THE HAMPDENSHIRE WONDER (13)
May 13, 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.
MY ASSOCIATION WITH THE WONDER
HOW I WENT TO PYM TO WRITE A BOOK
The circumstance that had intrigued me for so long was determined with an abruptness only less remarkable than the surprise of the onset. Two deaths within six months brought to me, the first, a competence, the second, release from gall and bitterness. For the first time in my life I was a free man. At forty one can still look forward, and I put the past behind me and made plans for the future. There was that book of mine still waiting to be written.
It was wonderful how the detail of it all came back to me — the plan of it, the thread of development, even the very phrases that I had toyed with. The thought of the book brought back a train of associations. There was a phrase I had coined as I had walked out from Ailesworth to Stoke-Underhill; a chapter I had roughed out the day I went to see Ginger Stott at Pym. It seemed to me that the whole conception of the book was associated in some way with that neighbourhood. I remembered at last that I had first thought of writing it after my return from America, on the day that I had had that curious experience with the child in the train. It occurred to me that by a reversal of the process, I might regain many more of my original thoughts; that by going to live, temporarily perhaps, in the neighbourhood of Ailesworth, I might revive other associations.
The picture of Pym presented itself to me very clearly. I remembered that I had once thought that Pym was a place to which I might retire one day in order to write the things I wished to write. I decided to make the dream a reality, and I wrote to Mrs. Berridge at the Wood Farm, asking her if she could let me have her rooms for the spring, summer, and autumn.
I was all aglow with excitement on the morning that I set out for the Hampden Hills. This was change, I thought, freedom, adventure. This was the beginning of life, my real entry into the joy of living.
The world was alight with the fire of growth. May had come with a clear sky and a torrent of green was flowing over field, hedge, and wood. I remember that I thanked “whatever gods there be,” that one could live so richly in the enjoyment of these things.
Farmer Bates met me at Great Hittenden Station. His was the only available horse and cart at Pym, for the Berridges were in a very small way, and it is doubtful if they could have made both ends meet if Mrs. Berridge had not done so well by letting her two spare rooms.
I have a great admiration for Farmer Bates and Mrs. Berridge. I regret intensely that they should both have been unhappily married. If they had married each other they would undoubtedly have made a success of life.
Bates was a Cockney by birth, but always he had had an ambition to take a farm, and after twenty years of work as a skilled mechanic he had thrown up a well-paid job, and dared the uncertainties which beset the English farmer. That venture was a constant bone of strife between him and his wife. Mrs. Bates preferred the town. It has always seemed to me that there was something fine about Bates and his love for the land.
“Good growing weather, Mr. Bates,” I said, as I climbed up into the cart.
“Shouldn’t be sorry to see some more rain,” replied Bates, and damped my ardour for a moment.
Just before we turned into the lane that leads up the long hill to Pym, we passed a ramshackle cart, piled up with a curious miscellany of ruinous furniture. A man was driving, and beside him sat a slatternly woman and a repulsive-looking boy of ten or twelve years old, with a great swollen head and an open, slobbering mouth.
I was startled. I jumped to the conclusion that this was the child I had seen in the train, the son of Ginger Stott.
As we slowed down to the ascent of the long hill, I said to Bates: “Is that Stott’s boy?”
Bates looked at me curiously. “Why, no,” he said. “Them’s the ’Arrisons. ’Arrison’s dead now; he was a wrong ’un, couldn’t make a job of it, nohow. They used to live ’ere, five or six year ago, and now ’er ’usband’s dead, Mrs. ’Arrison’s coming back with the boy to live. Worse luck! We thought we was shut of ’em.”
“Oh!” I said. “The boy’s an idiot, I suppose.”
“’Orrible,” replied Bates, shaking his head, “’orrible; can’t speak nor nothing; goes about bleating and baa-ing like an old sheep.”
I looked round, but the ramshackle cart was hidden by the turn of the road. “Does Stott still live at Pym?” I asked.
“Not Ginger,” replied Bates. “He lives at Ailesworth. Mrs. Stott and ’er son lives here.”
“The boy’s still alive then?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Bates.
“Intelligent child?” I asked.
“They say,” replied Bates. “Book-learnin’ and such. They say ’e’s read every book in Mr. Challis’s librairy.”
“Does he go to school?”
“No. They let ’im off. Leastways Mr. Challis did. They say the Reverend Crashaw, down at Stoke, was fair put out about it.”
I thought that Bates emphasised the “on dit” nature of his information rather markedly. “What do you think of him?” I asked.
“Me?” said Bates. “I don’t worry my ’ead about him. I’ve got too much to do.” And he went off into technicalities concerning the abundance of charlock on the arable land of Pym. He called it “garlic.” I saw that it was typical of Bates that he should have too much to do. I reflected that his was the calling which begot civilisation.
The best and surest route from Pym to the Wood Farm is, appropriately, by way of the wood; but in wet weather the alternative of various cart tracks that wind among the bracken and shrub of the Common, is preferable in many ways. May had been very dry that year, however, and Farmer Bates chose the wood. The leaves were still light on the beeches. I remember that as I tried to pierce the vista of stems that dipped over the steep fall of the hill, I promised myself many a romantic exploration of the unknown mysteries beyond.
Everything was so bright that afternoon that nothing, I believe, could have depressed me. When I looked round the low, dark room with its one window, a foot from the ground and two from the ceiling, I only thought that I should be out-of-doors all the time. It amused me that I could touch the ceiling with my head by standing on tiptoe, and I laughed at the framed “presentation plates” from old Christmas numbers on the walls. These things are merely curious when the sun is shining and it is high May, and one is free to do the desired work after twenty years in a galley.
At a quarter to eight that evening I saw the sun set behind the hills. As I wandered reflectively down the lane that goes towards Challis Court, a blackbird was singing ecstatically in a high elm; here and there a rabbit popped out and sat up, the picture of precocious curiosity. Nature seemed to be standing in her doorway for a careless half-hour’s gossip, before putting up the shutters to bar the robbers who would soon be about their work of the night.
It was still quite light as I strolled back over the Common, and I chose a path that took me through a little spinney of ash, oak, and beech, treading carefully to avoid crushing the tender crosiers of bracken that were just beginning to break their way through the soil.
As I emerged from the little clump of wood, I saw two figures going away from me in the direction of Pym.
One was that of a boy wearing a cricket-cap; he was walking deliberately, his hands hanging at his sides; the other figure was a taller boy, and he threw out his legs in a curious, undisciplined way, as though he had little control over them. At first sight I thought he was not sober.
The two passed out of sight behind a clump of hawthorn, but once I saw the smaller figure turn and face the other, and once he made a repelling gesture with his hands.
It occurred to me that the smaller boy was trying to avoid his companion; that he was, in one sense, running away from him, that he walked as one might walk away from some threatening animal, deliberately — to simulate the appearance of courage.
I fancied the bigger boy was the idiot Harrison I had seen that afternoon, and Farmer Bates’s “We hoped we were shut of him,” recurred to me. I wondered if the idiot were dangerous or only a nuisance.
I took the smaller boy to be one of the villagers’ children. I noticed that his cricket-cap had a dark patch as though it had been mended with some other material.
The impression which I received from this trivial affair was one of disappointment. The wood and the Common had been so deserted by humanity, so given up to nature, that I felt the presence of the idiot to be a most distasteful intrusion. “If that horrible thing is going to haunt the Common there will be no peace or decency,” was the idea that presented itself. “I must send him off, the brute,” was the rider. But I disliked the thought of being obliged to drive him away.
The next morning I did not go on the Common; I was anxious to avoid a meeting with the Harrison idiot. I had been debating whether I should drive him away if I met him. Obviously I had no more right on the Common than he had — on the other hand, he was a nuisance, and I did not see why I should allow him to spoil all my pleasure in that ideal stretch of wild land which pressed on three sides of the Wood Farm. It was a stupid quandary of my own making; but I am afraid it was rather typical of my mental attitude. I am prone to set myself tasks, such as this eviction of the idiot from common ground, and equally prone to avoid them by a process of procrastination.
By way of evasion I walked over to Deane Hill and surveyed the wonderful panorama of neat country that fills the basin between the Hampden and the Quainton Hills. Seen from that height, it has something the effect of a Dutch landscape, it all looks so amazingly tidy. Away to the left I looked over Stoke-Underhill. Ailesworth was a blur in the hollow, but I could distinguish the high fence of the County Ground.
I sat all the morning on Deane Hill, musing and smoking, thinking of such things as Ginger Stott, and the match with Surrey. I decided that I must certainly go and see Stott’s queer son, the phenomenon who had, they say, read all the books in Mr. Challis’s library. I wondered what sort of a library this Challis had, and who he was. I had never heard of him before. I think I must have gone to sleep for a time.
When Mrs. Berridge came to clear away my dinner — I dined, without shame, at half-past twelve — I detained her with conversation. Presently I asked about little Stott.
“He’s a queer one, that’s what he is,” said Mrs. Berridge. She was a neat, comely little woman, rather superior to her station, and it seemed to me, certainly superior to her clod of a husband.
“A great reader, Farmer Bates tells me,” I said.
Mrs. Berridge passed that by. “His mother’s in trouble about him this morning,” she said. “She’s such a nice, respectable woman, and has all her milk and eggs and butter off of us. She was here this morning while you were out, sir, and, what I could make of it that ’Arrison boy had been chasing her boy on the Common last night.”
“Oh!” I said with sudden enlightenment. “I believe I saw them.” At the back of my mind I was struggling desperately with a vague remembrance. It may sound incredible, but I had only the dimmest memory of my later experience of the child. The train incident was still fresh in my mind, but I could not remember what Stott had told me when I talked with him by the pond. I seemed to have an impression that the child had some strange power of keeping people at a distance; or was I mixing up reality with some Scandinavian fairy tale?
“Very likely, sir,” Mrs. Berridge went on. “What upset Mrs. Stott was that her boy’s never upset by anything — he has a curious way of looking at you, sir, that makes you wish you wasn’t there; but from what Mrs. Stott says, this ’Arrison boy wasn’t to be drove off, anyhow, and her son came in quite flurried like. Mrs. Stott seemed quite put out about it.”
Doubtless I might have had more information from my landlady, but I was struggling to reconstruct that old experience which had slipped away from me, and I turned back to the book I had been pretending to read. Mrs. Berridge was one of those unusual women — for her station in life — who know when to be silent, and she finished her clearing away without initiating any further remarks.
When she had finished I went out on to the Common and looked for the pond where I had talked with Ginger Stott.
I found it after a time, and then I began to gather up the threads I had dropped.
It all came back to me, little by little. I remembered that talk I had had with him, his very gestures; I remembered how he had spoken of habits, or the necessity for the lack of them, and that took me back to the scene in the British Museum Reading-Room, and to my theory. I was suddenly alive to that old interest again.
I got up and walked eagerly in the direction of Mrs. Stott’s cottage.
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.