Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 4

John and His Elders

THOUGH the fight with Stephen was, I believe one of the chief landmarks in John’s life, outwardly things went on much as before; save that he gave up fighting, and spent a good deal more time by himself.

Between him and Stephen, friendship was restored, but it was henceforth an uncomfortable friendship. Each seemed anxious to be amicable, but neither felt at ease with the other. Stephen’s nerve, I think, had been seriously shaken. It was not that he feared another licking, but that his self-respect had suffered. I took an opportunity to suggest that his defeat had been no disgrace, since John was clearly no ordinary child. Stephen jumped at this consolation. With a hysterical jerk in his voice he said, “I felt — I can’t say what I felt — like a dog biting its master and being punished. I felt — sort of guilty, wicked.”

John, I think, was now beginning to realize more clearly the gulf that separated him from the rest of us. At the same time, he was probably feeling a keen need for companionship, but companionship of a calibre beyond that of normal human beings. He continued to play with his old companions, and was indeed still the moving spirit in most of their activities; but always he played with a certain aloofness, as it were with his tongue in his cheek. Though in appearance he was by far the smallest and most infantile of the whole gang, he reminded me sometimes of a little old man with snowy hair condescending to play with young gorillas. Often he would break away in the middle of some wild game and drift into the garden to lie dreaming on the lawn. Or he would hang around his mother and discuss life with her, while she did her house-work, tidied the garden, or (a common occupation with Pax) just waited for the next thing to happen.

In some ways John with his mother suggested a human foundling with a wolf foster-mother; or, better, a cow foster-mother. He obviously gave her complete trust and affection, and even a deep though perplexed reverence; but he was troubled when she could not follow his thought or understand his innumerable questions about the universe.

The foster-mother image is not perfect. In one respect, indeed, it is entirely false. For though intellectually Pax was by far his inferior, there was evidently another field in which she was at this time his equal, perhaps even his superior. Both mother and son had a peculiar knack of appreciating experience, a peculiar relish which was at bottom, I believe, simply a very special and subtle sense of humour. Often have I seen a covert glance of understanding and amusement pass between them when the rest of us found nothing to tickle us. I guessed that this veiled merriment was in some way connected with John’s awakening interest in persons and his rapidly developing insight into his own motives. But what it was in our behaviour that these two found so piquant, I could never discover.

With his father John’s relation was very different. He made good use of the doctor’s active mind, but between them there was no spontaneous sympathy, and little community of taste save intellectual interest. I have often seen on John’s face while he was listening to his father a fleeting contortion of ridicule, even disgust. This happened especially at times when Thomas believed himself to be giving the boy some profound comment on human nature or the universe. Needless to say it was not only Thomas, but myself also and many another that roused in John this ridicule or revulsion. But Thomas was the chief offender, perhaps because he was the most brilliant, and the most impressive example of the mental limitations of his species. I suspect that John often deliberately incited his father to betray himself in this manner. It was as though the boy had said to himself, “I have somehow to understand these fantastic beings who occupy the planet. Here is a fine specimen. I must experiment on him.”

At this point I had better say that I myself was becoming increasingly intrigued by the fantastic being, John. I was also unwittingly coming under his influence. Looking back on this period, I can see that he had already marked me down for future use, and was undertaking the first steps of my capture. His chief method was the cool assumption that though I was a middle-aged man, I was his slave; that however much I might laugh at him and scold him, I secretly recognized him as a superior being, and was at heart his faithful hound. For the present I might amuse myself playing at an independent life (I was at this time a rather half-hearted free-lance journalist), but sooner or later I must come to heel.

When John was nearly eight and a half in actual years, he was as a rule taken for a very peculiar child of five or six. He still played childish games, and was accepted by other children as a child, though a bit of a freak. Yet he could take part in any adult conversation. Of course, he was always either far too brilliant or far too ignorant of life to play his part in anything like a normal manner; but he was never simply inferior. Even his most naive remarks were apt to have a startling significance.

But John’s naivety was rapidly disappearing. He was now reading an immense amount at an incredible rate, No book, on any subject which did not lie outside his experience, took him more than a couple of hours to master, however tough its matter. Most he could assimilate thoroughly in a quarter of an hour. But the majority of books he glanced at only for a few moments, then flung aside as worthless.

Now and then, in the course of his reading, he would demand to be taken (by his father or mother or myself) to watch some process of manufacture, or to go down a mine, or see over a ship, or visit some place of historic interest, or to observe experiments in some laboratory. Great efforts were made to fulfil these demands, but in many cases we had not the necessary influence. Many projected trips, moreover, were prevented by Pax’s dread of unnecessary publicity for the boy. Whenever we did undertake an expedition, we had to pretend to the authorities that John’s presence was accidental, and his interest childish and unintelligent.

John was by no means dependent on his elders for seeing the world. He had developed a habit of entering into conversation with all kinds of persons, “to find out what they were doing and what they thought about things.” Any one who was tactfully accosted in street or train or country road by this small boy with huge eyes, hair like lamb’s wool, and adult speech was likely to find himself led on to say much more than he intended. By such novel research John learned, I am convinced, more about human nature and our modern social problems in a month or two than most of us learn in a lifetime.

I was privileged to witness one of these interviews. On this occasion the subject was the proprietor of a big general store in the neighbouring industrial city. Mr. Magnate (it is safer not to reveal his name) was to be accosted while he was travelling to business by the 9:30 train. John consented to my presence, but only on condition that I should pretend to be a stranger.

We let the quarry pass through the turnstile and settle himself in his first-class compartment. Then we went to the booking office, where I rather self-consciously demanded “a first single and a half.” Independently we strayed into Mr. Magnate’s carriage. When I arrived, John was already settled in the corner opposite to the great man, who occasionally glanced from his paper at the queer child with a cliff for brow and caves for eyes. Soon after I had taken my post, in the corner diagonally opposite to John, two other business men entered, and settled themselves to read their papers.

John was apparently deep in Comic Cuts, or some such periodical. Though this had been bought merely to serve as stage property, I believe he was quite capable of enjoying it; for at this time, in spite of his wonderful gifts, he was still at heart “the little vulgar boy.” In the conversation which followed he was obviously to some extent playing up to the business man’s idea of a precocious yet naive child. But also he was a naive child, backward as well as diabolically intelligent. I myself, though I knew him well, could not decide how much of his talk on this occasion was sincere, and how much mere acting.

When the train had started, John began to watch his prey so intently that Mr. Magnate took cover behind a wall of newspaper. Presently John’s curiously precise treble gathered all eyes upon him. “Mr. Magnate,” he said, “may I talk to you?” The newspaper was lowered, and its owner endeavoured to look neither awkward nor condescending.

“Certainly, boy, go ahead. What’s your name?”

“Oh, my name’s John. I’m a queer child, but that doesn’t matter. It’s you we’re going to talk about.”

We all laughed. Mr. Magnate shifted in his seat, but continued to look his part.

“Well,” he said, “you certainly are a queer child.” He glanced at his adult fellow travellers for confirmation. We duly smiled.

“Yes,” replied John, “but you see from my point of view you are a queer man.” Mr. Magnate hung for a moment between amusement and annoyance; but since we had all laughed, except John, he chose to be tickled and benevolent.

“Surely,” he said, “there’s nothing remarkable about me. I’m just a business man. Why do you think I’m queer?”

“Well,” said John, “I’m thought queer because I have more brains than most children. Some say I have more brains than I ought to have. You’re queer because you have more money than most people; and (some say) more than you ought to have.”

Once more we laughed, rather anxiously.

John continued: “I haven’t found out yet what to do with my brains, and I’m wondering if you have found out what to do with your money.”

“My dear boy, you may not believe me, but the fact is I have no real choice. Needs of all sorts keep cropping up, and I have to fork out.”

“I see,” said John; “but then you can’t fork out for all the possible needs. You must have some sort of big plan or aim to help you to choose.”

“Well now, how shall I put it? I’m James Magnate, with a wife and family and a rather complicated business and a whole lot of obligations rising out of all that. All the money I control, or nearly all, goes in keeping all those balls rolling, so to speak.”

“I see,” said John again. “My station and its duties, as Hegel said, and no need to worry about the sense of it all.”

Like a dog encountering an unfamiliar and rather formidable smell, Mr. Magnate sniffed this remark, bristled, and vaguely growled.

“Worry!” he snorted. “There’s plenty of that; but it’s practical day-today worry about how to get goods cheap enough to sell them at a profit instead of a loss. If I started worrying about ‘the sense of it all’ the business would soon go to pieces. No time for that. I find myself with a pretty big job that the country needs doing, and I just do it.”

There was a pause, then John remarked, “How splendid it must be to have a pretty big job that needs doing, and to do it well! Do you do it well, sir? And does it really need doing? But of course you do, and it must; else the country wouldn’t pay you for it.”

Mr. Magnate looked anxiously at all his fellow travellers in turn, wondering whether his leg was being pulled. He was reassured, however, by John’s innocent and respectful gaze. The boy’s next remark was rather disconcerting. “It must be so snug to feel both safe and important.”

“Well, I don’t know about that,” the great man replied. “But I give the public what it wants, and as cheaply as I can, and I get enough out of it to keep my family in reasonable comfort.”

“Is that what you make money for, to keep your family in comfort?”

“That and other things. I get rid of my money in all sorts of ways. If you must know, quite a lot goes to the political party that I think can govern the country best. Some goes to hospitals and other charities in our great city. But most goes into the business itself to make it bigger and better.”

“Wait a minute,” said John. “You’ve raised a lot of interesting points. I mustn’t lose any of them. First, about comfort. You live in that big half-timbered house on the hill, don’t you?”

“Yes. It’s a copy of an Elizabethan mansion. I could have done without it, but my wife had set her heart on it. And putting it up was a great thing for the local building trade.”

“And you have a Rolls, and a Wolseley?”

“Yes,” said the Magnate, adding with magnanimity. “Come up the hill on Saturday and I’ll give you a run in the Rolls. When she’s doing eighty it feels like thirty.”

John’s eyelids sank and rose again, a movement which I knew as an expression of amused contempt. But why was he contemptuous? He was a bit of a speed-hog himself, Never, for instance, was he satisfied with my cautious driving. Was it that he saw in this remark a cowardly attempt to side-track the conversation? After the interview I learned that he had already made several trips in the Magnate car, having suborned the chauffeur. He had even learned to drive it, with cushions behind him, so as to help his short legs to reach the pedals.

“Oh, thank you, I should love to go in your Rolls,” he said, looking gratefully into the benevolent grey eyes of the rich man. “Of course, you couldn’t work properly unless you had reasonable comfort. And that means a big house and two cars, and furs and jewels for your wife, and first-class railway fares, and swank schools for your children.” He paused, while Mr. Magnate looked suspiciously at him. Then he added, “But you won’t be really comfortable till you’ve got that knighthood. Why doesn’t it come? You’ve paid enough already, haven’t you?”

One of our fellow passengers sniggered. Mr. Magnate coloured, gasped, muttered, “Offensive little brat!” and retired behind his paper.

“Oh, sir, I’m sorry,” said John, “I thought it was all quite respectable. Surely it’s just like Poppy Day. Pay your money, and you get your badge, and everyone knows you have done your bit. And that’s true comfort, to know that everyone knows you’re all right.”

The paper dropped again, and its owner said, with mild firmness, “Look here, young man! You mustn’t believe everything you’re told, specially when it’s libellous. I know you don’t mean harm yourself, but — be more critical of what you hear.”

“I’m frightfully sorry,” said John, looking pained and abashed. “It’s so hard to know what one may say and what not.”

“Yes, of course,” said Magnate amiably. “Perhaps I had better explain things a bit. Any one who finds himself in a position like mine, if he’s worth his salt, has to make the best possible use of his opportunities for serving the Empire. Now he can do this partly by running his business well, partly by personal influence. And if he is to have influence he must not only be, but also appear, a man of weight. He must spend a good deal on keeping up a certain style in his way of life. The public does attend more to a man who lives a bit expensively than to a man who doesn’t. Often it would be more comfortable not to live expensively. Just as it would be more comfortable for a judge in court on a hot day to do without his robe and wig. But he mustn’t. He must sacrifice comfort to dignity. At Christmas I bought my wife a rather good diamond necklace (South African — the money stayed in the Empire). Whenever we go to an important function, say a dinner at the Town Hall, she’s got to wear it. She doesn’t always want to. Says it’s heavy or hard, or something. But I say, ‘My dear, it’s a sign that you count. It’s a badge of office. Better wear it.’ And about the knighthood. If anyone says I want to buy one, it’s just a mean lie. I give what I can to my party because I know quite well, with my experience, that it’s the party of common sense and loyalty. No other party cares seriously for British prosperity and power. No other cares about our great Empire and its mission to lead the world. Well, clearly I must support that party in any way open to me. If they saw fit to give me a knighthood, I’d be proud. I’m not one of those prigs who turn up their noses at it. I’d be glad, partly because it would mean that the people who really count were sure I was really serving the Empire, partly because the knighthood would give me more weight to go on serving the Empire with.”

Mr. Magnate glanced at his fellow passengers. We all nodded approval. “Thank you, sir,” said John, with solemn, respectful eyes. “And it all depends on money, doesn’t it? If I’m going to do anything big, I must get money, somehow. I have a friend who keeps saying, ‘Money’s power.’ He has a wife who’s always tired and cross, and five children, ugly dull things. He’s out of a job. Had to sell his push-bike the other day. He says it’s not fair that he should be where he is and — you where you are. But it’s all his own fault really. If he had been as wide awake as you, he’d be as rich as you. Your being rich doesn’t make anyone else poor, does it? If all the slum people were as wide awake as you, they’d all have big houses and Rollses and diamonds. They’d all be some use to the Empire, instead of being just a nuisance.”

The man opposite me tittered. Mr. Magnate looked at him with the sidelong glance of a shy horse, then pulled himself together and laughed.

“My lad,” he said, “you’re too young to understand these things. I don’t think we shall do much good by talking any more about them.”

“I’m sorry,” John replied, seemingly crushed. “I thought I did understand.” Then after a pause he continued: “Do you mind if we go on just a little bit longer? I want to ask you something else.”

“Oh, very well, what is it?”

“What do you think about?”

“What do I think about? Good heavens, boy! All sorts of things. My business, my home, my wife and children, and — about the state of the country.”

“The state of the country? What about it?”

“Well,” said Mr. Magnate, “that’s much too long a story. I think about how England is to recover her foreign trade — so that more money may come into the country, and people may live happier, fuller lives. I think about how we can strengthen the hands of the Government against the foolish people who want to stir up trouble, and those who talk wildly against the Empire. I think —”

Here John interrupted. “What makes life full and happy?”

“You are a box of questions! I should say that for happiness people need plenty of work to keep them out of mischief, and some amusement to keep them fresh.”

“And, of course,” John interposed, “enough money to buy their amusements with.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Magnate. “But not too much. Most of them would only waste it or damage themselves with it. And if they had a lot, they wouldn’t work to get more.”

“But you have a lot, and you work.”

“Yes, but I don’t work for money exactly. I work because my business is a fascinating game, and because it is necessary to the country. I regard myself as a sort of public servant.”

“But,” said John, “aren’t they public servants too? Isn’t their work necessary too?”

“Yes, boy. But they don’t as a rule look at it that way. They won’t work unless they’re driven.”

“Oh, I see!” John said. “They’re a different sort from you. It must be wonderful to be you. I wonder whether I shall turn out like you or like them.”

“Oh, I’m not really different,” said Mr. Magnate generously. “Or if I am, it’s just circumstances that have made me so. As for you, young man, I expect you’ll go a long way.”

“I want to, terribly,” said John. “But I don’t know which way yet. Evidently whatever I do I must have money. But tell me, why do you bother about the country, and about other people?”

“I suppose,” said Mr. Magnate, laughing, “I bother about other people because when I see them unhappy I feel unhappy myself. And also,” he added more solemnly, “because the Bible tells us to love our neighbours. And I suppose I bother about the country partly because I must have something big to be interested in, something bigger than myself.”

“But you are big, yourself,” said John, with hero-worship in his eyes, and not a twinkle.

Mr. Magnate said hastily, “No, no, only a humble instrument in the service of a very big thing.”

“What thing do you mean?” asked John.

“Our great Empire, of course, boy.”

We were arriving at our destination. Mr. Magnate rose and took his hat from the rack. “Well, young man,” he said, “we have had an interesting talk. Come along on Saturday afternoon about 2.30, and we’ll get the chauffeur to give you a quarter of an hour’s spin in the Rolls.”

“Thank you, sir!” said John. “And may I see Mrs. Magnate’s necklace? I love jewels.”

“Certainly you shall,” Mr. Magnate answered.

When I had met John again outside the station, his only comment on the journey was his characteristic laugh.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30