for unfriendliness and they were willing enough to be communicative, with the slow uncommunicativeness of men who have little but their daily round to talk about.

They had neighbours, yes — at least what you might call neighbours; there was a settlement, much the same size as their own, some three or four hours’ journey away, on the other side of the river — that was the nearest, and the tribesmen met sometimes but not often. Being questioned, they explained that there was frequent trouble about fishing rights — where our stretch of river ended and theirs began; trouble and, now and then, fighting. Yes, of course, they lived as we do — how else should they live?… They were better off for shelter, having taken possession of a village — but we, in the hills, were much safer, not so easy to attack or surprise. No, they were not the only ones; on this side the river, but farther away, was another settlement, a larger one; there had been trouble with them, too, as they were very short of food and sent out raiding parties. They had fallen on the village across the water, carried off some of its winter stock and set light to three or four houses; later — a month ago — they had fallen on us, less successfully because we were warned and on the look-out for them…. That was why we always have watchers at night — the watchers who saw your fire….

Even from a first halting conversation with men who found anything but sheer statement of fact a difficulty, Theodore was able to construct in outline the common life of this new humanity, its politics, internal and external. The constitution of the tribe — the origin and keystone of the social system — had been, in the beginning, as much a matter of reckless chance as the mating of himself and Ada; small wandering groups of men, who had come alive through the agony of war and famine, had been knit together by a common need or a terror of loneliness, and insensibly welded into a whole, an embryo community. It was a matter of chance, too, in the beginning whether the meeting with another little wandering group would result in bloodshed for the possession of food — sometimes for the possession of women — or a welcome and the joining up of forces; but to the joining-up process there was always a limit — the limit of resources available. A tribe which desired to augment its strength as against its rivals was faced with the difficulty of filling many hungry mouths…. Their own community had once been faced with such a difficulty and had solved it by driving out three or four of its weaker members.

Hopi American Indian Hogan

“What became of them?” asked Theodore, and was told no one knew. It was winter when food ran short and they were driven out — and some of them had come back after nightfall to the edge of the camp and cried to be allowed in again. Till the men ran out and drove them off with sticks and stone-throwing. After that they went and were no more seen…. Later, in the summer, there had broken out a sickness which again reduced their numbers. When the wind blew for long up the valley it brought a bad smell with it — and flies. That was what caused the sickness. There had been a great deal of it; it was said that in a village lower down the river more than half the inhabitants had died.

He surmised as he listened — and realized later — that it was the need of avoiding constant strife that had broken the nomadic habit and solidified the wandering and fluid groups into tribes with a settled dwelling-place. Until a limit was set to their wanderings, groups and single nomads drifted hither and thither in the search for food, snarling at each other when they met; the end of sheer anarchy came with appropriation, by a particular group, of a stretch of country which gave some promise of supporting it. That entailed the institution of communal property, the setting up of a barrier against the incursions of others — a barrier which was also a limit beyond which the group must not trespass on the land and possessions of others…. Swiftly, insensibly and naturally, there was growing up a system of boundaries; boundaries established, in the first place, by chance, by force or rough custom and defined later by meetings between head-men of villages. Within its boundaries each tribe or group existed as best it might, overstepping its limits at its peril; but disputing at intervals — as men have disputed since the world began — the precise terms of the agreement that defined its limits. And, agreements being verbal only, there were many occasions for dispute.


* “If you are what you say you are — a plain man like us and without devil’s knowledge” — this line anticipates Peter Dickinson’s excellent Changes trilogy (1968–70): The Weathermonger, Heartsease and The Devil’s Children.

Stay tuned!

RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.

HILOBOOKS: The mission of HiLoBooks is to serialize novels on HiLobrow; and also, as of 2012, operating as an imprint of Richard Nash’s Cursor, to reissue Radium Age science fiction in beautiful new print editions. So far, we have published Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’s The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, and J.D. Beresford’s Goslings. Forthcoming: E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.

SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | serialized between March and August 2012; Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, serialized between May and September 2012; William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, serialized between June and December 2012; J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, serialized between September 2012 and May 2013; and Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, serialized between March and August 2013.