By: Rudyard Kipling
March 22, 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.


Here the padrone came in to say that if more drinks were needed, they should be ordered.

Ackerman ordered; Harries stared at the fire; Loftie sank deeper into the catalogue; and Vaughan into his vision of the desirable house for his clinic. The padrone came back with a loaded tray.

‘It’s too much money to take — even from you, Bull.’ Vaughan’s voice was strained. ‘If you’d lend me a few hundred for my clinic, I could…’

Loftie came out of the catalogue and babbled to the same effect, while he reckoned up for just how many pounds a week the horror that defiled his life and lodgings could be honourably removed from both till it drank itself dead.

Harries reared up over them like a walrus affronted.

‘Do you remember the pill-box at Zillebeeke, and the skeleton in the door? Who pinched the bombs for us then?’ he champed.

‘Me and The Lofter,’ said Vaughan, sullen as a schoolboy.

‘What for?’

‘Because we dam’ well needed ’em.’

‘We need ’em worse now! We’re up against the beggar in the pill-box. He’s called Death — if you’ve ever heard of him. This stuff of mine isn’t money, you imbeciles! It’s a service-issue — same as socks. We — we haven’t kept on saving each other’s silly lives for this! Oh, don’t let me down! Can’t you see?’ The big voice quavered.

‘Kamerad, Bull! I’ll come in,’ said Loftie. Vaughan’s hands had gone up first, and he was the first to recover himself, saying: ‘What about “Tacks?” He isn’t let off, is he?’

‘No. I’m going to make commission out of the lot of you,’ said Ackerman. ‘Meantime! Come on, me multi-millionaires! The Bald-headed Beggar in the pill-box is old, but the night is yet young.’

The effects of five thousand a year are stimulating.

A mere Cabinet Minister, dependent on elections for his place, looking in on a Committee where Loftie was giving technical evidence, asked in too loud a whisper, if that all-but-graded Civil Servant were ‘one of my smell-and-tell temporaries.’ Loftie’s resignation was in that evening. Vaughan, assisted by an aunt, started a little nursing-home near Sloane Street, where his new household napery lift and drying-cupboards almost led to his capture by ‘just the kind of girl, my dear, to make an ideal wife for a professional man.’

Harries continued to observe the heavens, and commissioned Ackerman to find a common meeting-place. This — Simson House was its name — had been a small boys’ school in a suburb without too many trams. Ackerman put in floods of water, light and power, an almost inspired kitchen-range, a house-man and his cook-wife, and an ex-Navy petty rating as valet-plumber, steward-engineer, and butler-electrician; set four cots in four little bedrooms, and turned the classroom in the back garden into a cement-floored hall of great possibilities, which Harries was the first to recognise. He cut off a cubicle at one end of it, where he stored books, clocks, and apparatus. Next, Loftie clamoured for a laboratory and got it, dust and air-tight, with lots of the Schermoltz toys laid out among taps and sinks and glass shelves. Hither he brought various numbered odds-and-ends which Vaughan and other specialists had sent him in the past, and on which, after examination, he had pronounced verdicts of importance to unknown men and women. Some of the samples mere webs of cancerous tissue — he had, by arts of his own, kept alive in broths and salts after sentence had been executed on their sources of origin.

There were two specimens — Numbers 127 and 128 — from a rarish sort of affliction in exactly the same stage of development and precisely the same position, in two women of the same age and physique, who had come up to Vaughan on the same afternoon, just after Vaughan had been appointed Assistant Surgeon at St. Peggotty’s. And when the absurdly identical operations were over, a man, whose praise was worth having, but whose presence had made Vaughan sweat into his palms, had complimented him. So far as St. Peggotty’s knew, both cases were doing well several months after. Harries found these samples specially interesting, and would pore over them long times on end, for he had always used the microscope very neatly.

‘Suppose you watch what these do for a while,’ he suggested to Loftie one day.

‘I know what they’ll do well enough,’ the other returned. He was hunting a line of his own in respect to brain-cells.

‘Then couldn’t you put Frost on to watch ’em with a low-power lens?’ Harries went on. ‘He’s a trained observer in his own line. What? Of course he’s at your disposition, old man. You could make anything of him. Oh, by the way, do you happen to remember what time of day you operated on One-twenty-Seven and Eight?’

‘Afternoon, of course — at St. Peggotty’s — between three and five. It’s down somewhere.’


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.