Star-Begotten, by H. G. Wells

Chapter Three

Mr. Joseph Davis Wrestles with an Incredible Idea

1

It is an open question how freely an obstetrician should talk to the husband of his patient. Dr. Holdman Stedding erred perhaps on the communicative side. It may be he should have realized more promptly that Mr. Joseph Davis was troubled in his imagination, and he should have exercised more care than he did in avoiding topics that might intensify his imaginative disturbance. Yet it may be pleaded in extenuation that it was Mr. Davis who started the subject of these mysterious extra-terrestrial radiations and that it was Dr. Holdman Stedding who was taken by surprise with a novel idea. He too had his imaginative side. He liked novel ideas and there was just that streak of scientific curiosity and communicativeness in him which impairs discretion.

He was a stout, large-faced, warmish-blond man, always a little out of breath and always with a faint flavour of surprise in his expression. And he liked to be made to laugh. His mouth was always just a little open, as if ready to laugh. But he knew his work marvellously well; he had strong and skilful hands and he never got flurried.

Davis had called on him before. He had wanted to have an exact account of the health of his wife, Was she strong enough to bear a child? She was as strong, said Dr. Holdman Stedding, ‘as a young pony.’

The way in which Davis beat about that idea that things were not quite right with his wife gave the good doctor a queer feeling that a less reassuring reply would have been more acceptable. For obscure reasons — sub-reasons rather — it seemed that Davis did not want this child.

Like every practising obstetrician Dr. Holdman Stedding knew all the faint intimations of a tentative to abortion, and knew how to nip any such suggestion in the bud. Panic before fatherhood is a more frequent thing than the lay mind realizes. It is constantly peeping out in these consultations. Davis, if such had been his disposition, had departed unsatisfied. But here he was again.

‘I suppose everything is going all right with Mary?’ he asked, advancing uneasily into the consulting-room.

‘Couldn’t be better.’

‘You made a second examination?’

‘At your request. It was unnecessary.’

‘There is nothing unusual. . . .?’ Mr. Davis rephrased his question. ‘The child, the embryo, so far as you can ascertain, is not different in any way from any other child at the same stage?’

‘It is coming on well. There is absolutely no ground for worry.’

‘And the mother — physically and mentally. You are sure she can stand this? Because you know, say what you like, she is not a normal woman.’

‘Do sit down,’ said the doctor, recapturing the hearth-rug by putting his visitor into a chair, and then standing over him. ‘Don’t you think, Mr. Davis, that you are — just a trifle fanciful about your wife?’

‘Well,’ said Davis, sticking to his point, ‘is she normal?’

‘Few women in her condition remain as sane and healthy as she is. If that is abnormal. Her mind like her body is as sound as a bell.’

‘You don’t think a woman can be too sane? I confess, Dr. Stedding, I don’t always understand my wife. There is a sort of hard scepticism in her mind . . . You don’t think a woman can be too intelligent to make a good mother?’

‘Really, Mr. Davis! What’s fretting your mind? With her clearheadedness and your literary genius your child may be something quite outstanding.’

‘And that is what bothers me. The fact of it is, Doctor, I’ve been hearing talk lately. . . . I don’t know if you know Foxfield and his work. . . . I take a scientific interest in this as well as a personal one. . . . The point is —’

2

He kept the doctor waiting for a moment.

‘The point is, do you, with your experience, think that latterly — how shall I put it? — exceptional children have become rather more frequent than they used to be?’

‘Exceptional? Gifted?’

‘Yes, gifted. In some cases perhaps. And also — what shall I say? — abnormalities?’

‘H’m!’ said the doctor. He was interested. He attempted a brief survey of his experience. ‘There are some rather surprising children and youngsters about. But I suppose something of that sort has always been going on.’

‘To the same extent?’ pressed Davis. ‘To the same extent?’

‘Possibly not. It is very hard to say. Naturally in this part of London and with a clientele like mine, we have exceptional parents. My impression, my unchecked and uncontrolled impression, is that, in the world I know, maternal mortality is extremely low and the infants are — bright is the word. Some with biggish heads. But anything in the way — of out-of-the-way novelties, no. If you are worrying about monstrosities — you need not worry. And exceptionally bright children are nothing to worry about. The Caesarean operation is probably more frequent nowadays. . . . That may be due rather to improved gynaecology than to any increase in mutations. . . . ’

Pause.

‘I would like to talk to you rather fantastically,’ said Davis abruptly. ‘It’s not only my wife I am thinking about. Don’t think I’m mad in what I am saying to you, but just think I am letting my imagination out for a romp.’

‘Nothing better,’ said Dr. Holdman Stedding, who like most medical practitioners nowadays had a disposition towards a rather amateurish psycho-analysis. ‘Say what you like. Let it rip.’

‘Well,’ said Mr. Davis, and hesitated at the strangeness and difficulty of the ideas he had to explain. ‘Biologists — I was talking to Foxfield the other day — biologists say that when a species comes to a difficult phase in its struggle for existence — and I suppose no one can say that is not fairly true of the human situation nowadays — there is an increased disposition to vary. There is — how did Foxfield put it? — for one thing, there is less insistence on the normal. Less insistence on the normal. It is as if the species began to try round and feel for new possibilities.’

‘Ye-es,’ said the doctor, with non-committal encouragement in his tone.

‘And as if it became more capable of accepting abnormalities and weaving them into its destinies.’

‘Yes,’ said the doctor, weighing the proposition. ‘That is in accordance with current ideas.’

‘As an industrious student of history,’ began Mr. Davis. ‘You know I have written one or two books?’

‘Who does not? My two nephews got your Alexander, or Youth the Conqueror and your Story of the Spanish Main as prizes last term, and I can assure you I read them myself with great delight.’

‘Well. It seems to me that for ages human life has been playing much the same tune with variations — but much the same tune. What we call human nature. The general behaviour, the normal system of reactions, has been the same. The old, old story. Abnormal people have been kept in their places. You don’t think, Doctor, that that uniformity of human experience is going to be disturbed?’

‘I wish you would explain a little more.’

‘Suppose there are — Martians.’

‘Well.’

‘Suppose there are beings, real material beings like ourselves, in another planet, but far wiser, more intelligent, much more highly developed. Suppose they are able to see us and know about us — as we know about the creatures under a microscope, which have no suspicion of us. . . . Mind you, this isn’t my idea. I’m only repeating something I heard in the club. But suppose that in some way these older, wiser, greater, and better organized intelligences are able to influence human life.’

‘How?’

‘They may have tried all sorts of ways. They may have been experimenting for ages. Much as we might run a reagent into a microscope slide. The amoebae and so on would have no idea. . . . ’

‘If you are thinking of anything like inter-planetary telepathy, anything of that sort, I’m not with you. Even between closely similar minds, between identical twins for example, I doubt if such a thing is possible. . . . I detest telepathy.’

‘This is quite a different idea.’

‘Well?’

‘Suppose that for the last few thousand years they have been experimenting in human genetics. Suppose they have been trying to alter mankind in some way, through the human genes.’

‘But how?’

‘You have heard of cosmic rays, Doctor?’

The doctor took it in with some deliberation. ‘It is a quite fantastic idea,’ he said after a pause.

‘But neither impossible nor incredible.’

‘Some things one puts outside the range of practical possibility.’

‘And some things refuse to be put outside the range of practical possibility.’

‘But you don’t mean to tell me you believe —?’

‘No. But I face a possibility with an open mind.’

‘Which is?’

‘That these Martians —’

‘But we don’t know there are any Martians!’

‘We don’t know that there aren’t.’

‘No.’

‘Quite possibly these rays do not come from Mars — more probably than not. But — let us call the senders —’

‘Senders?’

‘Well, whatever originates them. Let us call them Martians — just to avoid inventing a new name —’

‘Very well. And your suggestion is —?’

‘That these Martians have been firing away with increasing accuracy and effectiveness at our chromosomes — perhaps for long ages. That is the story, the fancy if you like, that I want in some way to put to the test. Every now and then in history, strange exceptional figures have appeared, Confucius, Buddha; men with strange memories, men with uncanny mathematical gifts, men with unaccountable intuitions. Mostly they have been persons in advance of their times, as we say, and out of step with their times. . . . Do you see what I am driving at, Doctor?’

‘But this is the purest fantasy!’

‘Or the realization of a fantastic fact.’

‘But —!’

3

Dr. Holdman Stedding wavered in his mind. Ought he to let this talk run on or close down on it forthwith?

At least half the disordered minds of the present time, he reflected, develop delusions about radiations. That kind of fancy has largely replaced those spiritual visions and inner voices which supplied the demented with crazy interpretations of their perplexities in the past. It was dangerous stuff, and the mind of Davis, to say the least of it, was very delicately poised. And yet there was something faintly plausible — a sort of fairy-tale plausibility — about this idea that caught the unprofessional elements of the doctor’s imagination. He went on taking the idea seriously.

‘What sort of confirmation is possible?’ he considered.

‘That is where the puzzle comes in. That is why I am consulting you.’

‘You think that if one attempted some sort of examination of human births, past and present — it would of course be very hard to get any adequate records about this sort of thing — one might be able to detect —?’

‘That we are being played upon.’

‘But you don’t believe —?’

‘Not a bit of it. Oh, no! I didn’t come here to be certified. I am advancing a certain hypothesis. I am being purely scientific in my method. I advance a provisional theory that a certain thing is going on. And, mind you, if anything of the sort is going on, it is of great — of supreme — importance to our race. And having made our trial assumption, we try and work out what would be some of the logical consequences of this process of extra-terrestrial influence, if my theory proves to hold good. Is it possible to detect non-human characteristics, superhuman characteristics perhaps, in some of the children born nowadays, and are these non-human characteristics on the increase? Are there people — what shall I call them? — fey people about? People as sane as you and I and yet strange? We can try them with special intelligence tests perhaps. We can go into the reports of educational institutions. So far I have not planned the lay-out of this investigation. It is all quite new in my mind. But isn’t it a legitimate inquiry? I ask you.’

‘You will need genius for that lay-out.’

‘Every original research needs that. But my theory I think is plain. My theory is that new influences are being brought to bear on human reproduction. For the purposes of our research I call the source of these influences — Martians. If my suspicions are confirmed, these Martians — for purposes at which we can only guess — are thrusting mutations upon us. They are planning human mutations. So that presently our very children may not prove to be our own!’

As Mr. Davis said these last words, a full realization of the indiscretion of this talk dawned upon Dr. Holdman Stedding.

‘But that is going too far!’ he cried. ‘That is going much too far. We are talking — we are amusing ourselves — with pseudo-scientific nonsense.’

Mr. Davis perceived quite clearly whal was in his interlocutor’s mind. ‘It is too late, Doctor, to say that to me. This notion has bitten me. I mean to devote myself to this investigation; I feel called to it; and I want you to interest yourself in it also. If there is one chance in a million of this suspicion being true, then it demands attention. Even on a chance so bare as that we ought to get watchers and searchers, planetary coast-guards, so to speak, at work. We have to specify and measure and determine the nature of this inflow and herd it back upon itself before it is too late.’

‘H’m,’ said Dr. Holdman Stedding, regarding his queer visitor with an expression of infinite perplexity.

‘I am under no delusions,’ said Mr. Davis. ‘I agree I am talking about something almost absolutely improbable. Let me make it clear to you that I am perfectly clear upon that. I am skirting the giddy edge of utter impossibility. Well and good. But sometimes there are intuitions. How many discoveries have flashed forth at first as the wildest of surmises? It may be circumstances have conspired to point my mind in a certain direction. Never mind about that. I myself do not feel that this is an impossibility. Just simply that — not an absolute impossibility. No more. That is where I stand.’

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30