By: Rudyard Kipling
May 16, 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.


‘You can suit yourself about that, Mrs. Berners,’ he said. ‘What I’ve been at you all this time to find out is, what you’ve done with our plated toast-rack, towels, etcetera.’

He shook her by the shoulders, and the rest of her pale hair descended.

‘One plated toast-rack and two egg-cups, which went over to Mr. Vaughan’s on indent last April twenty-eighth, together with four table-napkins and six sheets. I ask because I’m responsible for ’em at this end.’

‘But I’ve got to die.’

‘So we’ve all, Mrs. Berners. But before you do, I want to know what you did with. . . .’ He repeated the list and the date. ‘You know the routine between the houses as well as I do. I sent ’em by Mr. Ackerman’s orders, on Mr. Vaughan’s indent. When do you check your linen? Monthly or quarterly?’

‘Quarterly. But I’m wanted elsewhere.’

‘If you aren’t a little more to the point, Mrs. Berners, I’ll tell you where you will be wanted before long, and what for. I’m not going to lose my character on account of your carelessness — if no worse. An’ here’s Mr. Loftie. . . .’

‘Don’t drag me in,’ Loftie whispered, with male horror.

‘Leave us alone! I know me class, sir. . . . Mr. Loftie who has done everything for you.’

‘It was Mr. Vaughan. He wouldn’t let me die.’ She tried to stand, fell back, and sat up on the couch.

‘You won’t get out of it that way. Cast back in your memory and see if you can clear yourself!’ Frost began anew, scientifically as a female inquisitor; mingling details, inferences, dates, and innuendoes with reminders of housekeeping ritual: never overwhelming her, save when she tried to ride off on her one piteous side-issue, but never accepting an answer. Painfully, she drew out of her obsession, protesting, explaining, striving to pull her riven wits into service; but always hunted from one rambling defence to the next, till, with eyes like those of a stricken doe, she moaned: ‘Oh, Fred! Fred! The only thing I’ve ever took — you said so outside Barker’s — was your own ’ard ’eart.’

Frost’s face worked, but his voice was the petty-officer’s with the defaulter.

‘No such names between us, Mrs. Berners, till this is settled.’

He crumpled his wet eyes, as though judging an immense range. Then observed deliberately
‘’Ask me — I’d say you’re a common thief.’

She stared at him for as long as a shell might take to travel to an horizon. Then came the explosion of natural human wrath — she would not stoop to denial, she said — till, choking on words of abuse, she hit him weakly over the mouth, and dropped between his feet.

‘She’s come back!’ said Frost, his face transfigured. ‘What next?’

‘My room. Tell Cook to put her to bed. Fill every hot-water bottle we’ve got, and warm the blankets. I’ll telephone the Home. Then we’ll risk the injections.’

Frost slung her, limp as a towel, over his shoulder, and, turning, asked: ‘This — all these symptoms don’t need to be logged, sir — do they? We — we know something like ’em?’

Loftie nodded assent.

She came up shuddering out of the seven days’ chill of the cheated grave, and Vaughan’s nurses told her what a dreadful thing was this ‘suppressed influenza’ which had knocked her out, but that she might report for duty in a few weeks. Ackerman, who loved Vaughan more than the others put together, testified on their next film-night that Taffy was almost worthy to be called a medical man for his handling of the case.

‘Tacks,’ said Vaughan kindly, ‘you are as big a dam’ fool about my job as I was about Frost. I injected what the Lofter gave me, at the times that Harries told me. The rest was old wives’ practice.’

‘She always looked like a wet hen,’ said Harries. ‘Now she goes about like a smiling sheep. I wish I’d seen her crises. Did you or Frost time ’em, Lofter?’

‘It wasn’t worth it,’ was the light answer. ‘Just hysteria. But she’s covered her full year now. D’you suppose we’ve held her?’

‘I should say yes. I don’t know how you feel, but’ — Vaughan beamed — ‘the more I see of her scar, the more pleased I am. Ah! That was a lovely bit of work, even if I am only a carpenter, Tacks!’

‘But, speaking with some relation to ordinary life, what does all this lunacy of ours prove?’ Ackerman demanded.

‘Not a dam’ thing, except that it may give us some data and inferences which may serve as some sort of basis for some detail of someone else’s work in the future,’ Harries pronounced. ‘The main point, as I read it, is that it makes one — not so much think — Research is gummed up with thinking — as imagine a bit.’

‘That’ll be possible, too — by the time Frost and I have finished with this film,’ said Loftie.
It included a sequence of cultures, from mice who had overcome their suicidal fits, attenuated through a human being who, very obligingly, in the intervals of running the camera, described the effects of certain injections on his own rugged system. The earlier ones, he admitted, had ‘fair slung him round the deck.’

‘It was chuck it and chance it,’ Loftie apologised. ‘You see, we couldn’t tell, all this summer, when Mrs. Berners might play up for the grave. So I rather rushed the injections through Frost. I haven’t worked out my notes yet. You’ll get ’em later.’

He stayed to help Frost put back some of the more delicate gear, while the others went to change.

‘Not to talk about that lady of ours,’ Frost said presently. ‘My first — though, of course, her mother never warned me — drank a bit. She disgraced me all round Fratton pretty much the whole of one commission. And she died in Lock ’Ospital. So, I’ve had my knock.’

‘Some of us seem to catch it. I’ve had mine, too,’ Loftie answered.

‘I never heard that. But’ — the voice changed — ‘I knew it — surer than if I’d been told.’

‘Yes. God help us!’ said Loftie, and shook his hand. Frost, not letting go of it, continued ‘One thing more, sir. I didn’t properly take it in at the time — not being then concerned — but — that first operation on that lady of mine, was it of a nature that’ll preclude — so to say — expectations of — of offspring?’

‘Absolutely, old man,’ Loftie’s free hand dropped on Frost’s shoulder.

‘Pity! There ought to be some way of pulling ’em through it — somehow — oughtn’t there?’


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.