THE HAMPDENSHIRE WONDER (14)
May 20, 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.
THE INCIPIENCE OF MY SUBJECTION TO THE WONDER
Victor Stott was in his eighth year when I met him for the third time. I must have stayed longer than I imagined by the pond on the Common, for Mrs. Stott and her son had had tea, and the boy was preparing to go out. He stopped when he saw me coming; an unprecedented mark of recognition, so I have since learned.
As I saw him then, he made a remarkable, but not a repulsively abnormal figure. His baldness struck one immediately, but it did not give him a look of age. Then one noticed that his head was unmistakably out of proportion to his body, yet the disproportion was not nearly so marked as it had been in infancy. These two things were conspicuous; the less salient peculiarities were observed later; the curious little beaky nose that jutted out at an unusual angle from the face, the lips that were too straight and determined for a child, the laxity of the limbs when the body was in repose — lastly, the eyes.
When I met Victor Stott on this, third, occasion, there can be no doubt that he had lost something of his original power. This may have been due to his long sojourn in the world of books, a sojourn that had, perhaps, altered the strange individuality of his thought; or it may have been due, in part at least, to his recent recognition of the fact that the power of his gaze exercised no influence over creatures such as the Harrison idiot. Nevertheless, though something of the original force had abated, he still had an extraordinary, and, so far as I can learn, altogether unprecedented power of enforcing his will without word or gesture; and I may say here that in those rare moments when Victor Stott looked me in the face, I seemed to see a rare and wonderful personality peering out through his eyes. That was the personality which had, no doubt, spoken to Challis and Lewes through that long afternoon in the library of Challis Court. Normally one saw a curious, unattractive, rather repulsive figure of a child; when he looked at one with that rare look of intention, the man that lived within that unattractive body was revealed, his insight, his profundity, his unexampled wisdom. If we mark the difference between man and animals by a measure of intelligence, then surely this child was a very god among men.
Victor Stott did not look at me when I entered his mother’s cottage; I saw only the unattractive exterior of him, and I blundered into an air of patronage.
“Is this your boy?” I said, when I had greeted her. “I hear he is a great scholar.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Ellen Mary quietly. She never boasted to strangers.
“You don’t remember me, I suppose?” I went on, foolishly; trying, however, to speak as to an equal. “You were in petticoats the last time I saw you.”
The Wonder was standing by the window, his arms hanging loosely at his sides; he looked out aslant up the lane; his profile was turned towards me. He made no answer to my question.
“Oh yes, sir, he remembers,” replied Ellen Mary. “He never forgets anything.”
I paused, uncomfortably. I was slightly huffed by the boy’s silence.
“I have come to spend the summer here,” I said at last. “I hope he will come to see me. I have brought a good many books with me; perhaps he might care to read some of them.”
I had to talk at the boy; there was no alternative. Inwardly I was thinking that I had Kant’s Critique and Hegel’s Phenomenology among my books. “He may put on airs of scholarship,” I thought; “but I fancy that he will find those two works rather above the level of his comprehension as yet.” I did not recognise the fact that it was I who was putting on airs, not Victor Stott.
“’E’s given up reading the past six weeks, sir,” said Ellen Mary, “but I daresay he will come and see your books.”
She spoke demurely, and she did not look at her son; I received the impression that her statements were laid before him to take up, reject, or pass unnoticed as he pleased.
I was slightly exasperated. I turned to the Wonder. “Would you care to come?” I asked.
He nodded without looking at me, and walked out of the cottage.
“’E’ll go with you now, sir,” prompted Ellen Mary. “That’s what ’e means.”
I followed the Wonder in a condition of suppressed irritation. “His mother might be able to interpret his rudeness,” I thought, “but I would teach him to convey his intentions more clearly. The child had been spoilt.”
The Wonder chose the road over the Common. I should have gone by the wood, but when we came to the entrance of the wood, he turned up on to the Common. He did not ask me which way I preferred. Indeed, we neither of us spoke during the half-mile walk that separated the Wood Farm from the last cottage in Pym.
I was fuming inwardly. I had it in my mind at that time to put the Wonder through some sort of an examination. I was making plans to contribute towards his education, to send him to Oxford, later. I had adumbrated a scheme to arouse interest in his case among certain scholars and men of influence with whom I was slightly acquainted. I had been very much engrossed with these plans as I had made my way to the Stotts’ cottage. I was still somewhat exalted in mind with my dreams of a vicarious brilliance. I had pictured the Wonder’s magnificent passage though the University; I had acted, in thought, as the generous and kindly benefactor…. It had been a grandiose dream, and the reality was so humiliating. Could I make this mannerless child understand his possibilities? Had he any ambition?
Thinking of these things, I had lagged behind as we crossed the Common, and when I came to the gate of the farmyard, the Wonder was at the door of the house. He did not wait for me, but walked straight into my sitting-room. When I entered, I found him seated on the low window-sill, turning over the top layer of books in the large case which had been opened, but not unpacked. There was no place to put the books; in fact, I was proposing to have some shelves put up, if Mrs. Berridge had no objection.
I entered the room in a condition of warm indignation. “Cheek” was the word that was in my mind. “Confounded cheek,” I muttered. Nevertheless I did not interrupt the boy; instead, I lit a cigarette, sat down and watched him.
I was sceptical at first. I noted at once the sure touch with which the boy handled my books, the practised hand that turned the pages, the quick examination of title-page and the list of contents, the occasional swift reference to the index, but I did not believe it possible that any one could read so fast as he read when he did condescend for a few moments to give his attention to a few consecutive pages. “Was it a pose?” I thought, yet he was certainly an adept in handling the books. I was puzzled, yet I was still sceptical — the habit of experience was towards disbelief — a boy of seven and a half could not possibly have the mental equipment to skim all that philosophy….
My books were being unpacked very quickly. Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Fichte, Leibnitz, Nietzsche, Hume, Bradley, William James had all been rejected and were piled on the floor, but he had hesitated longer over Bergson’s Creative Evolution. He really seemed to be giving that some attention, though he read it — if he were reading it — so fast that the hand which turned the pages hardly rested between each movement.
When Bergson was sent to join his predecessors, I determined that I would get some word out of this strange child — I had never yet heard him speak, not a single syllable. I determined to brave all rebuffs. I was prepared for that.
“Well?” I said, when Bergson was laid down. “Well! What do you make of that?”
He turned and looked out of the window.
I came and sat on the end of the table within a few feet of him. From that position I, too, could see out of the window, and I saw the figure of the Harrison idiot slouching over the farmyard gate.
A gust of impatience whirled over me. I caught up my stick and went out quickly.
“Now then,” I said, as I came within speaking distance of the idiot, “get away from here. Out with you!”
The idiot probably understood no word of what I said, but like a dog he was quick to interpret my tone and gesture. He made a revoltingly inhuman sound as he shambled away, a kind of throaty yelp. I walked back to the house. I could not avoid the feeling that I had been unnecessarily brutal.
When I returned the Wonder was still staring out of the window; but though I did not guess it then, the idiot had served my purpose better than my determination. It was to the idiot that I owed my subsequent knowledge of Victor Stott. The Wonder had found a use for me. He was resigned to bear with my feeble mental development, because I was strong enough to keep at bay that half-animal creature who appeared to believe that Victor Stott was one of his own kind — the only one he had ever met. The idiot in some unimaginable way had inferred a likeness between himself and the Wonder — they both had enormous heads — and the idiot was the only human being over whom the Wonder was never able to exercise the least authority.
I went in and sat down again on the end of the table. I was rather heated. I lit another cigarette and stared at the Wonder, who was still looking out of the window.
There was silence for a few seconds, and then he spoke of his own initiative.
“Illustrates the weakness of argument from history and analogy,” he said in a clear, small voice, addressing no one in particular. “Hegel’s limitations are qualitatively those of Harrison, who argues that I and he are similar in kind.”
The proposition was so astounding that I could find no answer immediately. If the statement had been made in boyish language I should have laughed at it, but the phraseology impressed me.
“You’ve read Hegel, then?” I asked evasively.
“Subtract the endeavour to demonstrate a preconceived hypothesis from any known philosophy,” continued the Wonder, without heeding my question, “and the remainder, the only valuable material, is found to be distorted.” He paused as if waiting for my reply.
How could one answer such propositions as these offhand? I tried, however, to get at the gist of the sentence, and, as the silence continued, I said with some hesitation: “But it is impossible, surely, to approach the work of writing, say a philosophy, without some apprehension of the end in view?”
“Illogical,” replied the Wonder, “not philosophy; a system of trial and error — to evaluate a complex variable function.” He paused a moment, and then glanced down at the pile of books on the floor. “More millions,” he said.
I think he meant that more millions of books might be written on this system without arriving at an answer to the problem, but I admit that I am at a loss, that I cannot interpret his remarks. I wrote them down within an hour or two after they were uttered, but I may have made mistakes. The mathematical metaphor is beyond me. I have no acquaintance with higher mathematics.
The Wonder had a very expressionless face, but I thought at this moment that he wore a look of sadness; and that look was one of the factors which helped me to understand the unbridgeable gulf that lay between his intellect and mine. I think it was at this moment that I first began to change my opinion. I had been regarding him as an unbearable little prig, but it flashed across me as I watched him now, that his mind and my own might be so far differentiated that he was unable to convey his thoughts to me. “Was it possible,” I wondered, “that he had been trying to talk down to my level?”
“I am afraid I don’t quite follow you,” I said. I had intended to question him further, to urge him to explain, but it came to me that it would be quite hopeless to go on. How can one answer the unreasoning questions of a child? Here I was the child, though a child of slightly advanced development. I could appreciate that it was useless to persist in a futile “Why, why?” when the answer could only be given in terms that I could not comprehend. Therefore I hesitated, sighed, and then with that obstinacy of vanity which creates an image of self-perfection and refuses to relinquish it, I said:
“I wish you could explain yourself; not on this particular point of philosophy, but your life ——” I stopped, because I did not know how to phrase my demand. What was it, after all, that I wanted to learn?
“That I can’t explain,” said the Wonder. “There are no data.”
I saw that he had accepted my request for explanation in a much wider sense than I had intended, and I took him up on this.
“But haven’t you any hypothesis?”
“I cannot work on the system of trial and error,” replied the Wonder.
Our conversation went no further this afternoon, for Mrs. Berridge came in to lay the cloth. She looked askance, I thought, at the figure on the window-sill, but she ventured no remark save to ask if I was ready for my supper.
“Yes, oh! yes!” I said.
“Shall I lay for two, sir?” asked Mrs. Berridge.
“Will you stay and have supper?” I said to the Wonder, but he shook his head, got up and walked out of the room. I watched him cross the farmyard and make his way over the Common.
“Well!” I said to Mrs. Berridge, when the boy was out of sight, “that child is what in America they call ‘the limit,’ Mrs. Berridge.”
My landlady put her lips together, shook her head, and shivered slightly. “He gives me the shudders,” she said.
I neither read nor wrote that evening. I forgot to go out for a walk at sunset. I sat and pondered until it was time for bed, and then I pondered myself to sleep. No vision came to me, and I had no relevant dreams.
The next morning at seven o’clock I saw Mrs. Stott come over the Common to fetch her milk from the farm. I waited until her business was done, and then I went out and walked back with her.
“I want to understand about your son,” I said by way of making an opening.
She looked at me quickly. “You know, ’e ’ardly ever speaks to me, sir,” she said.
I was staggered for a moment. “But you understand him?” I said.
“In some ways, sir,” was her answer.
I recognised the direction of the limitation. “Ah! we none of us understand him in all ways,” I said, with a touch of patronage.
“No, sir,” replied Ellen Mary. She evidently agreed to that statement without qualification.
“But what is he going to do?” I asked. “When he grows up, I mean?”
“I can’t say, sir. We must leave that to ’im.”
I accepted the rebuke more mildly than I should have done on the previous day. “He never speaks of his future?” I said feebly.
There seemed to be nothing more to say. We had only gone a couple of hundred yards, but I paused in my walk. I thought I might as well go back and get my breakfast. But Mrs. Stott looked at me as though she had something more to say. We stood facing each other on the cart track.
“I suppose I can’t be of any use?” I asked vaguely.
Ellen Mary broke suddenly into volubility.
“I ’ope I’m not askin’ too much, sir,” she said, “but there is a way you could ’elp if you would. ’E ’ardly ever speaks to me, as I’ve said, but I’ve been opset about that ’Arrison boy. ’E’s a brute beast, sir, if you know what I mean, and ’e” (she differentiated her pronouns only by accent, and where there is any doubt I have used italics to indicate that her son is referred to) “doesn’t seem to ’ave the same ’old on ’im as ’e does over others. It’s truth, I am not easy in my mind about it, sir, although ’e ’as never said a word to me, not being afraid of anything like other children, but ’e seems to have took a sort of a fancy to you, sir” (I think this was intended as the subtlest flattery), “and if you was to go with ’im when ’e takes ’is walks—’e’s much in the air, sir, and a great one for walkin’ — I think ’e’d be glad of your cump’ny, though maybe ’e won’t never say it in so many words. You mustn’t mind ’im being silent, sir; there’s some things we can’t understand, and though, as I say, ’e ’asn’t said anything to me, it’s not that I’m scheming be’ind ’is back, for I know ’is meaning without words being necessary.”
She might have said more, but I interrupted her at this point. “Certainly, I will come and fetch him,”—I lapsed unconsciously into her system of denomination — “this morning, if you are sure he would like to come out with me.”
“I’m quite sure, sir,” she said.
“About nine o’clock?” I asked.
“That would do nicely, sir,” she answered.
As I walked back to the farm I was thinking of the life of those two occupants of the Stotts’ cottage. The mother who watched her son in silence, studying his every look and action in order to gather his meaning; who never asked her son a question nor expected from him any statement of opinion; and the son wrapped always in that profound speculation which seemed to be his only mood. What a household!
It struck me while I was having breakfast that I seemed to have let myself in for a duty that might prove anything but pleasant.
There is nothing to say of that first walk of mine with the Wonder. I spoke to him once or twice and he answered by nodding his head; even this notice I now know to have been a special mark of favour, a condescension to acknowledge his use for me as a guardian. He did not speak at all on this occasion.
I did not call for him in the afternoon; I had made other plans. I wanted to see the man Challis, whose library had been at the disposal of this phenomenal child. Challis might be able to give me further information. The truth of the matter is that I was in two minds as to whether I would stay at Pym through the summer, as I had originally intended. I was not in love with the prospect which the sojourn now held out for me. If I were to be constituted head nursemaid to Master Victor Stott, there would remain insufficient time for the progress of my own book on certain aspects of the growth of the philosophic method.
I see now, when I look back, that I was not convinced at that time, that I still doubted the Wonder’s learning. I may have classed it as a freakish pedantry, the result of a phenomenal memory.
Mrs. Berridge had much information to impart on the subject of Henry Challis. He was her husband’s landlord, of course, and his was a hallowed name, to be spoken with decency and respect. I am afraid I shocked Mrs. Berridge at the outset by my casual “Who’s this man Challis?” She certainly atoned by her own manner for my irreverence; she very obviously tried to impress me. I professed submission, but was not intimidated, rather my curiosity was aroused.
Mrs. Berridge was not able to tell me the one thing I most desired to know, whether the lord of Challis Court was in residence; but it was not far to walk, and I set out about two o’clock.
Challis was getting into his motor as I walked up the drive. I hurried forward to catch him before the machine was started. He saw me coming and paused on the doorstep.
“Did you want to see me?” he asked, as I came up.
“Mr. Challis?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“I won’t keep you now,” I said, “but perhaps you could let me know some time when I could see you.”
“Oh, yes,” he said, with the air of a man who is constantly subjected to annoyance by strangers. “But perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling me what it is you wish to see me about? I might be able to settle it now, at once.”
“I am staying at the Wood Farm,” I began. “I am interested in a very remarkable child ——”
“Ah! take my advice, leave him alone,” interrupted Challis quickly.
I suppose I looked my amazement, for Challis laughed. “Oh, well,” he said, “of course you won’t take such spontaneous advice as that. I’m in no hurry. Come in.” He took off his heavy overcoat and threw it into the tonneau. “Come round again in an hour,” he said to the chauffeur.
“It’s very good of you,” I protested, “I could come quite well at any other time.”
“I’m in no hurry,” he repeated. “You had better come to the scene of Victor Stott’s operations. He hasn’t been here for six weeks, by the way. Can you throw any light on his absence?”
I made a friend that afternoon. When the car came back at four o’clock, Challis sent it away again. “I shall probably stay down here to-night,” he said to the butler, and to me: “Can you stay to dinner? I must convince you about this child.”
“I have dined once to-day,” I said. “At half-past twelve. I have no other excuse.”
“Oh! well,” said Challis, “you needn’t eat, but I must. Get us something, Heathcote,” he said to the butler, “and bring tea here.”
Much of our conversation after dinner was not relevant to the subject of the Wonder; we drifted into a long argument upon human origins which has no place here. But by that time I had been very well informed as to all the essential facts of the Wonder’s childhood, of his entry into the world of books, of his earlier methods, and of the significance of that long speech in the library. But at that point Challis became reserved. He would give me no details.
“You must forgive me; I can’t go into that,” he said.
“But it is so incomparably important,” I protested.
“That may be, but you must not question me. The truth of the matter is that I have a very confused memory of what the boy said, and the little I might remember, I prefer to leave undisturbed.”
He piqued my curiosity, but I did not press him. It was so evident that he did not wish to speak on that head.
He walked up with me to the farm at ten o’clock and came into my room.
“We need not keep you out of bed, Mrs. Berridge,” he said to my flustered landlady. “I daresay we shall be up till all hours. We promise to see that the house is locked up.” Mr. Berridge stood a figure of subservience in the background.
My books were still heaped on the floor. Challis sat down on the window-sill and looked over some of them. “Many of these Master Stott probably read in my library” he remarked, “in German. Language is no bar to him. He learns a language as you or I would learn a page of history.”
Later on, I remember that we came down to essentials. “I must try and understand something of this child’s capacities,” I said in answer to a hint of Challis’s that I should leave the Wonder alone. “It seems to me that here we have something which is of the first importance, of greater importance, indeed, than anything else in the history of the world.”
“But you can’t make him speak,” said Challis.
“I shall try,” I said. “I recognise that we cannot compel him, but I have a certain hold over him. I see from what you have told me that he has treated me with most unusual courtesy. I assure you that several times when I spoke to him this morning he nodded his head.”
“A good beginning,” laughed Challis.
“I can’t understand,” I went on, “how it is that you are not more interested. It seems to me that this child knows many things which we have been patiently attempting to discover since the dawn of civilisation.”
“Quite,” said Challis. “I admit that, but … well, I don’t think I want to know.”
“Surely,” I said, “this key to all knowledge ——”
“We are not ready for it,” replied Challis. “You can’t teach metaphysics to children.”
Nevertheless my ardour was increased, not abated, by my long talk with Challis.
“I shall go on,” I said, as I went out to the farm gate with him at half-past two in the morning.
“Ah! well,” he answered, “I shall come over and see you when I come back.” He had told me earlier that he was going abroad for some months.
We hesitated a moment by the gate, and instinctively we both looked up at the vault of the sky and the glimmering dust of stars.
The same thought was probably in both our minds, the thought of the insignificance of this little system that revolves round one of the lesser lights of the Milky Way, but that thought was not to be expressed save by some banality, and we did not speak.
“I shall certainly look you up when I come back,” said Challis.
“Yes; I hope you will,” I said lamely.
I watched the loom of his figure against the vague background till I could distinguish it no longer.
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”.