Star-Begotten, by H. G. Wells

Chapter Seven

The World Begins to Hear about the Martians

1

It is almost impossible to trace how this realization that mankind, under the spur of the cosmic rays, was launched upon a career of genetic change, seeped from the minds of the first discoverers, Laidlaw, that rufous man in the Planetarium Club (to whom it seemed no more than a passing freak of fancy), Mr. Davis (who was first to take it seriously), Dr. Holdman Stedding, and Professor Ernest Keppel, into the general consciousness. But a few weeks after the birth of Mary’s child, an article appeared in the Weekly Refresher from the pen of that admirable scientific popularizer, Harold Rigamey, in which, as Professor Keppel rather inelegantly put it, he ‘completely spilt the beans’.

It is possible that Rigamey got the thing at second or third hand from Dr. Holdman Stedding, who oddly enough seems to have been the least discreet of all that primary group. Dr. Stedding may have described it to one or two fellow-practitioners as an example of the extreme intellectual elaboration that may appear in a case of delusional insanity. There is no evidence that Laidlaw, after his first imaginative outbreak, ever gave the matter a second thought until he got the echo in the newspapers. But he may very well have repeated his fantasy on some after-dinner occasion. He was the last survivor of the old Bob Stevenson, York Powell, school of talk, a gorgeous talker.

Harold Rigamey was a peculiarly constituted being, he had a mind that did not so much act as react. He was a born ultra-heretic. He disbelieved everything and then doubled back on his disbelief. From a sound historical and literary training he had recoiled in a state of unsympathetic curiosity to science and had achieved a very respectable position on the literary side of journalism by writing about science in a manner that caused the greatest discomfort and perplexity to men of science. He found wonders for them when they saw nothing wonderful and incredible triumphs of paradox in their simplest statements. He mated them to the strangest associates.

He had an infuriating openmindedness to every unorthodox extravagance. He hated dogma and he was full of faith. He was always reconciling science and religion, spiritualism and behaviourism, medicine and Christian Science, and this reconciling disposition won him quite a large following of readers eager to keep their mental peace amidst the vast, the incongruous, alarming, and sometimes far too urgent suggestions of our modern world.

They were all a little uneasy with him and that was a part of his charm. There were stimulants in all his sedatives. When he asked his readers to come and meet spiritual worth, they were never quite sure whether that meant the dear Archbishop of Canterbury, all clean and scented with his pretty purple-and-red evening clothes, his pretty lace cuffs, his pretty episcopal ring, and his general vacuous urbanity, or whether it meant a rather repellent, though no doubt equally edifying, encounter with some unsanitarily pure and indecently stark fakir on a bed of nails; and when he remarked upon the stern veracities of science, whether it would be a fresh explosion in the mathematical engine-room, a vitamin of incredible potency, or a breathing exercise from America that at once confirmed and completed the remarkable inhalations of ancient Tibet, he had in mind. For some time Harold Rigamey had been working out in his own mind some sort of linkage of interplanetary communications with the all too neglected science of astrology; he thought he might make something quite exciting out of it, and this weird idea of Laidlaw’s came to him like the voice of the Lord to a Hebrew prophet.

For some time he had been feeling that his characteristic methods of popularizing science were no longer growing in popular favour. Men of science are a peculiar, an almost ungracious, class, and very often the more you popularize them the less they like it. Maybe it was a public realization of their lack of appreciation for Harold Rigamey’s services, or maybe it was just a surfeit of subtle but occasionally very incomprehensible wonders, that was affecting the first abundant public response to Harold Rigamey; at any rate he felt that his popularity was dimmer than it used to be. A really new and exciting topic, that only needed a little care and thought in the handling to go far and wide, was just the tonic he had been requiring.

Mindful of the faint elements of insecurity in his own credit he set about the subject with considerable skill and discretion. He first informed his public through a couple of articles, called ‘The Voice of the Stars’, of a ‘growing realization’ that ‘extra-terrestrial forces of some unknown kind’ were ‘indubitably’ attempting to establish communication with our planet. He invoked almost every known authority upon extra-terrestrial radiations, produced in a skilfully clipped form some rare unguarded statements by eminent professors, promoted one or two rash speculations by obscure people in remote parts of the earth to a distinguished scientific standing, and invented a few anonymous scientists of his own. (Some day Nature will have to publish a list of otherwise non-existent scientists, available for public controversy.)

‘Scientists tell us’ was a very favourite phrase with Harold Rigamey. He wrote of ‘numerous efforts’ which he said had been made to ‘discover codes’ in these extra-terrestrial radiations and of the growing conviction of ‘scientists’ of all sorts and shades and sizes of the existence of these persistent attempts to attract our attention from outside our world.

‘This present century,’ wrote Harold Rigamey, ‘already goes far beyond its predecessor, the Century of Invention. This is the Century of Discovery. The sixteenth century was a Century of Terrestrial Discovery; but this is the Century of Extra–Terrestrial Discovery. Already the immortality of the soul, or at any rate persistence after death, seems to be experimentally established, and now we realize upon the most convincing evidence that man is not alone on his planet; he is a citizen in what may prove to be an abundantly populated universe.’

Eminent men of science read Harold Rigamey’s latest revelation of what science is doing in a mood of apoplectic fury. ‘What are we to do about this sort of thing?’ they said to their wives at breakfast, and their wives said: ‘My dear, what can you do?’ And there the matter ended. The mystical mathematicians with their expanding and contracting universes, relativity-exponents, and the like retired from the arena of popular attention like a small group of concertina players on the entry of a large brass band. An unprecedented mail informed Harold Rigamey of the successful opening of his campaign. His next stage was to go on to ‘The Fantastic Connexion of Cosmic Rays and Human Mutations’ and then straightaway to ‘The Martian Genes’ and ‘The Martian Type’ and so told the whole story as we have already seen it unfolding in the mind of Mr. Joseph Davis, but with a richness of confirmatory detail altogether beyond our modest record of actualities.

2

The reception of the astounding revelation was ample and inconclusive, and it afforded Professor Keppel considerable scope for his gift for bitter comment. Popular intelligence, the professor pointed out to the acquiescent Dr. Holdman Stedding, has long since ceased to attach any real importance to concrete statements except in so far as they concern football and cricket results, the winners of races, and (with caution and reservations) stock-exchange quotations. Outside this definite range of immediate rational interests it has achieved an almost complete toleration, an inactive indifference, to any statement whatever. ‘You may tell the public anything you like nowadays,’ said Keppel, ‘and it will not care a rap. It is not that it disbelieves; it is not that it believes; but that its belief apparatus has been overstrained and misused beyond any sort of reaction, positive or negative, to the things that it is told.

‘Consider,’ he expatiated, ‘the — we will not say contents — of the average human mind today; but consider the things that are lying about side by side upon that flaccid expanse of mentality. It has been told a beautiful story of Creation, the Garden of Eden and the Fall. It does not know whether that story is a fable, a parable, or a statement of fact, and manifestly it does not care. If Sir Leonard Woolley and Mr. H. V. Morton announced a joint discovery of Eden, raised a restoration fund, and provided tourist facilities at reasonable rates, the public would go in a state of inscrutable acquiescence and enormous numbers, to visit the ancestral garden-plot. And at the same time in the same brain, so to speak, this public has accepted a great mass of statement to the effect that it is descended, through something called Evolution, from gorilla-like ancestors. It would be quite capable of visiting in the morning the veritable scene where six or seven thousand years ago, Eve, surrounded by all the latest novelties of Creation, her wedding presents, so to speak, accepted the apple from the serpent, and then of inspecting a caveful of fifty-thousand-year-old Neanderthaler remains in the afternoon. It has lost all sense of incongruity. It has lost all sense of relevance. It neither rejects nor assimilates nor correlates anything. It believes everything and it believes nothing.

‘In effect,’ said Professor Keppel, ‘it does nothing about anything at all. There is no conceivable issue now upon which it can be roused to spontaneous action. If it opened its newspaper one morning and read that Christianity has been abolished, it would wonder what sort of pensions the bishops would get —“pretty fat, I expect”— and then turn over to see if the cross-word puzzle was an easy one. If it read that the queer noises it had heard in the night were the trumpets announcing the Resurrection of the Dead and the end of the world for tomorrow afternoon, it would probably remark that the buses and tubes were full enough as it was without all these Dead coming up, and that a thing of that sort ought to be held somewhere abroad where there was more room. . . . ’

In America the disclosure of the Martian intervention was received with bright incredulity. Rigamey’s articles were syndicated everywhere and credited nowhere. It is a popular error Keppel insisted, that Americans are more accessible to ideas than the British. Notions indeed they are never averse to. Notions are different. A notion is something you can handle. But an idea, a general idea, has a way of getting all over you and subjugating you, and no free spirit submits to that. Confronted with an idea the American says: ‘Oh, yeah!’ or ‘Sez you,’ and the Englishman says: ‘I don’t fink,’ or at a higher social level: ‘Piffle — piffle before the wind.’ These simple expressions are as good against ideas as the sign of the cross used to be against the medieval devil. The pressure is at once relieved.

But your American has none of the Englishman’s ability to ignore. After having said his ‘Sez you’ or ‘Oh, yeah’ and killed an idea, your American is only too ready to make light of the corpse. His joy in caricature and extravaganza is as vast as his sense of reality is deficient. So that Harold Rigamey’s revelations, relieved of all terror of actuality and being vigorously syndicated, went widely and swiftly through the thought and phraseology of those quick-witted millions. ‘Are you a Martian?’ was on the cars within a week of the syndication of Harold’s last article and ‘Don’t appeal to my Martian side’ had become a conversational counter in circulation from coast to coast. A new caricaturist started a series of Martian cartoons in the New Yorker that caught on at once and were very widely imitated. The vaudeville stage was brisk rather than clever in taking up the idea. Along a thousand divergent channels flowed the fertilizing suggestion and evoked a weedy jungle of responses. ‘Dry Martians’ became the dominant cocktail. Hundreds of deeply preoccupied Negroes pranced and flung themselves about in the Southern sunshine in search of a real Martian Newstep. Thousands of industrious advertisement designers spent sleepless nights subduing the new idea in this way and that way to the varied uses of their calling. And Harold Rigamey turned his pen to other things.

3

The only real attempt to deal with the coming of the Martians upon a serious scale was made on the British side, and it was made by no less a person than Lord Thunderclap, that great synthetic press peer. It was made against the advice of his most trusted associates and it failed.

Lord Thunderclap was one of the supreme successes of the journalistic and business world; he had become enormously rich and influential in a gigantic inaccurate way all out of nasty little periodicals, and he was quite intelligent enough to understand there must be something wrong about his headlong, unchallenged prominence. Both he and his slightly derisive rival and associate, Lord Bendigo, deep down in their very bright minds, had that same sense of haphazard expansion and unjustifiable eminence; they could not believe, however much they tried, that in the long run the world would not call them to account; they had none of the innate assurance of royal personages and born aristocrats, and they were both haunted by the feeling that sooner or later, something hard, stern, and powerful, a Sphinx, a Nemesis, would come round a corner upon them and unfold an indictment for immediate attention, asking them what they thought they were and what in the last resort they thought they were up to.

The mercurial Bendigo regarded that possibility with unaffected facetiousness but Thunderclap was made of less mobile stuff. He liked being the large massive thing he was; the longer he lived the more he wanted to believe in his own importance and feel that he was really true. The longer he lived the more he liked himself and the less could he bear that sense of a delayed but pursuing judgment. He could ill endure the unprotesting acquiescence of this world in him; the accumulated menace of its uncritical disregard; but even less now could he endure the thought that this toleration might end.

The dark other-world of insomnia added itself to his daylight existence. That awful Court of Inquiry without any definite charges, just asking what he was and why, sat there in perpetual unprogressive session, waiting — waiting for something. There was no hurry. Most terrifyingly there was no hurry. But what could they be saving up for him? Day after day he went about his large abundant life, being the great Lord Thunderclap — because what else on earth could he be? What else on earth could he do? The day passed into evening, evening to night, and so at last to bed. And then that insatiable question. . . . What net were they weaving?

The faces about him were polite masks. You challenged them: ‘You were saying about me —?’

‘I said nothing, my lord.’

He told nobody of this increasing obsession, but the existence of his profound uneasiness was more or less manifest to most of his associates and subordinates. Was there something that had never been found out? They tried to guess at that. But nothing definite appeared, it was a dread at large. Evidently he feared men of science and knowledge, especially men who were reputed to be profoundly and exceptionally versed in political and social and economic affairs. What must they really think of his journalistic influence, his activities in party matters, his financial affairs? Were they just quietly letting him have rope, sewing him up unobtrusively? And he suspected the civil service profoundly. These civil servants, he thought, knew more than was good for them already and they were always trying to know more. The word ‘inspector’ moved him to a pallid rage. ‘More Inspectors!’ was one of the shrillest screams in his multifarious publications. Nasty mean men, he insisted, these inspectors were, with sharp noses like foxes’, needy dependants, and a passion for petty bribes; always peeping through keyholes they were, looking into windows, creeping up pipes, getting through gratings, weaving a net about all wholesome business enterprise. They had to be fought off. They had to be frustrated, denounced, caricatured at every turn. And all these Trade Union and Labour people wanting to know, perpetually wanting to know, and then, I suppose, interfere. And this London School of Economics! What were they putting together and plotting and planning there? What did they want to have a school of economics for anyhow? It was like marking the cards.

In Lord Thunderclap’s mind socialism was another name for malignant investigation. He had no idea what harmless, disconnected, doctrinaire little creatures socialists are, and how limited an area of the social problem they have ever explored. He really thought they had a strong, clear plan for a workable human society all ready for use, a hard competent society, ready to thrust him and his like out of existence. At any time now they might spring it upon him. He fought wildly in the darkness against that persuasion, but it held him. He was probably the only man alive in England who believed in socialism to that extent.

In his perpetual attempt to materialize his terror he mixed up all these professors, civil servants, inspectors, socialists, sociologists (whom he regarded as a nastier variety of socialist), liberals — every sort of interrogator and critic — in a great jumble of hateful menace, the ‘Intelligentsia,’ the ‘Lefts,’ the ‘Reds.’ He imagined a worldwide hostile, incredibly subtle, incredibly far-sighted net closing about him. And he never really got them plain for a straight fight to a finish and have done with it. Never could he drag them into the light of open day. He knew that they were at it, at it all the time, conspiring, scheming, taking their orders, passing their messages, nodding, winking, giving their signals, working their mischiefs. They ramified everywhere. You never knew who was with them. They were Jesuits today and Freemasons tomorrow. Even judges and lawyers might be scheming. Hard to do a deal with them. You were safe with no one.

All his partners and secretaries and editors knew those odd moments of his, when he would affect to look out of the window idly, and then spin round upon you with incredible nimbleness to scrutinize your face.

Or when he would lead you through a long rambling talk about Russia, about Germany, about China, to jump upon you suddenly with a handful of carefully premeditated posers, designed to wring the very plotting soul out of you.

Such was the large fear-obsessed mentality to which the disclosures of Harold Rigamey came like a torch to a hayrick.

Never for a moment when he heard it did Lord Thunderclap doubt the story. Not until he read about it in his own papers had he a twinge of doubt. It came as the embodiment and confirmation of his worst fears. He felt he had really known all about it from the very beginning. He carried Harold Rigamey off for dinner and the night to his suburban headquarters at Castle Windrow, Bunting Hayland, and thither he assembled by wire and telephone all his most trusted henchmen, tools, stooges, subordinates, intimates, Watsons, yes-girls, medical advisers, soothsayers, astrologists, stenographers, masseurs, soothers, and family connexions.

‘The thing’s out at last,’ he said. ‘Listen to him! Listen to what Rigamey has to tell us. We’ve been barking up the wrong tree. These Reds — Moscow — Bernard Shaw — New Dealers — Atheists — Protocols of Zion, all of that — mere agents. It’s Mars that is after us. Listen to him. Mars! What are we to do about it? What are we to do?

‘Everything we value in life. Cross and crown. Nation and loyalty. Morals, Christmas. Family lift. The Reds are just their front line. While we stand about here and stare at each other and do nothing, there they are working away, getting born, growing up, plotting, planning — one after another — these monsters. I ask you: Is nothing to be done?’

‘Well, Chief,’ said Cotton–Jones, the archsoother. ‘Everything has to be done. But it’s got to be done in the right way. No need to tell you that.’

‘The whole world is in danger. Hideous danger.’

‘That’s too big for stop-press news. Chief, we’ve got to go into conference right away. Here and now. We’ve got to just hold the whole thing in silence, until we’ve organized a plan of campaign and a general staff. You said it, Chief, yourself, years ago. “The more urgent the crisis,” you said, “the more danger there is in hurry.”’

‘I said that?’ said Lord Thunderclap.

‘Yes, Sir. You said that. . . . ’

It was daylight before that assembly at Castle Windrow dispersed and Lord Thunderclap was safely put to bed. His sedatives were furtively doubled. And throughout all the offices and organizations which owed him allegiance, grave and weary men plotted guardedly with each other — no double-crossing mind! — against the call for action that would come to them when he awoke.

Cotton–Jones, toiling wearily up to his suite under the roof at headquarters, realized suddenly the mysterious sensitiveness of the Thunderclap system. Two small lift attendants stopped upon the second landing to exchange news, unaware of his presence in the middle elevator. The youngest and shrillest spoke without emotion.

‘Jimmy, you heard? The Chief’s nuts at last.’

‘Clean off it?’

‘Clean.’

‘Bound to happen sooner or later. What dislodged him?’

‘Them Martians. . . . ’

Now how had the little devils got hold of that? . . .

Throughout the most difficult ten days in their lives the entourage of Lord Thunderclap struggled to mitigate the impact of his full excitement upon the public. What he had in mind seemed to be some sort of world-wide witch-smelling for Martians everywhere. He swept aside every difficulty there might be in distinguishing them. You could tell them by the things they said and the way they behaved. You could tell them because instinctively you disliked them. . . . Not a massacre. Massacres were out of date. What was needed was a vast sanitary concentration of all these people to save our race (Lord Thunderclap) alive.

Rigamey had brought some entirely irrelevant facts about what are called Mongoloid children into the discussion, and Thunderclap seized upon them as data for the first selection of victims in the world drive against the Martians. Individuals of this type should be at once arrested and secluded in protective isolation. There ought to be a human race-purity conference set up in permanent session. All the leading obstetricians in the world ought to be in it, with stimulating fees and unlimited powers.

Like to like. It was natural for the turbid stream of Anti–Semitism to contribute some richly helpful ideas to this fresh flow of anti-Martian animosity. . . .

Cotton–Jones took his courage in both hands and withstood his master. ‘We can’t do this,’ he said, with the Chief’s programme in his hand.

‘We can’t do this? Then what on earth are we to do?’

‘The public mind is not prepared for anything of the sort.’

His lordship raged up and down the room but Cotton–Jones felled him with the deadliest, most arresting assertion than an editorial assistant can use.

‘It will fall flat,’ said Cotton–Jones.

‘This!?’

‘It will fall flat.’

‘We can’t go on with this on our own responsibility,’ he insisted, and Thunderclap knew that he was right. ‘We must have authority. We must quote. We ourselves cannot seem to be bringing this out from the office. Merely from the office. Journalistic stunt, they will say. Yes, Sir. They will say that. Newspapers may lead but they should not appear to lead. We must seem to be responding to “publicly responsible, unquestionable appeals.” Your words, Chief. Someone not ourselves, someone else, must make for righteousness.’

He shook the programme in his hand. He added a still more difficult assertion.

‘And really — for a thing of this size — we must bring in other groups of papers.’

‘I have had something of that sort in mind throughout,’ said Thunderclap, after a stupendous pause.

He walked across the room. ‘Perhaps I have been precipitate. I see things too quickly.’

He sat down to his desk and began to write down, strike out, and tick off names. There were one or two great physicians on the verge of advertisement; they ought to give him something. After all he had done for them. No. Damn them, they wouldn’t. One or two of the more pushful young bishops were still in the toady stage, still rather anxious to prove how serviceable and friendly they could be to any lord of publicity. They surely might be called upon to denounce this diabolical threat to mankind. He sent them urgent and embarrassing communications, held them up himself on the telephone, and found them as blandly evasive as they knew how. They knew very well how. He cast about for this great public figure and then that to shoulder the new burden. Gradually, as he sought, with diminishing success, among these great instruments of public stimulation, the pressure of his own initiative dispersed itself. Fatigue supervened. Violence deferred maketh the heart grow sick. Four, five, six days passed and nothing stupendous was done. In the life of Lord Thunderclap two days are as a thousand years. The bright surface of his great disclosure was dulled by familiarity. The preparatory Articles, announcements, and so forth became less and less a preparation and more and more like the wailing and booming of a receding school of ichthyosauri heard through the twilight of the past.

It came to him abruptly one night that he didn’t care a damn now if nothing was done. The affair had evaporated. If nobody cared to stir a finger, the whole silly business might slide. The Martians might eat the world now so far as he was concerned. It would last his time — anyhow. What was the sense of being the one earnest energetic man in a world of unresponsive fools?

He called Cotton–Jones into his presence. ‘You’ve been going too strong on this Martian stuff,’ he said, and Cotton–Jones knew at once that the brainstorm was over. ‘You’ve made it a bit too loud and brassy. The public doesn’t want to hear about them in this serious way you’ve been putting it. They want it guyed. What the public won’t hear about can’t exist really. Circulation dies down and then where are you? Ease off on it. Guy it.’

‘After all we have said!’ reflected Cotton–Jones.

‘Ease off on it. Make it kind of semi-symbolical — humorous and all that.’

‘I get you,’ said Cotton–Jones, trying not to look too glad. ‘I think I can manage to ease it off. Yes, it’s a damned good political nickname, Chief, whatever you like to say. You’ve never thought of anything better. Give “Highbrow” and “Brain Trust” a holiday for the next ten years. Let the Reds fade out. Martians! People will hate them from the word Go!’

4

Mr. Joseph Davis stood at the upper corner of Trafalgar Square watching the westward flow of buses below. A number of them were carrying huge starry advertisement boards with a new inscription. He could make out three capital M’s but he had to look hard before he could read the intervening letters. They spelled out ‘Musical Martian Midgets’.

‘That’s how they see it,’ said Mr. Davis. ‘H’m.’

His eyes were lifted sharply by a challenging flash across the twilight blue. A sky sign took up the words in letters of raw red fire, ‘Musical Martian Midgets’. . . .

‘And all the same,’ whispered Mr. Davis after some moments of silent reflection, ‘they are here.’

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