Theodore Savage (20)
July 22, 2013
HILOBROW is pleased to present the twentieth 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.
As he questioned his new-made comrades and heard their answers, there died in Theodore’s heart the hope that these people into whose midst he had stumbled — these people living like the beasts of the field — were but dwellers on the outskirts of a world reviving and civilized. Of men existing in any other fashion than their own he heard no mention, no rumour; there was talk only of a camp here and a village there — where men fished and hunted and scratched the ground that they might find the remains of other’s sowing. The formal intercourse between the various groups was suspicious and slyly diplomatic, an affair of the meetings of headmen; though now and again, as life grew more certain, there was trading in the form of barter. One community had settled in a stretch of potato-fields, left derelict, which, even under rough and unskilled cultivation, yielded more than sufficient for its needs; another, by some miracle, had possessed itself of goats — three or four in the first instance, found wild among the hills, escaped from the hungry, indiscriminate slaughter which had bared the countryside of cattle. These they bred, were envied for, guarded with arms in their hands and occasionally bartered; not without bitter resentment and dispute at the price their advantage exacted…. But of those who possessed more than goats or the leavings of other men’s fields, who lived as men had been wont to live in the days when the world was civilized — not a trace, not so much as a word!
Direct questioning brought only a shake of the head. Towns — yes, of course there were towns — further on; but no one lived in them — you could not get a living out of pavements, bricks and hard roads…. Up the river — the way he had come — was a stretch of dead land where nothing grew and no one lived; he had seen it for himself and knew best what lay beyond it. Lower down the river were the other camps like their own; so many they knew of, and others they had heard of further off. In the distance — on the other side of those hills — there had been a large town in the old days; ruins of it — miles of streets and ruins — were lying on both banks of the river. They themselves had never entered it — only seen it from a distance — but those who lived nearer had said it was mostly in ruins and that bodies were thick in the streets. In the summer, they had heard, it was forbidden to enter it; because it was those who had gone there in search of plunder who first were smitten with the sickness which spread from their camp along the valley. It was the wind blowing over the town — so they said — which brought the bad smell and the flies…. No, they did not know its name; had never heard it.
It was when he turned from the present to the past that Theodore found himself against a barrier, the barrier unexpected of a plain unwillingness to talk of the world that had vanished. When spoken of at all it was spoken of carefully, with precaution and choosing of phrase, and no man gave easily many details of his life before the Ruin.
At first the strange attitude puzzled him — he could make nothing of the odd, suspicious glances whereby questioning was met, the attempt to parry it, the cautious, non-committal replies; it was only by degrees that he grasped their significance and understood how complete was that renunciation of the past which these people had imposed upon themselves. Forgetfulness — so Theodore learned in time — was more than a precaution; it had been preached in the new-born world as a religion, accepted as an article of faith. The prophet who had expressed the common need and instinct in terms of religion had in due time made his appearance; a wild-eyed, eloquent scarecrow of a man, aflame with belief in his sacred mission and with loathing for the sins of the world. Coming from no one knew where, he carried his gospel through a land left desolate, proclaiming his creed of salvation through ignorance and crying woe on the yet unrepentant sinners who should seek to preserve the deadly knowledge that had brought God’s judgment on the world!
The seed of his doctrine fell on fruitful soil — on brutalized minds in starved bodies; the shaggy, half-naked enthusiast was hailed as a law-giver, saint and saviour, and the harvest of souls was abundant. On every side the faith was embraced with fervour; the bitter experience of the convert confirming the prophet’s inspiration. Tribe after tribe reconciled itself to a God who had turned in wrath from His creatures, offended by their upstart pretensions and encroachments on the power of Deity. Tribe after tribe made confession of its sin, grovelling at the feet of a jealous Omnipotence and renouncing the works of the devil and the deadly pride of the intellect; and in tribe after tribe there were hideous little massacres — blood-offerings, sweet and acceptable sacrifice, that should purify mankind from its guilt. Those who were known to have pried into the hidden secrets of Omnipotence were cut off in their wickedness, lest they should corrupt others — were dragged to the feet of the prophet and slaughtered, lest they should defile humanity anew through the pride of the intellect and the power of their devil-sent knowledge. Men known to be learned or suspected of learning; men possessed of no more than mechanical training and skill…. There was a story of one whom certain in the tribe would have spared — a doctor of medicine who had comforted many in the past. But the prophet cried out that this uttermost sacrifice, too, was demanded of them till, frenzied with piety, they turned on their healer and beat out the brains that had served them…. And over the bodies had followed an orgy of repentance, of groaning and revivalistic prayer; the priest blessing the sacrifice with uplifted arms and calling down the vengeance of God Most High upon those who should be false to the vow they had sworn in the blood of sinners. He chanted the vow, they repeating it after him; taking oath to renounce the evil thing, to stamp it out wherever met with, in man, in woman, in child.
The prophet (so Theodore learned) had continued his wanderings, preaching the gospel as he went — through village after village and settlement after settlement, till he passed beyond the confines of report. He had bidden his followers expect his return; but whether he came again or not, his doctrine was firmly established. He had left behind him the germs of a priesthood, a tradition and a Law for his converts:— a Law which included the penalty of death for those who should fail to keep the vow….
Lest it should fade from their minds, there were days set apart for renewal of the vow, for public, ceremonial repetition of the creed and doctrine of ignorance; and, with the Ruin an ever-present memory to the remnant of humanity, the tendency was to interpret the Law with all strictness — there were devotees and fanatics who watched with a mingling of animal fear and religious hate for signs of relapse and backsliding. Denunciation was of all things dreaded; and outspoken regret for a world that had passed had more than once been pretext for denunciation. To dwell in speech on the doings of that world might be interpreted — had been interpreted — as a hankering after the Thing Forbidden, a desire to revive the Accursed…. Hence the parrying of questions, the barrier of protective silence which the newcomer broke through with difficulty.
It took more than a day for Theodore to understand his new world and its meaning, to grasp its social system and civil and religious polity; but at the end of one day he knew roughly the conditions in which he was destined to live out the rest of his life.
Not that, in the beginning, he admitted that so he must live; it was long — many years — before he resigned himself to the knowledge that his limits, till death released him, were the narrow limits of his tribe. For years he held secretly — but none the less fast — to the hope of a civilization that must one day reveal itself, advance and overwhelm his barbarians. For years he strained his eyes for the coming of its pioneers, its saviours; it was long — very long — before he gave up his hopes and faced the certainty that, if the world he had known continued to exist, it existed too feebly and too far away to stretch out to himself and his surroundings.
There were times when the longing for it flared and burned in him, and he sought desperately for traces of the world he had known — running hither and thither in search of it. Under pretext of a hunting expedition he would absent himself from the tribe, and trespass — often at the imminent risk of death — on the territory of alien communities; returning, after days, no nearer to his goal and no wiser for his stealthy prowlings. The life of alien communities, the prospect revealed from strange hills, was, to all intents and purposes, the life and outlook of his tribe…. He would question the occasional stranger from a distant village, in the hope of at least a word, a rumour — a rumour that might give guidance for further and more hopeful search. But those who came from distant villages spoke only of villages more distant; of other hunting-grounds, of other tribal feuds, of other long stretches of ruin…. The world, so far as it came within his ken, was cut to one pattern, the pattern of a cowed and brutalized man, who bent his face to the stubborn ground and forgot the cunning of his fathers.
The actual and formal ceremony of his acceptance into the little community took place after night had fallen; deferred to that hour in part because, with nightfall, the day’s labour ceased and the fishermen and snarers of birds had returned to their dwelling-place — and in part because darkness, lit only by the glow of torches and wood fires, lent an added solemnity to the rite.
Earlier in the day the new tribesman had been summoned to a second interview with the headman. The old man questioned him shrewdly enough as to his road, the nature of his winter food store and the feasibility of transporting it; and it was settled finally that Theodore should depart with the morning accompanied by another from the tribe. The pair could row and tow up the river a flat-bottomed boat which was one of the community’s possessions; and as his own camp was only a few hours’ tramp from navigable water, he and his companion should be able, with a day or two, to make three or four journeys from camp to riverside and load the boat with as much as it would carry of his hoard. If the weather favoured — if snow held off and storm — they might return within five or six days.
His instructions received, he was dismissed; and bidden, since he would need a hut for himself and his wife, to set about its building at once. A site was allotted him on the edge of the copse that was the centre of the tribal life and he was granted the use of some of the tools that were common property — an axe, a mallet, and a spade. By the time the sun set his dwelling had made some progress; stakes had been driven in to serve as corner-posts, and logs laid from one to the other.
With dusk, by twos and threes, the men had drifted back to the village and the women were busied with the cooking of supper at fires that blazed in the open, so long as the weather was dry, as well as at the mud-built ovens that sheltered a flame from the wind. When they kept their men waiting for the plates and bowls of food there was impatient shouting and now and then a blow…. Theodore, as he ate his supper, noted suddenly that though one or two of the women carried babies, the camp contained no child that was older than the crawling stage — no child that survived the Disaster.
The night was rainless, and when the meal was over the men, for the most part, lay or crouched near their fires — some torpid, some talking with their women; but they roused and stood upright when the ceremony began, and the headman, calling for silence, beckoned with a dirty claw to Theodore.
“Here!” said Theodore and went to him. The old man was seated on the trunk of a fallen tree; he waited till the tribesmen, one and all, had ranged themselves on either hand and then signed to Theodore to kneel.
“Give me both your hands,” he ordered — and held them between his own. As in days long past — (so Theodore remembered) — the overlord, the suzerain, had taken the hands of his vassal…. Did he remember — this latter-day barbarian — the ritual of chivalry, the feudal customs of Capet, Hohenstaufen and Plantagenet? Or was his imitation of their lordly rite unconscious?
“So that you may live and be one of us,” the old man began, “you will swear two things — to be true to your fellows and humble and meek towards God. Before God and before all of us you will take your oath; and, if you break it, may you die the death of the wicked and may fire consume you to eternity!”
The words were intoned and not spoken for the first time: the ritual of the ceremony was established, and at definite points and intervals the bystanders broke in with a mutter of approval or warning — already traditional.
“First: you will swear, till death takes you, to be our man against all perils and enemies.”
“I will be your man till death takes me,” swore Theodore, “against all perils and enemies.”
“You are witness,” said the headman, looking round, and was answered by a murmur from the listeners. The women did not join in it — they had, it seemed, no right of vote or assent; but they had drawn near, every one of them, and were peering at the ceremony from beyond the shoulders of their men.
“And now,” came the order, “you will take the oath to God, to purify your heart and renounce devil’s knowledge — for yourself and for those who come after you. Swear it after me, word by holy word — and swear it with your heart as with your lips.”
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.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: 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’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, 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: 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’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire.”