THE HAMPDENSHIRE WONDER (15)
May 27, 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 PROGRESS AND RELAXATION OF MY SUBJECTION
The memory of last summer is presented to me now as a series of pictures, some brilliant, others vague, others again so uncertain that I cannot be sure how far they are true memories of actual occurrences, and how far they are interwoven with my thoughts and dreams. I have, for instance, a recollection of standing on Deane Hill and looking down over the wide panorama of rural England, through a driving mist of fine rain. This might well be counted among true memories, were it not for the fact that clearly associated with the picture is an image of myself grown to enormous dimensions, a Brocken spectre that threatened the world with titanic gestures of denouncement, and I seem to remember that this figure was saying: “All life runs through my fingers like a handful of dry sand.” And yet the remembrance has not the quality of a dream.
I was, undoubtedly, overwrought at times. There were days when the sight of a book filled me with physical nausea, with contempt for the littleness, the narrow outlook, that seemed to me to characterise every written work. I was fiercely, but quite impotently, eager at such times to demonstrate the futility of all the philosophy ranged on the rough wooden shelves in my gloomy sitting-room. I would walk up and down and gesticulate, struggling, fighting to make clear to myself what a true philosophy should set forth. I felt at such times that all the knowledge I needed for so stupendous a task was present with me in some inexplicable way, was even pressing upon me, but that my brain was so clogged and heavy that not one idea of all that priceless wisdom could be expressed in clear thought. “I have never been taught to think,” I would complain, “I have never perfected the machinery of thought,” and then some dictum thrown out haphazard by the Wonder — his conception of light conversation — would recur to me, and I would realise that however well I had been trained, my limitations would remain, that I was an undeveloped animal, only one stage higher than a totem-fearing savage, a creature of small possibilities, incapable of dealing with great problems.
Once the Wonder said to me, in a rare moment of lucid condescension to my feeble intellect, “You figure space as a void in three dimensions, and time as a line that runs across it, and all other conceptions you relegate to that measure.” He implied that this was a cumbrous machinery which had no relation to reality, and could define nothing. He told me that his idea of force, for example, was a pure abstraction, for which there was no figure in my mental outfit.
Such pronouncements as these left me struggling like a drowning man in deep water. I felt that it must be possible for me to come to the surface, but I could do nothing but flounder; beat fiercely with limbs that were so powerful and yet so utterly useless. I saw that my very metaphors symbolised my feebleness; I had no terms for my own mental condition; I was forced to resort to some inapplicable physical analogy.
These fits of revolt against the limitations of human thought grew more frequent as the summer progressed. Day after day my self-sufficiency and conceit were being crushed out of me. I was always in the society of a boy of seven whom I was forced to regard as immeasurably my intellectual superior. There was no department of useful knowledge in which I could compete with him. Compete indeed! I might as well speak of a third-standard child competing with Macaulay in a general knowledge paper.
“Useful knowledge,” I have written, but the phrase needs definition. I might have taught the Wonder many things, no doubt; the habits of men in great cities, the aspects of foreign countries, or the subtleties of cricket; but when I was with him I felt — and my feelings must have been typical — that such things as these were of no account.
Towards the end of the summer, the occasions upon which I was able to stimulate myself into a condition of bearable complacency were very rare. I often thought of Challis’s advice to leave the Wonder alone. I should have gone away if I had been free, but Victor Stott had a use for me, and I was powerless to disobey him. I feared him, but he controlled me at his will. I feared him as I had once feared an imaginary God, but I did not hate him.
One curious little fragment of wisdom came to me as the result of my experience — a useless fragment perhaps, but something that has in one way altered my opinion of my fellow-men. I have learnt that a measure of self-pride, of complacency, is essential to every human being. I judge no man any more for displaying an overweening vanity, rather do I envy him this representative mark of his humanity. The Wonder was completely and quite inimitably devoid of any conceit, and the word ambition had no meaning for him. It was inconceivable that he should compare himself with any of his fellow-creatures, and it was inconceivable that any honour they might have lavished upon him would have given him one moment’s pleasure. He was entirely alone among aliens who were unable to comprehend him, aliens who could not flatter him, whose opinions were valueless to him. He had no more common ground on which to air his knowledge, no more grounds for comparison by which to achieve self-conceit than a man might have in a world tenanted only by sheep. From what I have heard him say on the subject of our slavery to preconceptions, I think the metaphor of sheep is one which he might have approved.
But the result of all this, so far as I am concerned, is a feeling of admiration for those men who are capable of such magnificent approval for themselves, the causes they espouse, their family, their country, and their species; it is an approval which I fear I can never again attain in full measure.
I have seen possibilities which have enforced a humbleness that is not good for my happiness or conducive to my development. Henceforward I will espouse the cause of vanity. It is only the vain who deprecate vanity in others.
But there were times in the early period of my association with Victor Stott when I rebelled vigorously against his complacent assumption of my ignorance.
May was a gloriously fine month, and we were much out of doors. Unfortunately, except for one fortnight in August, that was all the settled weather we had that summer.
I remember sitting one afternoon staring at the same pond that Ginger Stott had stared at when he told me that the boy now beside me was a “blarsted freak.”
The Wonder had said nothing that day, but now he began to enunciate some of his incomprehensible commonplaces in that thin, clear voice of his. I wrote down what I could remember of his utterances when I went home, but now I read them over again I am exceedingly doubtful whether I reported him correctly. There is, however, one dictum which seems clearly phrased, and when I recall the scene, I remember trying to push the induction he had started. The pronouncement, as I have it written, is as follows:
“Pure deduction from a single premise, unaided by previous knowledge of the functions of the terms used in the expansion of the argument, is an act of creation, incontrovertible, and outside the scope of human reasoning.”
I believe he meant to say — but my notes are horribly confused — that logic and philosophy were only relative, being dependent always in a greater or less degree upon the test of a material experiment for verification.
Here, as always, I find the Wonder’s pronouncements very elusive. In one sense I see that what I have quoted here is a self-evident proposition, but I have the feeling that behind it there lies some gleam of wisdom which throws a faint light on the profound problem of existence.
I remember that in my own feeble way I tried to analyse this statement, and for a time I thought I had grasped one significant aspect of it. It seemed to me that the possibility of conceiving a philosophy that was not dependent for verification upon material experiment — that is to say, upon evidence afforded by the five senses — indicates that there is something which is not matter; but that since the development of such a philosophy is not possible to our minds, we must argue that our dependence upon matter is so intimate that it is almost impossible to conceive that we are actuated by any impulse which does not arise out of a material complex.
At the back of my mind there seemed to be a thought that I could not focus, I trembled on the verge of some great revelation that never came.
Through my thoughts there ran a thread of reverence for the intelligence that had started my speculations. If only he could speak in terms that I could understand.
I looked round at the Wonder. He was, as usual, apparently lost in abstraction, and quite unconscious of my regard.
The wind was strong on the Common, and he sniffed once or twice and then wiped his nose. He did not use a handkerchief.
It came to me at the moment that he was no more than a vulgar little village boy.
There were few incidents to mark the progress of that summer. I marked the course of time by my own thoughts and feelings, especially by my growing submission to the control of the Wonder.
It was curious to recall that I had once thought of correcting the Wonder’s manners, of administering, perhaps, a smacking. That was a fault of ignorance. I had often erred in the same way in other experiences of life, but I had not taken the lesson to heart. I remember at school our “head” taking us — I was in the lower fifth then — in Latin verse. He rebuked me for a false quantity, and I, very cocksure, disputed the point and read my line. The head pointed out very gravely that I had been misled by an English analogy in my pronunciation of the word “maritus,” and I grew very hot and ashamed and apologetic. I feel much the same now when I think of my early attitude towards the Wonder. But this time, I think, I have profited by my experience.
There is, however, one incident which in the light of subsequent events it seems worth while to record.
One afternoon in early July, when the sky had lifted sufficiently for us to attempt some sort of a walk, we made our way down through the sodden woods in the direction of Deane Hill.
As we were emerging into the lane at the foot of the slope, I saw the Harrison idiot lurking behind the trunk of a big beech. This was only the third time I had seen him since I drove him away from the farm, and on the two previous occasions he had not come close to us.
This time he had screwed up his courage to follow us. As we climbed the lane I saw him slouching up the hedge-side behind us.
The Wonder took no notice, and we continued our way in silence.
When we reached the prospect at the end of the hill, where the ground falls away like a cliff and you have a bird’s-eye view of two counties, we sat down on the steps of the monument erected in honour of those Hampdenshire men whose lives were thrown away in the South-African war.
That view always has a soothing effect upon me, and I gave myself up to an ecstasy of contemplation and forgot, for a few moments, the presence of the Wonder, and the fact that the idiot had followed us.
I was recalled to existence by the sound of a foolish, conciliatory mumbling, and looked round to see the leering face of the Harrison idiot ogling the Wonder from the corner of the plinth. The Wonder was between me and the idiot, but he was apparently oblivious of either of us.
I was about to rise and drive the idiot away, but the Wonder, still staring out at some distant horizon, said quietly, “Let him be.”
I was astonished, but I sat still and awaited events.
The idiot behaved much as I have seen a very young and nervous puppy behave.
He came within a few feet of us, gurgling and crooning, flapping his hands and waggling his great head; his uneasy eyes wandered from the Wonder to me and back again, but it was plainly the Wonder whom he wished to propitiate. Then he suddenly backed as if he had dared too much, flopped on to the wet grass and regarded us both with foolish, goggling eyes. For a few seconds he lay still, and then he began to squirm along the ground towards us, a few inches at a time, stopping every now and again to bleat and gurgle with that curious, crooning note which he appeared to think would pacificate the object of his overtures.
I stood by, as it were, ready to obey the first hint that the presence of this horrible creature was distasteful to the Wonder, but he gave no sign.
The idiot had come within five or six feet of us, wriggling himself along the wet grass, before the Wonder looked at him. The look when it came was one of those deliberate, intentional stares which made one feel so contemptible and insignificant.
The idiot evidently regarded this look as a sign of encouragement. He knelt up, began to flap his hands and changed his crooning note to a pleased, emphatic bleat.
“A-ba-ba,” he blattered, and made uncouth gestures, by which I think he meant to signify that he wanted the Wonder to come and play with him.
Still the Wonder gave no sign, but his gaze never wavered, and though the idiot was plainly not intimidated, he never met that gaze for more than a second or two. Nevertheless he came on, walking now on his knees, and at last stretched out a hand to touch the boy he so curiously desired for a playmate.
That broke the spell. The Wonder drew back quickly — he never allowed one to touch him — got up and climbed two or three steps higher up the base of the monument. “Send him away,” he said to me.
“That’ll do,” I said threateningly to the idiot, and at the sound of my voice and the gesture of my hand, he blenched, yelped, rolled over away from me, and then got to his feet and shambled off for several yards before stopping to regard us once more with his pacificatory, disgusting ogle.
“Send him away,” repeated the Wonder, as I hesitated, and I rose to my feet and pretended to pick up a stone.
That was enough. The idiot yelped again and made off. This time he did not stop, though he looked over his shoulder several times as he lolloped away among the low gorse, to which look I replied always with the threat of an imaginary stone.
The Wonder made no comment on the incident as we walked home. He had shown no sign of fear. It occurred to me that my guardianship of him was merely a convenience, not a protection from any danger.
As time went on it became increasingly clear to me that my chance of obtaining the Wonder’s confidence was becoming more and more remote.
At first he had replied to my questions; usually, it is true, by no more than an inclination of his head, but he soon ceased to make even this acknowledgment of my presence.
So I fell by degrees into a persistent habit of silence, admitted my submission by obtruding neither remark nor question upon my constant companion, and gave up my intention of using the Wonder as a means to gratify my curiosity concerning the problem of existence.
Once or twice I saw Crashaw at a distance. He undoubtedly recognised the Wonder, and I think he would have liked to come up and rebuke him — perhaps me, also; but probably he lacked the courage. He would hover within sight of us for a few minutes, scowling, and then stalk away. He gave me the impression of being a dangerous man, a thwarted fanatic, brooding over his defeat. If I had been Mrs. Stott, I should have feared the intrusion of Crashaw more than the foolish overtures of the Harrison idiot. But there was, of course, the Wonder’s compelling power to be reckoned with, in the case of Crashaw.
Challis came back in early September, and it was he who first coaxed, and then goaded me into rebellion.
Challis did not come too soon.
At the end of August I was seeing visions, not pleasant, inspiriting visions, but the indefinite, perplexing shapes of delirium.
I think it must have been in August that I stood on Deane Hill, through an afternoon of fine, driving rain, and had a vision of myself playing tricks with the sands of life.
I had begun to lose my hold on reality. Silence, contemplation, a long-continued wrestle with the profound problems of life, were combining to break up the intimacy of life and matter, and my brain was not of the calibre to endure the strain.
Challis saw at once what ailed me.
He came up to the farm one morning at twelve o’clock. The date was, I believe, the twelfth of September. It was a brooding, heavy morning, with half a gale of wind blowing from the south-west, but it had not rained, and I was out with the Wonder when Challis arrived.
He waited for me and talked to the flattered Mrs. Berridge, remonstrated kindly with her husband for his neglect of the farm, and incidentally gave him a rebate on the rent.
When I came in, he insisted that I should come to lunch with him at Challis Court.
I consented, but stipulated that I must be back at Pym by three o’clock to accompany the Wonder for his afternoon walk.
Challis looked at me curiously, but allowed the stipulation.
We hardly spoke as we walked down the hill — the habit of silence had grown upon me, but after lunch Challis spoke out his mind.
On that occasion I hardly listened to him, but he came up to the farm again after tea and marched me off to dinner at the Court. I was strangely plastic when commanded, but when he suggested that I should give up my walks with the Wonder, go away…. I smiled and said “Impossible,” as though that ended the matter.
Challis, however, persisted, and I suppose I was not too far gone to listen to him. I remember his saying: “That problem is not for you or me or any man living to solve by introspection. Our work is to add knowledge little by little, data here and there, for future evidence.”
The phrase struck me, because the Wonder had once said “There are no data,” when in the early days I had asked him whether he could say definitely if there was any future existence possible for us?
Now Challis put it to me that our work was to find data, that every little item of real knowledge added to the feeble store man has accumulated in his few thousand years of life, was a step, the greatest step any man could possibly make.
“But could we not get, not a small but a very important item, from Victor Stott?”
Challis shook his head. “He is too many thousands of years ahead of us,” he said. “We can only bridge the gap by many centuries of patient toil. If a revelation were made to us, we should not understand it.”
So, by degrees, Challis’s influence took possession of me and roused me to self-assertion.
One morning, half in dread, I stayed at home and read a novel — no other reading could hold my attention — philosophy had become nauseating.
I expected to see the strange little figure of the Wonder come across the Common, but he never came, nor did I receive any reproach from Ellen Mary. I think she had forgotten her fear of the Harrison idiot.
Nevertheless, I did not give up my guardianship all at once. Three times after that morning I took the Wonder for a walk. He made no allusion to my defalcations. Indeed he never spoke. He relinquished me as he had taken me up, without comment or any expression of feeling.
On the twenty-ninth of September I went down to Challis Court and stayed there for a week. Then I returned for a few days to Wood Farm in order to put my things together and pack my books. I had decided to go to Cairo for the winter with Challis.
At half-past one o’clock on Thursday, the eighth of October, I was in the sitting-room, when I saw the figure of Mrs. Stott coming across the Common. She came with a little stumbling run. I could see that she was agitated even before she reached the farmyard gate.
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”