By: Rudyard Kipling
May 8, 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.


‘Hear me out. Qua Death, as created, or evolved, on this planet (He needn’t exist elsewhere, you know), and especially qua the instrument of decay that was to kill her, she’s some odd weeks owing to the grave. But, qua the influence—tide, if you like — external to this swab of culture which we call our world, she has been started on a new tide of life. The gamble is that, after crises, something like those we’ve seen in the mice, that tide may carry her beyond the — er — the demand of the grave. It’s beginning to be pull-devil, pull-baker between ’em now, I should imagine.’

‘I see your line, Bull,’ said Loftie. ‘When ought her crises to be due? Because — it’s all as insane as the rest — but there may be an off-chance of——’

‘The suicidal tendency comes first,’ said Ackerman. ‘Why not have her watched when she goes out? Taffy’s nurses can keep an eye on her indoors.’

‘You’ve been reading my sleuth-tales,’ Loftie smiled.

‘Make it so, then. Any decent inquiry-agency would undertake it, I suppose,’ said Harries.

‘I’ll leave the choice to Frost. I’ll only take the commission. We’re in for a wildish time. She’s a woman — not a white mouse!’ Ackerman said, and added thoughtfully: ‘But the champion ass, as distinguished from mere professional fool, of us all, is Taffy!’

Vaughan had ordered her never to go afoot between Simson House and the Nursing Home, and, also, to take taxis to and from her little ‘exercise walks’ in the parks, where she so often picked up the nice elderly lady’s-maid with the pom, the sales-lady from the Stores, and other well-spoken lady strangers near her own class (at ever so many shillings an hour). Of Mr. Frost she saw but little that summer, owing to the pressure of his duties and some return, they told her, of rheumatism contracted in the defence of his country. The worst that came to her was a slight attack of stiff neck, caught from sitting in a draught. As to her health, she admitted that sometimes she felt a bit flustered in the head, but otherwise could not be better.

She was recounting her mercies, a little fulsomely as usual, to Loftie one afternoon in the common-room of Simson House, where she had brought him some new shirts marked. Frost had taken them upstairs, and Loftie had hinted that he must get back to his work. She flicked her head sideways and said that she was busy, too. In the same breath, but in a whisper, she ran on ‘I don’t want to die, Mr. Loftie. But I’ve got to. I’ve reelly got to get out of this. I’m wanted elsewhere, but’ — she shivered — ‘I don’t like going.’

Then she raced, with lowered head, straight towards the wall. Loftie snatched at her dress, turned her, so that she struck the wall with her shoulder and fell — and Frost came down to find him grappling with her, not inexpertly.

She broke away and skimmed across the room. Frost ran and tripped her, and brought her down. She would have beaten her head on the floor, but he jerked it up, his palm beneath her chin, and dragged her to her feet. Then he closed.

She was silent, absorbed in this one business of driving to the nearest wall through whatever stood between. Small and fragile though she was, she flung the twelve-stone Frost clear of her again and again; and a side-pushing stroke of her open palm spun Loftie half across the hall. The struggle lasted without a break, but her breath had not quickened, when like a string she relaxed, repeating that she did not want to die. As she cried to Loftie to hold her, she slipped away between them, and they had to chase her round the furniture.

They backed her down on the couch at last, Loftie clinging to her knees, while Frost’s full strength and weight forced the thin arms over her head. Again the body gave, and the low, casual whisper began: ‘After what you said outside Barker’s in the wet, you don’t think I reelly want to die. Mr. Frost? I don’t — not a mite. But I’ve got to. I’ve got to go where I’m wanted.’

Frost had to kneel on her right arm then, holding her left down with both hands. Loftie, braced against the sofa, mastered her feet, till the outbreak passed in shudders that shook all three. Her eyes were shut. Frost raised an eyelid with his thumb and peered closely.

‘Lor’!’ said she, and flushed to the temples. The two shocked men leapt clear at once. She lifted a hand to her disordered hair. ‘Who’s done this?’ she said. ‘Why’ve I come all over like this? I ought to be busy dying.’ Loftie was ready to throw himself on her again, but Frost held up a hand.


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.