Star-Begotten, by H. G. Wells

Chapter Six

Opening Phases of the Great Eugenic Research

1

‘Now here, now there,’ whispered Mr. Davis to himself as he stood on the doorstep of the headmaster of Gorpel School and looked at the headmaster’s trim but beautiful garden.

It was six months later and high summer and he was the father of an extremely healthy but extremely intelligent-looking child. And the belief that he had discovered that the most wonderful event in the history of our planet was now happening had entered into and become part of his being.

Ostensibly he had come to Gorpel to lecture on ‘The Grandeur That Was Rome,’ but really he had come to look that interesting collection of boys over and talk to the headmaster about any mentally (or even physically) exceptional lads who might have attracted his attention. Nothing was to be said about Martians, cosmic rays, or anything of that sort. It was to be put before the headmaster as a mild little inquiry into the prospects of the ‘odd’ type of boy.

It was Dr. Holdman Stedding who had suggested this line of inquiry to him. Really the excellent doctor wanted this material collected to feed the whimsical and nine-tenths sceptical curiosity of Keppel and himself, but he had succeeded in persuading himself that it was absolutely the best treatment for Davis’s mental worries that his imaginative vagaries should be steadied and assuaged by a methodical exploration of what might quite possibly prove to be illuminating facts. This brought with it a certain sense of benevolence, because Davis was not his patient under treatment, paid no fees. It was indeed simply helping the man as one man helps another.

Davis at this stage was looking for mental abnormalities — on the upward side. He was getting whatever could be got from prison governors, educational authorities, schools of every sort where there was close contact between teachers and pupils, even from army instructors, institutions for defectives, lunatic asylums — and making a general report and a digest of his results. A number of facts not generally known was emerging from these inquiries. The proportion of children of the calculating-boy and musical-prodigy-type seemed to be increasing quite markedly; finer muscular adjustment was in a very conspicuous way ousting mere beef from athleticism; critical obduracy at quite an early age was far more in evidence than it had ever been before.

Possibly Davis, like many investigators, was disposed to find what he looked for. Dr. Holdman Stedding fancied he could allow for that.

What Dr. Holdman Stedding did not allow for were the practical effects of these preoccupations upon an author’s normal activities. Like most men of sound professional standing he thought authors did their work outside time and space and occupied their normal hours in the pursuit of royalties and publicity and in making speeches on irrelevant topics to unnecessary societies. But Joseph Davis had been engaged upon a great constellation of books, which were to give history, ennobled and illuminated, to the common man. He had schemed that as what he called his ‘life task’. That task was now beginning to look like a modern cathedral under construction when some new heresy breaks out among the more opulent faithful and funds run short. Sometimes for six or seven days not a line was added.

Meanwhile every day it grew plainer to Davis that this theory, which had at first seemed even to him a fantastic hypothesis, was real and true. A new quality of human being was being inserted into the fabric of human life, ‘one here, one there’.

It was hard not to talk about it. It was hard to have to keep up the pretence of making a mere respectable inquiry as trivial and pointless as — let us say — a research thesis in pedagogics for an American university. He went about the world to social gatherings, to assemblies and theatres and restaurants; he mingled in crowds, he watched people’s unsuspecting faces, and now the thought was always in his mind: If only they knew!

If only they knew what the Martians were doing to them!

At first his attitude had been one of stark antagonism to this Martian intrusion. He had something more than an ordinary man’s instinctive loyalty to race and kind. He had superimposed a mental habit. He had made himself a champion of that ancient and venerable normal life of humanity, unaltered through the ages — except now and then through the providential punishment of some transitory heresy — the simple, old, beautiful story of childhood, learning, love, industry, parentage, honour, and the easy passage to a venerable old age and a brightly hopeful death. It was a story at once earthly, in the best, the honest pious peasant sense, and profoundly spiritual. This life, age after age, had been set in a stimulating round of seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, thirst and hunger, reasonable desires and modest satisfactions. Of such stuff was history woven, and across this sound, enduring fabric were embroidered the great historical figures, in a bright opera-drama as glad in quality as an illuminated missal. History told of their conquests, triumphs, glories, heroisms, of heart-stirring tragedies and lovely sacrifices. They were all far greater than life-size — like the monarchs and gods in an Assyrian relief — the common people ran about beneath their feet according to the best historical traditions. So it had been. So it would go on until at last the Almighty commanded the curtain to ring down and called the actors forward from their various retiring-rooms, to receive appropriate rewards.

Such was the picture of the world and its promise that he had been working to realize, overworking to realize, when this fantastic and distracting suspicion of a Martian intervention first came to him. It was as if the vast canvas on which he had been working with such resolution had suddenly cracked across and betrayed his light and shade, his heights and depths, as the completest unreality.

Now — and here there seems to have been some gap in his logical process — he felt that the Martians would certainly be against all these fine things for which he struggled. Why, one may ask, should the Martians be against them? Why should they be by necessity spoilers of so rich and noble a fabric? But he had his full share of that infirmity of our impatient minds which makes us leap naturally to the conclusion that what is not uncritically on our side and subject to our ideas is against us. At the onset of a strange way of living we bristle like dogs at the sight of a strange animal. He hated these Martians as soon as he though of them. He could not imagine their interference with our nice world could be anything but devastating.

His motive to begin with, therefore, was an altogether uncomplicated desire to detect, expose, and repel an insidious and dreadful attack upon this dear and happy human life we all enjoy so greatly and relinquish so reluctantly. These Martians presented themselves to him as the blackest of threats to all those convictions that make life worth living upon earth. Indisputably they must be inhuman, whatever else they are. That went without saying. To be inhuman implied to him, as to most of us, malignant cruelty; it seemed impossible that it could mean anything else. (And yet this is a world where lots of us live upon terms of sentimental indulgence towards cats, dogs, monkeys, horses, cows, and suchlike unhuman creatures, help them in a myriad simple troubles; and attribute the most charming reactions to them!)

Among other things it seemed to him unquestionably that the drive of these so elaborately aimed cosmic missiles among our chromosomes would be to increase the intellectual power of the Martianized individuals very greatly. There seemed to be no alternative to that conclusion. And for some very deep-seated reason in his make-up, it was an intolerable thought for him that there should appear any class of creature on earth intellectually above his own, unless they were profoundly inferior to him morally, and so repulsive and ugly as practically to reverse the handicap against him. They had to be ugly in motive and action. There had to be that compensation at least. This idea of their ugliness followed the idea of their intelligence with such an air of necessity that it was some weeks before he began even to suspect that the two ideas might be separated.

At first he pictured a Martian as something hunched together, like an octopus, tentacular, saturated with evil poisons, oozing unpleasant juices, a gigantic leathery bladder of hate. The smell, he thought, would be terrible. And those indirect offspring who were to be so foully disseminated upon earth, were bound, he imagined, to be not simply intelligent in a hard unsympathetic way but in some manner disfigured and disgusting. They would be bound to have turnip heads, bladder-of-lard crania, shortsighted eyes, horrible little faces, long detestable hands, unathletic and possibly crippled bodies. . . .

Yet struggling desperately against this trend were certain vague apprehensions about his wife and child.

2

There was an extraordinary division in his mind at this time. Two cognate currents of suspicion ran side by side and would not mingle.

His wife was at once associated with and separated from his general line of thought. If, for instance, Dr. Holdman Stedding had asked him outright: ‘Do you think your wife is one of these people who have been touched in their natal phase by the magic of the cosmic vibrations?’ he would have answered at once with almost perfect honesty that these Martian speculations of his had absolutely nothing to do with her. But he would not have answered the question calmly; he would have had a touch of defensive indignation in his voice. And it was not a question he would have asked himself. It was a question he could not have asked himself; there was some barrier against that.

He was resisting a very obvious impulse to complete the link of association and fear that linked his long-standing sense of some strangeness about his wife, with this Martian idea. The two lines of suggestion were in reality connected and consecutive, but by some self-protective necessity he would not see that his extreme readiness to accept the suggestion of a Martian influx had any direct relation to his long-incubated sense of the elfin quality of his wife. They were groups of ideas in different spheres.

But these spheres, of which the Martian one was not spinning so busily, were drawing closer and closer together in his mind. Within a measurable time they were bound to collide, to coalesce into one common whirlpool, which might be a very tumbled whirlpool indeed. Then he would be bound to face the realization that had already projected itself in his words to the doctor: ‘So that presently our very children may not prove to be our own.’

This intimation, breaking through his resistances, evoked first the dread of an abnormal child, prematurely wise, macrocephalic, with dreadful tentacular hands. . . . So his essential humanity presented the thing. If the thing was a monster, what should he do?

He thought of doing some very dreadful things.

Such nightmare ideas haunted him more and more distressingly until the birth of his child. The immediate advent of that event filled him with almost uncontrollable terror. By an immense effort he concealed it and behaved himself.

He was amazed — even Dr. Holdman Stedding was amazed — to have the young man brought into the world after a labour of less than an hour. No monstrous struggle. No frightful crisis. No Caesarean operation.

‘Is he — is he all right?’ he asked incredulous.

‘Fit as a fiddle,’ said Dr. Holdman Stedding almost boisterously. Because he had found something contagious in the father’s uneasiness.

‘No malformations? No strangeness?’

‘On my honour, Mr. Davis, you don’t deserve such a child! You don’t. When they’ve done a little washing you shall see it. I’m not often enthusiastic. I’ve seen too many of ’em.’

And it looked indeed a perfect little creature. When they put it into his parental arms a great wave of instinctive tenderness surged up in the heart of Joseph Davis. Like endless fathers in his position before him, he was overcome by the wonderful fact that the creature’s little hands had perfact nails and fingers.

Why had he ever been afraid?

‘I feel I’d like to see her,’ he said.

‘Not just yet. A little while yet. Though she’s doing splendidly.’ Whereupon Dr. Holdman Stedding said a slightly unfortunate thing: ‘There’s not a painted Madonna in all the world with a lovelier bambino than hers.’

Mr. Joseph Davis’s expression became thoughtful.

Silently he handed back his precious burden to the hovering nurse.

He was minded to go out and not to see Mary for a time.

Then by a great effort he overcame this impulse and stayed indoors in his study downstairs, and presently he was taken in to her, and when he saw her, tired but flushed and triumphant, with the child laid close to her, some long-standing restraint seemed to break between them and he called her his darling and knelt down beside her, weeping.

‘Dear Joe!’ she said, and her hand crept out and ruffled his hair gently. ‘Queer Joe!’

3

After that his ideas about the quality of the Martians’ influences and purposes began to change. After all, the two streams of realization came together in his mind gently and naturally, and he felt with the completest assurance and with no lingering trace of horror that both his wife and his child belonged to this new order of human beings that was appearing upon the planet.

After that it was that his researches, which at the beginning had been directed mainly to Poor Law institutions for defective and malformed children, asylums, wonder children, and the more grotesque arcana of gynaecology, turned rather to schools and universities and the ascertainable characteristics of exceptional and gifted people. He passed from a hunt for monsters to an investigation of outstanding endowment, to the detection and analysis of what is called genius in every field of human activity. He brooded over the picture riddles of Durer, he read the notebooks of Leonard. He found a new interest in symbolic art and in whatever moody and inexplicable decoration from remote times and places came to his attention. Were these enigmas like cries in the dark, the struggling intimations of novel reactions and novel attitudes on the part of Martian pioneers towards the customs and traditions of our world?

He had never told any one, least of all would he have told Dr. Holdman Stedding, that dreams about Martians were becoming rather frequent with him. They were extremely consistent dreams or at least they were pervaded with a sense of consistency. These dream-Martians were no longer repulsive creatures, grotesques and caricatures, and yet their visible appearance was not human. They had steadfast, dark eyes, very widely separated, and their mouths were still and resolute. Their broad brows and round heads made him think of the smooth wise-looking heads of seals and cats, and he could not distinguish clearly whether they had shadowy hands and arms or tentacles. There was always a lens-like effect about his vision, as though he saw them through the eyepiece of some huge optical instrument. Ripples passed across the lens and increased the indistinctness, and ever and again flickering bunches of what he assumed were cosmic rays exploded from nothingness across the picture and flashed out radiating to the periphery and vanished. He felt that his dreams were taking him into a world where our ideas of form and process, of space and time, are no longer valid. In his dreams it was not as if he went across space to Mars, it was as if a veil became translucent.

Once or twice in the daytime he had tried to make sketches of these watchers, but their physical forms had always eluded his pencil. He had never been able to draw very well, but also he had a feeling that even for a skilled artist there would have been difficulties about the planes and dimensions of these beings.

Moreover, not only was he finding this difficulty in determining a Martian form but he was finding a parallel difficulty in fixing any common characteristics for the earthly types he was beginning to distinguish as ‘Martianized’. All that they had in common was that they were ‘different’ and that this difference involved a certain detachment from common reactions. They lived apart. They thought after their own fashion. He was not sure whether they were actually insusceptible to mass emotions; he may have expected them to be, and that with him would have been halfway to thinking them so.

4

On this visit to Gorpel he pursued what was becoming his usual technique. It was at once subtle and a trifle crazy. There was a streak of masochism about it. He had written all his books so far to appeal to the heroic common humanity in all of us. And now he was using the same stuff to eliminate, so to speak, common humanity. He was looking for minds that did not respond.

He had brought down a lecture that had always proved extremely successful with ordinary schoolboys, ‘The Grandeur That Was Rome’. In this he unfolded his tale of the heroic patriots who stud the Latin tradition, from Horatius defending the Bridge, to Caesar crowning the great task of the Republic by annexing it to British history, Octavius creating the Empire and Justinian giving us Roman law. It was a procession of statuesque figures, more or less clean-shaven and for the most part in togas, evoking as they passed a fungoid growth of unnecessary aqueducts, corpulent amphitheatres, and Corinthian columns, and conferring on the whole world the blessings of the Pax Romana. The Punic Wars, with a faint flavouring of Anti–Semitism, too faint to be disagreeable, he presented as a gigantic necessary struggle between noble north-side soldiers and revengeful, obdurate, but extremely competent south-side loanmongers. He ignored every reality of hate, suspicion, greed, panic, and brutish cruelty that characterized that monstrous mutual destruction of the Mediterranean civilizations, the Punic Wars, and still less did he let those essential features of the mighty Pax, the omnipresent cross for rebels and the omnipresent tax-collector for every one, peep out from behind those glorious Roman arches. As he orated this familiar discourse he watched the boys. A few, incapable of attention, were inattentive, but the discipline of the school was good and their inattention was passive. The majority were responsive. They drank in the mighty fable. Their eyes betrayed their imaginative excitement. Their faces became nobler, stern. They became conquering generals subduing barbarians, pro-consuls assuaging the bickerings of subject races.

It was an answer to trumpets that stirred in them. It was what he had heard someone call the ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ reaction.

With all that Davis was familiar. But now he was looking for scepticism and intelligent dissent.

There was one little fellow sitting up near the corner who from the start he felt assured was Martianized. He had untidy hair and a shrewd faintly humorous white face, and he listened throughout, cheek on hand, very attentively and with a questioning expression. He heard, untouched. The real Martian quality.

‘That’s my boy here,’ said Davis and inquired about him afterwards.

‘A queer little chap,’ said the headmaster. ‘A queer little chap. Behaves pretty well, but he’s somehow disappointing. Doesn’t throw himself into things. A streak of something very nearly amounting to — well, scepticism. Yet his people are quite decent people and the Dean of Clumps is his uncle. He asks questions no other boy would think of. The other day he asked, what is spiritual?

‘Well,’ said Mr. Davis after a thoughtful pause, ‘what is spiritual?’

‘But need I tell you of all people?’

‘What did you tell him? I’m finding a sort of difficulty in putting this in a chapter I am writing about the saintly life.’

The headmaster of Gorpel did not answer the question immediately. Instead he went on to say in a slightly offended voice: ‘I find all my normal boys understand the word without discussion, take it for granted. Spiritual–Material, a natural opposition. One ascends, the other gravitates. There it is, plain as a pikestaff. No need to discuss it’

‘Unless some little — toad, like that, asks the question point-blank.’

‘He refuses to see. Why, he said, should we make a sort of extract of reality and call it spirituality and pretend the two things are primary opposites?’

‘He said that! Rather — subtle.’

‘Too subtle for a boy of his age. Unwholesome.’

‘But spirit isn’t an extract, is it?’

‘So I said to him. “Life,” he said, “seems to me just one, Sir. I can’t think of it in any other way. Sorry, Sir, I’ve tried.”’

‘He said that — that he couldn’t think in any other way? That’s very interesting. How did you meet that?’

‘In his particular case I explained by means of illustrations.’

‘And he was satisfied?’

‘Not in the least. He criticized my illustrations. Rather penetratingly, I admit. He wanted me to define. But you see, Mr. Davis, the fundamental things of life cannot be defined. He made me realize that more clearly than I have ever done before. All the great fundamentals, Deity, Eternity — Faith in What? — it is as if there was a sort of holy of holies beyond the reach of exact definitions. So it seems to me. It is useless, I find, to argue about them. It robs our attitudes of dignity . . . robs them of dignity. . . . We are reduced to logic chopping. Quibbles. . . . We understand by intuition what we mean and what other people mean. Best to leave it at that.’

‘And you told him if he didn’t understand what spiritual meant, not to go on thinking about it yet but wait.’

‘And pray,’ said the headmaster of Gorpel.

‘In effect I said that. In effect. Not exactly. Not too definitely. One must go carefully. Afterwards I made him learn Corinthians One Thirteen by heart — not as if it was exactly an answer but as if it threw a light — and I hope it did him good.’

‘You don’t know?’

‘I don’t know. These are elusive matters, Mr. Davis. A boy who wants to argue must not be indulged too far. There are limits.’

‘I wonder,’ said Mr. Davis, feeling his way carefully, ‘if perhaps types — types like this youngster may really be something more than merely obstinate. Whether by some instinctive necessity, by some difference in themselves, they may not find something — some inacceptable lack of fineness, some lack of clearness, in various distinctions we assume, distinctions we have assumed and which we make by habit. . . . ’

‘I can’t entertain thoughts like that,’ said the headmaster abruptly. ‘I cannot conduct the work of this great school and prepare my regiment of youngsters year by year for their attack on life and responsibility, if I am also to carry on an examination of the fundamental values we set on things.’

‘But if presently instead of one inassimilable boy you find half a dozen of him turning up — or a score?’

The headmaster looked at his visitor. ‘I devoutly hope not, Mr. Davis,’ he said. ‘I devoutly hope not. You are giving me food — not for thought — no! — for nightmares. . . . ’

‘Now here, now there,’ said Mr. Davis as he stood on the headmaster’s doorstep. ‘Certainly that boy is one of them. They don’t see life as we see it. They can’t think of it in our way. And they make us begin to doubt that we see it ourselves as we have always imagined we did.’

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