THE HAMPDENSHIRE WONDER (10)
April 23, 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 PASTORS AND MASTERS
For many months after that long afternoon in the library, Challis was affected with a fever of restlessness, and his work on the book stood still. He was in Rome during May, and in June he was seized by a sudden whim and went to China by the Trans-Siberian railway. Lewes did not accompany him. Challis preferred, one imagines, to have no intercourse with Lewes while the memory of certain pronouncements was still fresh. He might have been tempted to discuss that interview, and if, as was practically certain, Lewes attempted to pour contempt on the whole affair, Challis might have been drawn into a defence which would have revived many memories he wished to obliterate.
He came back to London in September — he made the return journey by steamer — and found his secretary still working at the monograph on the primitive peoples of Melanesia.
Lewes had spent the whole summer in Challis’s town house in Eaton Square, whither all the material had been removed two days after that momentous afternoon in the library of Challis Court.
“I have been wanting your help badly for some time, sir,” Lewes said on the evening of Challis’s return. “Are you proposing to take up the work again? If not….” Gregory Lewes thought he was wasting valuable time.
“Yes, yes, of course; I am ready to begin again now, if you care to go on with me,” said Challis. He talked for a few minutes of the book without any great show of interest. Presently they came to a pause, and Lewes suggested that he should give some account of how his time had been spent.
“To-morrow,” replied Challis, “to-morrow will be time enough. I shall settle down again in a few days.” He hesitated a moment, and then said: “Any news from Chilborough?”
“N-no, I don’t think so,” returned Lewes. He was occupied with his own interests; he doubted Challis’s intention to continue his work on the book — the announcement had been so half-hearted.
“What about that child?” asked Challis.
“That child?” Lewes appeared to have forgotten the existence of Victor Stott.
“That abnormal child of Stott’s?” prompted Challis.
“Oh! Of course, yes. I believe he still goes nearly every day to the library. I have been down there two or three times, and found him reading. He has learned the use of the index-catalogue. He can get any book he wants. He uses the steps.”
“Do you know what he reads?”
“No; I can’t say I do.”
“What do you think will become of him?”
“Oh! these infant prodigies, you know,” said Lewes with a large air of authority, “they all go the same way. Most of them die young, of course, the others develop into ordinary commonplace men rather under than over the normal ability. After all, it is what one would expect. Nature always maintains her average by some means or another. If a child like this with his abnormal memory were to go on developing, there would be no place for him in the world’s economy. The idea is inconceivable.”
“Quite, quite,” murmured Challis, and after a short silence he added: “You think he will deteriorate, that his faculties will decay prematurely?”
“I should say there could be no doubt of it,” replied Lewes.
“Ah! well. I’ll go down and have a look at him, one day next week,” said Challis; but he did not go till the middle of October.
The direct cause of his going was a letter from Crashaw, who offered to come up to town, as the matter was one of “really peculiar urgency.”
“I wonder if young Stott has been blaspheming again,” Challis remarked to Lewes. “Wire the man that I’ll go down and see him this afternoon. I shall motor. Say I’ll be at Stoke about half-past three.”
Challis was ushered into Crashaw’s study on his arrival, and found the rector in company with another man — introduced as Mr. Forman — a jolly-looking, high-complexioned man of sixty or so, with a great quantity of white hair on his head and face; he was wearing an old-fashioned morning-coat and grey trousers that were noticeably too short for him.
Crashaw lost no time in introducing the subject of “really peculiar urgency,” but he rambled in his introduction.
“You have probably forgotten,” he said, “that last spring I had to bring a most horrible charge against a child called Victor Stott, who has since been living, practically, as I may say, under your ægis, that is, he has, at least, spent a greater part of his day, er — playing in your library at Challis Court.”
“Quite, quite; I remember perfectly,” said Challis. “I made myself responsible for him up to a certain point. I gave him an occupation. It was intended, was it not, to divert his mind from speaking against religion to the yokels?”
“Quite a character, if I may say so,” put in Mr. Forman cheerfully.
Crashaw was seated at his study table; the affair had something the effect of an examining magistrate taking the evidence of witnesses.
“Yes, yes,” he said testily; “I did ask your help, Mr. Challis, and I did, in a way, receive some assistance from you. That is, the child has to some extent been isolated by spending so much of his time at your house.”
“Has he broken out again?” asked Challis.
“If I understand you to mean has the child been speaking openly on any subject connected with religion, I must say ‘No,’” said Crashaw. “But he never attends any Sunday school, or place of worship; he has received no instruction in — er — any sacred subject, though I understand he is able to read; and his time is spent among books which, pardon me, would not, I suppose, be likely to give a serious turn to his thoughts.”
“Serious?” questioned Challis.
“Perhaps I should say ‘religious,’” replied Crashaw. “To me the two words are synonymous.”
Mr. Forman bowed his head slightly with an air of reverence, and nodded two or three times to express his perfect approval of the rector’s sentiments.
“You think the child’s mind is being perverted by his intercourse with the books in the library where he — he — ‘plays’ was your word, I believe?”
“No, not altogether,” replied Crashaw, drawing his eyebrows together. “We can hardly suppose that he is able at so tender an age to read, much less to understand, those works of philosophy and science which would produce an evil effect on his mind. I am willing to admit, since I, too, have had some training in scientific reading, that writers on those subjects are not easily understood even by the mature intelligence.”
“Then why, exactly, do you wish me to prohibit the child from coming to Challis Court?”
“Possibly you have not realised that the child is now five years old?” said Crashaw with an air of conferring illumination.
“Indeed! Yes. An age of some discretion, no doubt,” returned Challis.
“An age at which the State requires that he should receive the elements of education,” continued Crashaw.
“Eh?” said Challis.
“Time he went to school,” explained Mr. Forman. “I’ve been after him, you know. I’m the attendance officer for this district.”
Challis for once committed a breach of good manners. The import of the thing suddenly appealed to his sense of humour: he began to chuckle and then he laughed out a great, hearty laugh, such as had not been stirred in him for twenty years.
“Oh! forgive me, forgive me,” he said, when he had recovered his self-control. “But you don’t know; you can’t conceive the utter, childish absurdity of setting that child to recite the multiplication table with village infants of his own age. Oh! believe me, if you could only guess, you would laugh with me. It’s so funny, so inimitably funny.”
“I fail to see, Mr. Challis,” said Crashaw, “that there is anything in any way absurd or — or unusual in the preposition.”
“Five is the age fixed by the State,” said Mr. Forman. He had relaxed into a broad smile in sympathy with Challis’s laugh, but he had now relapsed into a fair imitation of Crashaw’s intense seriousness.
“Oh! How can I explain?” said Challis. “Let me take an instance. You propose to teach him, among other things, the elements of arithmetic?”
“It is a part of the curriculum,” replied Mr. Forman.
“I have only had one conversation with this child,” went on Challis — and at the mention of that conversation his brows drew together and he became very grave again; “but in the course of that conversation this child had occasion to refer, by way of illustration, to some abstruse theorem of the differential calculus. He did it, you will understand, by way of making his meaning clear — though the illustration was utterly beyond me: that reference represented an act of intellectual condescension.”
“God bless me, you don’t say so?” said Mr. Forman.
“I cannot see,” said Crashaw, “that this instance of yours, Mr. Challis, has any real bearing on the situation. If the child is a mathematical genius — there have been instances in history, such as Blaise Pascal — he would not, of course, receive elementary instruction in a subject with which he was already acquainted.”
“You could not find any subject, believe me, Crashaw, in which he could be instructed by any teacher in a Council school.”
“Forgive me, I don’t agree with you,” returned Crashaw. “He is sadly in need of some religious training.”
“He would not get that at a Council school,” said Challis, and Mr. Forman shook his head sadly, as though he greatly deprecated the fact.
“He must learn to recognise authority,” said Crashaw. “When he has been taught the necessity of submitting himself to all his governors, teachers, spiritual pastors, and masters: ordering himself lowly and reverently to all his betters; when, I say, he has learnt that lesson, he may be in a fit and proper condition to receive the teachings of the Holy Church.”
Mr. Forman appeared to think he was attending divine service. If the rector had said “Let us pray,” there can be no doubt that he would immediately have fallen on his knees.
Challis shook his head. “You can’t understand, Crashaw,” he said.
“I do understand,” said Crashaw, rising to his feet, “and I intend to see that the statute is not disobeyed in the case of this child, Victor Stott.”
Challis shrugged his shoulders; Mr. Forman assumed an expression of stern determination.
“In any case, why drag me into it?” asked Challis.
Crashaw sat down again. The flush which had warmed his sallow skin subsided as his passion died out. He had worked himself into a condition of righteous indignation, but the calm politeness of Challis rebuked him. If Crashaw prided himself on his devotion to the Church, he did not wish that attitude to overshadow the pride he also took in the belief that he was Challis’s social equal. Crashaw’s father had been a lawyer, with a fair practice in Derby, but he had worked his way up to a partnership from the position of office-boy, and Percy Crashaw seldom forgot to be conscious that he was a gentleman by education and profession.
“I did not wish to drag you into this business,” he said quietly, putting his elbows on the writing-table in front of him, and reassuming the judicial attitude he had adopted earlier; “but I regard this child as, in some sense, your protégé.” Crashaw put the tips of his fingers together, and Mr. Forman watched him warily, waiting for his cue. If this was to be a case for prayer, Mr. Forman was ready, with a clean white handkerchief to kneel upon.
“In some sense, perhaps,” returned Challis. “I haven’t seen him for some months.”
“Cannot you see the necessity of his attending school?” asked Crashaw, this time with an insinuating suavity; he believed that Challis was coming round.
“Oh!” Challis sighed with a note of expostulation. “Oh! the thing’s grotesque, ridiculous.”
“If that’s so,” put in Mr. Forman, who had been struck by a brilliant idea, “why not bring the child here, and let the Reverend Mr. Crashaw, or myself, put a few general questions to ’im?”
“Ye-es,” hesitated Crashaw, “that might be done; but, of course, the decision does not rest with us.”
“It rests with the Local Authority,” mused Challis. He was running over three or four names of members of that body who were known to him.
“Certainly,” said Crashaw, “the Local Education Authority alone has the right to prosecute, but ——” He did not state his antithesis. They had come to the crux which Crashaw had wished to avoid. He had no weight with the committee of the L.E.A., and Challis’s recommendation would have much weight. Crashaw intended that Victor Stott should attend school, but he had bungled his preliminaries: he had rested on his own authority, and forgotten that Challis had little respect for that influence. Conciliation was the only card to play now.
“If I brought him, he wouldn’t answer your questions,” sighed Challis. “He’s very difficult to deal with.”
“Is he, indeed?” sympathised Mr. Forman. “I’ve ’ardly seen ’im myself; not to speak to, that is.”
“He might come with his mother,” suggested Crashaw.
Challis shook his head. “By the way, it is the mother whom you would proceed against?” he asked.
“The parent is responsible,” said Mr. Forman. “She will be brought before a magistrate and fined for the first offence.”
“I shan’t fine her if she comes before me,” replied Challis.
Crashaw smiled. He meant to avoid that eventuality.
The little meeting lapsed into a brief silence. There seemed to be nothing more to say.
“Well,” said Crashaw, at last, with a rising inflexion that had a conciliatory, encouraging, now-my-little-man kind of air, “We-ll, of course, no one wishes to proceed to extremes. I think, Mr. Challis, I think I may say that you are the person who has most influence in this matter, and I cannot believe that you will go against the established authority both of the Church and the State. If it were only for the sake of example.”
Challis rose deliberately. He shook his head, and unconsciously his hands went behind his back. There was hardly room for him to pace up and down, but he took two steps towards Mr. Forman, who immediately rose to his feet; and then he turned and went over to the window. It was from there that he pronounced his ultimatum.
“Regulations, laws, religious and lay authorities,” he said, “come into existence in order to deal with the rule, the average. That must be so. But if we are a reasoning, intellectual people we must have some means of dealing with the exception. That means rests with a consensus of intelligent opinion strong enough to set the rule upon one side. In an overwhelming majority of cases there is no such consensus of opinion, and the exceptional individual suffers by coming within the rule of a law which should not apply to him. Now, I put it to you, as reasoning, intelligent men” (’ear, ’ear, murmured Mr. Forman automatically), “are we, now that we have the power to perform a common act of justice, to exempt an unfortunate individual exception who has come within the rule of a law that holds no application for him, or are we to exhibit a crass stupidity by enforcing that law? Is it not better to take the case into our own hands, and act according to the dictates of common sense?”
“Very forcibly put,” murmured Mr. Forman.
“I’m not finding any fault with the law or the principle of the law,” continued Challis; “but it is, it must be, framed for the average. We must use our discretion in dealing with the exception — and this is an exception such as has never occurred since we have had an Education Act.”
“I don’t agree with you,” said Crashaw, stubbornly. “I do not consider this an exception.”
“But you must agree with me, Crashaw. I have a certain amount of influence and I shall use it.”
“In that case,” replied Crashaw, rising to his feet, “I shall fight you to the bitter end. I am determined” — he raised his voice and struck the writing-table with his fist — “I am determined that this infidel child shall go to school. I am prepared, if necessary, to spend all my leisure in seeing that the law is carried out.”
Mr. Forman had also risen. “Very right, very right, indeed,” he said, and he knitted his mild brows and stroked his patriarchal white beard with a simulation of stern determination.
“I think you would be better advised to let the matter rest,” said Challis.
Mr. Forman looked inquiringly at the representative of the Church.
“I shall fight,” replied Crashaw, stubbornly, fiercely.
“Ha!” said Mr. Forman.
“Very well, as you think best,” was Challis’s last word.
As Challis walked down to the gate, where his motor was awaiting him, Mr. Forman trotted up from behind and ranged himself alongside.
“More rain wanted yet for the roots, sir,” he said. “September was a grand month for ’arvest, but we want rain badly now.”
“Quite, quite,” murmured Challis, politely. He shook hands with Mr. Forman before he got into the car.
Mr. Forman, standing politely bareheaded, saw that Mr. Challis’s car went in the direction of Ailesworth.
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.