By: Rudyard Kipling
March 14, 2024

AI-assisted illustration for HILOBROW

First published in The Story-Teller Magazine for October 1930 and collected in Limits and Renewals (1932), Kipling’s final proto-sf story explores the notion that mysterious processes at work in human tissues might be related to “waves” from the universe — and that in order to understand them, imagination and intuition may be as important as scientific investigation. HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize this story for HILOBROW’s readers.

UNPROFESSIONAL: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8.


Since Astronomy is even less remunerative than Architecture, it was well for Harries that an uncle of his had once bought a desert in a far country, which turned out to overlie oil. The result for Harries, his only nephew, was over a million pounds invested, plus annual royalties.When the executors had arranged this, Harries, who might have been called an almost-unpaid attaché at Washe Observatory, gave a dinner to three men, whom he had tried and proved beneath glaring and hostile moons in No Man’s Land.

Vaughan, Assistant Surgeon at St. Peggotty’s, was building himself a practice near Sloane Street. Loftie, pathologist, with the beginnings of a reputation, was — for he had married the unstable daughter of one of his earlier London landladies — bacteriological advisor to a Public Department, on five-hundred-and-seventy pounds per annum, and a prospect of being graded for pension. Ackerman, also a St. Peggotty’s man, had been left a few hundreds a year just after he had qualified, and so had given up all serious work except gastronomy and the allied arts.

Vaughan and Loftie knew of Harries’ luck, which Harries explained in detail at the dinner, and stated what, at the lowest count, his income would be.

‘Now,’ said he, ‘“Tacks” can tell you.’

Ackerman made himself small in his chair, as though it had been the shell-hole whence he had once engineered their retreat.

‘We know each other fairly well,’ he began. ‘We’ve seen each other stripped to the Ultimate Atom pretty often? We needn’t camouflage? Agreed? You’re always saying what you’d do if you were independent. Have you changed your minds?’

‘Not me,’ said Vaughan, whose oft-told dream was a nursing-home of his own near Sloane Street. He had marked the very house for it.

‘Do you think I’d keep on with this sewage job if it wasn’t for the pension?’ Loftie asked. He had followed research the more keenly since, at twenty-two, he had wrecked his own happiness.

‘Be free, then,’ said Ackerman. ‘Take three thousand——’

‘Hold on,’ Harries broke in plaintively. ‘I said “up to five.”’

‘Sorry, old man! I was trying for the commission. Take up to five thousand a year from Harries for as long as you choose — for life, if you like. Then research on your own lines, Loftie, and — and — let the Bull know if you stumble on anything. That’s the idea, isn’t it?’

‘Not all.’ Harries surged a little in his seat. ‘A man’s entitled to use a telescope as well as a microscope, isn’t he? Well — I’ve got notions I want to test. They mean keeping one’s eyes open and — logging the exact times that things happen.’

‘That’s what you said when you lectured our company about Astrology — that night under Arras. D’you mean “planetary influences?”’ Loftie spoke with a scientist’s scorn.

‘This isn’t my lecture.’ Harries flushed. ‘This is my gamble. We can’t tell on what system this dam’ dynamo of our universe is wound, but we know we’re in the middle of every sort of wave, as we call ’em. They used to be “influences.”’

‘Like Venus, Cancer, and that lot?’ Vaughan inquired.

‘Yes — if you choose. Now I want Vaughan to start his clinic, and give me a chance to test my notions occasionally. No! Not faith-healing! Loftie can worry his cells and tissues with radium as much as he likes. But——’

‘We’re only on the threshold of radium,’ Loftie snapped.

‘Then get off it!’ was the blasphemous retort. ‘Radium’s a post hoc, not a propter. I want you merely to watch some of your cellgrowths all round the clock. Don’t think! Watch — and put down the times of any changes you see.

‘Or imagine?’ Loftie supplemented.

‘You’ve got it. Imagination is what we want. This rigid “thinking” game is hanging up research. You told me yourself, the other night, it was becoming all technique and no advance,’ Harries ended.

‘That’s going too far. We’re on the edge of big developments.’

‘All the better! Take the money and go ahead. Think of your lab., Lofter! Stoves, filters, sterilisers, frigidaria — everything you choose to indent for!’

‘I’ve brought along Schermoltz’s last catalogue. You might care to look at it, later.’ Ackerman passed the pamphlet into Loftie’s stretched hand.

‘Five thousand a year,’ Loftie muttered and turned the enthralling pages. ‘God! What one could afford! … But I’m not worth the money, Bull. Besides, it’s robbery. … You’ll never arrive at anything by this astrology nonsense.’

‘But you may, on your lines. What do you suppose is the good of Research?’

‘God knows,’ Loftie replied, devouring the illustrations. ‘Only — only it looks — sometimes — as if He were going to tell.’

‘That’s all we want,’ Harries coaxed. ‘Keep your eye on Him, and if He seems inclined to split about anything, put it down.’

‘I’ve had my eye on that house for the last half-year. You could build out a lift-shaft at the back.’ Vaughan looked and spoke into the future.


PS: Here’s a round-up of commentary on this story.

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 | & many others.