THE HAMPDENSHIRE WONDER (8)
April 8, 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.
HIS FIRST VISIT TO CHALLIS COURT
“Shall you be able to help me in collating your notes of the Tikopia observations this morning, sir?” Lewes asked. He rose from the breakfast-table and lit a cigarette. There was no ceremony between Challis and his secretary.
“You forget our engagement for ten o’clock,” said Challis.
“Need that distract us?”
“It need not, but doesn’t it seem to you that it may furnish us with valuable material?”
“Hardly pertinent, sir, is it?”
“What line do you think of taking up, Lewes?” asked Challis with apparent irrelevance.
“With regard to this — this phenomenon?”
“No, no. I was speaking of your own ambitions.” Challis had sauntered over to the window; he stood, with his back to Lewes, looking out at the blue and white of the April sky.
Lewes frowned. He did not understand the gist of the question. “I suppose there is a year’s work on this book before me yet,” he said.
“Quite, quite,” replied Challis, watching a cloud shadow swarm up the slope of Deane Hill. “Yes, certainly a year’s work. I was thinking of the future.”
“I have thought of laboratory work in connection with psychology,” said Lewes, still puzzled.
“I thought I remembered your saying something of the kind,” murmured Challis absently. “We are going to have more rain. It will be a late spring this year.”
“Had the question any bearing on our engagement of this morning?” Lewes was a little anxious, uncertain whether this inquiry as to his future had not some particular significance; a hint, perhaps, that his services would not be required much longer.
“Yes; I think it had,” said Challis. “I saw the governess cart go up the road a few minutes since.”
“I suppose the boy will be here in a quarter of an hour?” said Lewes by way of keeping up the conversation. He was puzzled; he did not know Challis in this mood. He did not conceive it possible that Challis could be nervous about the arrival of so insignificant a person as this Stott child.
“It’s all very ridiculous,” broke out Challis suddenly; and he turned away from the window, and joined Lewes by the fire. “Don’t you think so?”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow you, sir.”
Challis laughed. “I’m not surprised,” he said; “I was a trifle inconsecutive. But I wish you were more interested in this child, Lewes. The thought of him engrosses me, and yet I don’t want to meet him. I should be relieved to hear that he wasn’t coming. Surely you, as a student of psychology…” he broke off with a lift of his heavy shoulders.
“Oh! Yes! I am interested, certainly, as you say, as a student of psychology. We ought to take some measurements. The configuration of the skull is not abnormal otherwise than in its relation to the development of the rest of his body, but …” Lewes meandered off into somewhat abstruse speculation with regard to the significance of craniology.
Challis nodded his head and murmured: “Quite, quite,” occasionally. He seemed glad that Lewes should continue to talk.
The lecture was interrupted by the appearance of the governess cart.
“By Jove, he has come,” ejaculated Challis in the middle of one of Lewes’s periods. “You’ll have to see me through this, my boy. I’m damned if I know how to take the child.”
Lewes flushed, annoyed at the interruption of his lecture. He had believed that he had been interesting. “Curse the kid,” was the thought in his mind as he followed Challis to the window.
Jessop, the groom deputed to fetch the Wonder from Pym, looked a little uneasy, perhaps a little scared. When he drew up at the porch, the child pointed to the door of the cart and indicated that it was to be opened for him. He was evidently used to being waited upon. When this command had been obeyed, he descended deliberately and then pointed to the front door.
“Open!” he said clearly, as Jessop hesitated. The Wonder knew nothing of bells or ceremony.
Jessop came down from the cart and rang.
The butler opened the door. He was an old servant and accustomed to his master’s eccentricities, but he was not prepared for the vision of that strange little figure, with a large head in a parti-coloured cricket-cap, an apparition that immediately walked straight by him into the hall, and pointed to the first door he came to.
“Oh, dear! Well, to be sure,” gasped Heathcote. “Why, whatever ——”
“Open!” commanded the Wonder, and Heathcote obeyed, weak-kneed.
The door chanced to be the right one, the door of the breakfast-room, and the Wonder walked in, still wearing his cap.
Challis came forward to meet him with a conventional greeting. “I’m glad you were able to come…” he began, but the child took no notice; he looked rapidly round the room, and not finding what he wanted, signified his desire by a single word.
“Books,” he said, and looked at Challis.
Heathcote stood at the door, hesitating between amazement and disapproval. “I’ve never seen the like,” was how he phrased his astonishment later, in the servants’ hall, “never in all my born days. To see that melon-’eaded himp in a cricket-cap hordering the master about. Well, there ——”
“Jessop says he fair got the creeps drivin’ ’im over,” said the cook. “’E says the child’s not right in ’is ’ead.”
Much embroidery followed in the servants’ hall.
This brief history of the Hampdenshire Wonder is marked by a stereotyped division into three parts, an arbitrary arrangement dependent on the experience of the writer. The true division becomes manifest at this point. The life of Victor Stott was cut into two distinct sections, between which there is no correlation. The first part should tell the story of his mind during the life of experience, the time occupied in observation of the phenomena of life presented to him in fact, without any specific teaching on the theories of existence and progress, or on the speculation as to ultimate destiny. The second part should deal with his entry into the world of books; into that account of a long series of collated experiments and partly verified hypotheses we call science; into the imperfectly developed system of inductive and deductive logic which determines mathematics and philosophy; into the long, inaccurate and largely unverifiable account of human blindness and error known as history; and into the realm of idealism, symbol, and pitiful pride we find in the story of poetry, letters, and religion.
I will confess that I once contemplated the writing of such a history. It was Challis who, in his courtly, gentle way, pointed out to me that no man living had the intellectual capacity to undertake so profound a work.
For some three months before I had this conversation with Challis, I had been wrapped in solitude, dreaming, speculating. I had been uplifted in thought, I had come to believe myself inspired as a result of my separation from the world of men, and of the deep introspection and meditation in which I had been plunged. I had arrived at a point, perhaps not far removed from madness, at which I thought myself capable of setting out the true history of Victor Stott.
Challis broke the spell. He cleared away the false glamour which was blinding and intoxicating me, and brought me back to a condition of open-eyed sanity. To Challis I owe a great debt.
Yet at the moment I was sunk in depression. All the glory of my vision had faded; the afterglow was quenched in the blackness of the night that drew out of the east and fell from the zenith as a curtain of utter darkness.
Again Challis came to my rescue. He brought me a great sheaf of notes.
“Look here,” he said, “if you can’t write a true history of that strange child, I see no reason why you should not write his story as it is known to you, as it impinges on your own life. After all, you, in many ways, know more of him than any one. You came nearest to receiving his confidence.”
“But only during the last few months,” I said.
“Does that matter?” said Challis with an upheaval of his shoulders — “shrug” is far too insignificant a word for that mountainous humping. “Is any biography founded on better material than you have at command?”
He unfolded his bundle of notes. “See here,” he said, “here is some magnificent material for you — first-hand observations made at the time. Can’t you construct a story from that?”
Even then I began to cast my story in a slightly biographical form. I wrote half a dozen chapters, and read them to Challis.
“Magnificent, my dear fellow,” was his comment, “magnificent; but no one will believe it.”
I had been carried away by my own prose, and with the natural vanity of the author, I resented intensely his criticism.
For some weeks I did not see Challis again, and I persisted in my futile endeavour, but always as I wrote that killing suggestion insinuated itself: “No one will believe you.” At times I felt as a man may feel who has spent many years in a lunatic asylum, and after his release is for ever engaged in a struggle to allay the doubts of a leering suspicion.
I gave up the hopeless task at last, and sought out Challis again.
“Write it as a story,” he suggested, “and give up the attempt to carry conviction.”
And in that spirit, adopting the form of a story, I did begin, and in that form I hope to finish.
But here as I reach the great division, the determining factor of Victor Stott’s life, I am constrained to pause and apologise. I have become uncomfortably conscious of my own limitations, and the feeble, ephemeral methods I am using. I am trifling with a wonderful story, embroidering my facts with the tawdry detail of my own imagining.
I saw — I see — no other way.
This is, indeed, a preface, yet I prefer to put it in this place, since it was at this time I wrote it.
On the Common a faint green is coming again like a mist among the ash-trees, while the oak is still dead and bare. Last year the oak came first.
They say we shall have a wet summer.
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”