THE HAMPDENSHIRE WONDER (17)
June 10, 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 jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death.”
If there had been any traces of a struggle, I had not noticed them when I came to the edge of the pond. There may have been marks as if a foot had slipped. I was not thinking of evidence when I looked into the water.
There were marks enough when the police came to investigate, but they were the marks made by a twelve-stone man in hobnail boots, who had scrambled into, and out of, the pond. As the inspector said, it was not worth while wasting any time in looking for earlier traces of footsteps below those marks.
Nor were there any signs of violence on the body. It was in no way disfigured, save by the action of the water, in which it had lain for eighteen hours.
There was, indeed, only one point of any significance from the jury’s point of view, and that they put on one side, if they considered it at all; the body was pressed into the mud.
The Coroner asked a few questions about this fact.
Was the mud very soft? Yes, very soft, liquid on top.
How was the body lying? Face downwards.
What part of the body was deepest in the mud? The chest. The witness said he had hard work to get the upper part of the body released; the head was free, but the mud held the rest. “The mooad soocked like,” was the expressive phrase of the witness.
The Coroner passed on to other things. Had any one a spite against the child? and such futilities. Only once more did he revert to that solitary significant fact. “Would it be possible,” he asked of the abashed and self-conscious labourer, “would it be possible for the body to have worked its way down into the soft mud as you have described it to have been found?”
“We-el,” said the witness, “’twas in the stacky mooad, ’twas through the sarft stoof.”
“But this soft mud would suck any solid body down, would it not?” persisted the Coroner.
And the witness recalled the case of a duck that had been sucked into the same soft pond mud the summer before, and cited the instance. He forgot to add that on that occasion the mud had not been under water.
The Coroner accepted the instance. There can be no question that both he and the jury were anxious to accept the easier explanation.
But I know perfectly well that the Wonder did not fall into the pond by accident.
I should have known, even if that conclusive evidence with regard to his being pushed into the mud had never come to light.
He may have stood by the ash-tree and looked into the water, but he would never have fallen. He was too perfectly controlled; and, with all his apparent abstraction, no one was ever more alive to the detail of his surroundings. He and I have walked together perforce in many slippery places, but I have never known him to fall or even begin to lose his balance, whereas I have gone down many times.
Yes; I know that he was pushed into the pond, and I know that he was held down in the mud, most probably by the aid of that ash stick I had held. But it was not for me to throw suspicion on any one at that inquest, and I preferred to keep my thoughts and my inferences to myself. I should have done so, even if I had been in possession of stronger evidence.
I hope that it was the Harrison idiot who was to blame. He was not dangerous in the ordinary sense, but he might quite well have done the thing in play — as he understood it. Only I cannot quite understand his pushing the body down after it fell. That seems to argue vindictiveness — and a logic which I can hardly attribute to the idiot. Still, who can tell what went on in the distorted mind of that poor creature? He is reported to have rescued the dead body of a rabbit from the undergrowth on one occasion, and to have blubbered when he could not bring it back to life.
There is but one other person who could have been implicated, and I hesitate to name him in this place. Yet one remembers what terrific acts of misapplied courage and ferocious brutality the fanatics of history have been capable of performing when their creed and their authority have been set at naught.
Ellen Mary never recovered her sanity. She died a few weeks ago in the County Asylum. I hear that her husband attended the funeral. When she lost her belief in the supernal wisdom and power of her god, her world must have fallen about her. The thing she had imagined to be solid, real, everlasting, had proved to be friable and destructible like all other human building.
The Wonder is buried in Chilborough churchyard.
You may find the place by its proximity to the great marble mausoleum erected over the remains of Sir Edward Bigg, the well-known brewer and philanthropist.
The grave of Victor Stott is marked by a small stone, some six inches high, which is designed to catch the foot rather than the eye of the seeker.
The stone bears the initials “V. S.,” and a date — no more.
I saw the Wonder before he was buried.
I went up into the little bedroom and looked at him in his tiny coffin.
I was no longer afraid of him. His power over me was dissipated. He was no greater and no less than any other dead thing.
It was the same with every one. He had become that “poor little boy of Mrs. Stott’s.” No one spoke of him with respect now. No one seemed to remember that he had been in any way different from other “poor little fellows” who had died an untimely death.
One thing did strike me as curious. The idiot, the one person who had never feared him living, had feared him horribly when he was dead….
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”.