THE HAMPDENSHIRE WONDER (3)
March 4, 2022
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize J.D. Beresford’s 1911 proto-sf novel The Hampdenshire Wonder for HILOBROW’s readers. The first sf novel of real importance about intelligence, it’s the ancestor of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan.
ALL INSTALLMENTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18.
THE DISILLUSIONMENT OF GINGER STOTT
Stott maintained an obstinate silence as we walked together up to the Common, a stretch of comparatively open ground on the plateau of the hill. He walked with his hands in his pockets and his head down, as he had walked out from Ailesworth with me nearly three years before, but his mood was changed. I was conscious that he was gloomy, depressed, perhaps a little unstrung. I was burning with curiosity. Now that I was released from the thrall of the child’s presence, I was eager to hear all there was to tell of its history.
Presently we sat down under an ash-tree, one of three that guarded a shallow, muddy pond skimmed with weed. Stott accepted my offer of a cigarette, but seemed disinclined to break the silence.
I found nothing better to say than a repetition of the old phrase. “That’s a very remarkable baby of yours, Stott,” I said.
“Ah!” he replied, his usual substitute for “yes,” and he picked up a piece of dead wood and threw it into the little pond.
“How old is he?” I asked.
“Nearly two year.”
“Can he…” I paused; my imagination was reconstructing the sceneof the railway carriage, and I felt a reflex of the hesitation shown by the rubicund man when he had asked the same question. “Can he… can he talk?” It seemed so absurd a question to ask, yet it was essentially a natural question in the circumstances.
“He can, but he won’t.”
This was startling enough, and I pressed my enquiry.
“How do you know? Are you sure he can?”
“Ah!” Only that aggravating, monosyllabic assent.
“Look here, Stott,” I said, “don’t you want to talk about the child?”
He shrugged his shoulders and threw more wood into the pond with a strained attentiveness as though he were peculiarly anxious to hit some particular wafer of the vivid, floating weed. For a full five minutes we maintained silence. I was trying to subdue my impatience and my temper. I knew Stott well enough to know that if I displayed signs of either, I should get no information from him. My self-controlwas rewarded at last.
“I’ve ’eard ’im speak,” he said, “speak proper, too, not like a baby.”
He paused, and I grunted to show that I was listening, but as he volunteered no further remark, I said: “What did you hear him say?”
“I dunno,” replied Stott, “somethin’ about learnin’ and talkin’. I didn’t get the rights of it, but the missus near fainted — she thinks ’e’s Gawd A’mighty or suthing.”
“But why don’t you make him speak?” I asked deliberately.
“Make ‘im!” said Stott, with a curl of his lip, “make ‘im! You try it on!”
I knew I was acting a part, but I wanted to provoke more information. “Well! Why not?” I said.
“’Cos ‘e’d look at you — that’s why not,” replied Stott, “and you can’t no more face ’im than a dog can face a man. I shan’t stand it much longer.”
“Curious,” I said, “very curious.”
“Oh! he’s a blarsted freak, that’s what ’e is,” said Stott, getting to his feet and beginning to pace moodily up and down.
I did not interrupt him. I was thinking of this man who had drawn huge crowds from every part of England, who had been a national hero, and who, now, was unable to face his own child. Presently Stott broke out again.
“To think of all the trouble I took when ’e was comin’,” he said, stopping in front of me. “There was nothin’ the missus fancied as I wouldn’t get. We was livin’ in Stoke then.” He made a movement of his head in the direction of Ailesworth. “Not as she was difficult,” he went on thoughtfully. “She used to say ‘I mussent get ’abits, George.’ Caught that from me; I was always on about that — then. You know, thinkin’ of learnin’ ’im bowlin’. Things was different then; afore ’e came.” He paused again, evidently thinking of his troubles.
Sympathetically, I was wondering how far the child had separated husband and wife. There was the making of a tragedy here, I thought; but when Stott, after another period of pacing up and down, began to speak again I found that his tragedy was of another kind.
“Learn ’im bowling!” he said, and laughed a mirthless laugh. “My Gawd! it ’ud take something. No fear; that little game’s off. And I could a’ done it if he’d been a decent or’nery child, ’stead of a blarsted freak. There won’t never be another, neither. This one pretty near killed the missus. Doctor said it’d be ’er last…. With an ’ead like that, whacher expect?”
“Can he walk?” I asked.
“Ah! Gets about easy enough for all ’is body and legs is so small. When the missus tries to stop ’im — she’s afraid ’e’ll go over — ’e just looks at ’er and she ’as to let ’im ’ave ’is own way.”
Later, I reverted to that speech of the child’s, that intelligent, illuminating speech that seemed to prove that there was indeed a powerful, thoughtful mind behind those profoundly speculative eyes.
“That time he spoke, Stott,” I said, “was he alone?”
“Ah!” assented Stott. “In the garden, practisin’ walkin’ all by ’imself.”
“Was that the only time?”
“Only time I’ve ’eard ’im.”
“Was it lately?”
“’Bout six weeks ago.”
“And he has never made a sound otherwise, cried, laughed?”
“’Ardly. ’E gives a sort o’ grunt sometimes, when ’e wants anything — and points.”
“He’s very intelligent.”
“Worse than that, ’e’s a freak, I tell you.”
With the repetition of this damning description, Stott fell back into his moody pacing, and this time I failed to rouse him from his gloom. “Oh! forget it,” he broke out once, when I asked him another question, and I saw that he was not likely to give me any more information that day.
We walked back together, and I said good-bye to him at the end of the lane which led up to his cottage.
“Not comin’ up?” he asked, with a nod of his head towards his home.
“Well! I have to catch that train…” I prevaricated, looking at my watch. I did not wish to see that child again; my distaste was even stronger than my curiosity.
Stott grinned. “We don’t ’ave many visitors,” he said. “Well, I’llcome a bit farther with you.”
He came to the bottom of the hill, and after he left me he took the road that goes over the hill to Wenderby. It would be about seven miles back to Pym by that road….
I spent the next afternoon in the Reading Room of the British Museum. I was searching for a precedent, and at last I found one in the story of Christian Heinrich Heinecken, who was born at Lübeck on February 6, 1721. There were marked points of difference between the development of Heinecken and that of Stott’s child. Heinecken was physically feeble; at the age of three he was still being fed at the breast. The Stott precocity appeared to be physically strong; his body looked small and undeveloped, it is true, but this was partly an illusion produced by the abnormal size of the head. Again Heinecken learned to speak very early; at ten months old he was asking intelligent questions, at eighteen months he was studying history, geography, Latin and anatomy; whereas the Stott child had only once been heard to speak at the age of two years, and had not, apparently, begun any study at all.
From this comparison it might seem at first that the balance of precocity lay in the Heinecken scale. I drew another inference. I argued that the genius of the Stott child far outweighed the genius of Christian Heinecken.
Little Heinecken in his four years of life suffered the mental experience — with certain necessary limitations — of a developed brain. He gathered knowledge as an ordinary child gathers knowledge, the only difference being that his rate of assimilation was as ten to one.
But little Stott had gathered no knowledge from books. He had been born of ignorant parents, he was being brought up among uneducated people. Yet he had wonderful intellectual gifts: surely he must have one above all others — the gift of reason. His brain must be constructive, logical; he must have the power of deduction. He must even at an extraordinarily early age, say six months, have developed some theory of life. He must be withholding his energy, deliberately; declining to exhibit his powers, holding his marvellous faculties in reserve. Here was surely a case of genius which, comparable in some respects to the genius of Heinecken, yet far exceeded it.
As I developed my theory, my eagerness grew. And then suddenly an inspiration came to me. In my excitement I spoke aloud and smacked the desk in front of me with my open hand. “Why, of course!” I said. “That is the key.”
An old man in the next seat scowled fiercely. The attendants in the central circular desk all looked up. Other readers turned round and stared at me. I had violated the sacred laws of the Reading Room. I saw one of the librarians make a sign to an attendant and point to me.
I gathered up my books quickly and returned them at the central desk. My self-consciousness had returned, and I was anxious to be away from the observation of the many dilettante readers who found my appearance more engrossing than the books with which they were dallying on some pretext or another.
Yet, curiously, when I reached the street, the theory which had come to me in the Museum with the force and vividness of an illuminating dream had lost some of its glamour. Nevertheless, I set it out as it then shaped itself in my mind.
The great restraining force in the evolution of man, so I thought, has been the restriction imposed by habit. What we call instinct is a hereditary habit. This is the first guiding principle in the life of the human infant. Upon this instinct we immediately superimpose the habits of reason, all the bodily and intellectual conventions that have been handed down from generation to generation. We learn everything we know as children by the hereditary, simian habit of imitation. The child of intellectual, cultured parents, born into savage surroundings, becomes the slave of this inherited habit — call it tendency, if you will, the intention is the same. I elaborated the theory by instance and introspection, and found no flaw in it….
And here, by some freak of nature, was a child born without these habits. During the period of gestation, one thought had dominated the minds of both parents — the desire to have a son born without habits. It does not seriously affect the theory that the desire had a peculiar end in view; the wish, the urgent, controlling, omnipotent will had been there, and the result included far more than the specific intention.
Already some of my distaste for the Stott child had vanished. It was accountable, and therefore no longer fearful. The child was supernormal, a cause of fear to the normal man, as all truly supernormal things are to our primitive, animal instincts. This is the fear of the wild thing; when we can explain and give reasons, the horror vanishes. We are men again.
I did not quite recover the glow of my first inspiration, but the theory remained with me; I decided to make a study of the child, to submit knowledge to his reason. I would stand between him and the delimiting training of the pedagogue, I thought.
Then I reached home, and my life was changed.
This story is not of my own life, and I have no wish to enter into the curious and saddening experiences which stood between me and the child of Ginger Stott for nearly six years. In that time my thoughts strayed now and again to that cottage in the little hamlet on those wooded hills. Often I thought “When I have time I will go and see that child again if he is alive.” But as the years passed, the memory of him grew dim, even the memory of his father was blurred over by a thousand new impressions. So it chanced that for nearly six years I heard no word of Stott and his supernormal infant, and then chance again intervened. My long period of sorrow came to an end almost as suddenly as it had begun, and by a coincidence I was once more entangled in the strange web of the phenomenal.
In this story of Victor Stott I have bridged these six years in the pages that follow. In doing this I have been compelled to draw to a certain extent on my imagination, but the main facts are true. They have been gathered from first-hand authority only, from Henty Challis, from Mrs. Stott, and from her husband; though none, I must confess, has been checked by that soundest of all authorities, Victor Stott himself, who might have given me every particular in accurate detail, had it not been for those peculiarities of his which will be explained fully in the proper place.
 See the Deutsche Bibliothek and Schöneich’s account of the child of Lübeck.
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., 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. More info here.
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” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master” | Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom” | Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fifth Dimension” | Francis Stevens’s “Behind the Curtain” | more to come.