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

Chapter 19

The Colony is Founded

The Skid reached England three weeks before the date on which I was to be married. As she had no radio, and her voyage had been speedy, she arrived unannounced. Bertha and I had been shopping. We called at my flat to deposit some parcels before going out for the evening. Arm in arm, we entered my sitting-room, and found the Skid’s crew snugly installed, eating my apples and some chocolates which I kept for Bertha’s entertainment. We stood for a moment in silence. I felt Bertha’s arm tighten on mine. John was enjoying his apple in an easy chair by the fire. Lo, squatting on the hearth rug, was turning over the pages of the New Statesman. Ng–Gunko was in the other easy chair, chewing sweets and bending over Sambo. I think he was helping the infant to readjust the thick and unfamiliar clothes without which he could not have faced the English climate. Sambo, all head and stomach, with limbs that were mere buds, cocked an inquisitive eye at me. Washingtonia, whom I had not seen before, struck me at that moment as reassuringly commonplace among those freaks.

John had risen, and was saying with his mouth full, “Hullo, old Fido, hullo, Bertha! You’ll hate me, Bertha, but I must have Fido to help me for a few weeks, buying stores and things.”

“But we’re just going to get married,” I protested.

“Damn!” said John. Then to my surprise I assured John that of course we would put it off for a couple of months. Bertha wilted on to a chair with a voiceless “Of course.”

“Good,” cried John cheerfully. “After this affair I may not bother you any more.”

Unexpectedly my heart sank.

The following weeks were spent in a whirl of practical activities. The Skid had to be reconditioned, the plane repaired. Tools and machinery, electric fittings and plumbing materials must be bought and shipped to Valparaiso to await transhipment. Timber must be sent from the South American forests to the same port. General stores must be purchased in England. My task was to negotiate all these transactions, under John’s direction. John himself prepared a list of books which I must somehow procure and dispatch. There were to be scores of technical works on various biological subjects, tropical agriculture, medicine and so on. There were to be books on theoretical physics, astronomy, philosophy, and a rather intriguing selection of purely literary works in many languages. Most difficult to procure were many scores of Asiatic writings with titles suggestive of the occult.

Shortly before the Skid’s next sailing-date the additional European members of the party began to arrive. John himself went to Hungary to fetch Jelli, a mite said to be seventeen years old. She was no beauty. The frontal and the occipital regions of her head were repulsively over-developed, so that the back of her head stretched away behind her, and her brow protruded beyond her nose, which was rudimentary. In profile her head suggested a croquet mallet. She had a hare-lip and short bandy legs. Her general appearance was that of a cretin; yet she had supernormal intelligence and temperament, and also hyper-sensitive vision. Not only did she distinguish two primary colours within the spectrum-band that we call blue, but also she could see well down into the infra-red. In addition to this colour-discrimination, she had a sense of form that was, so to speak, much finer-grained than ours. Probably there were more nerve-endings in her retinae than in normal eyes, for she could read a newspaper at twenty yards’ distance, and she could see at a glance that a penny was not accurately circular. So sensitive was she to form that, if the parts of a puzzle picture were flung down before her, she took in their significant relations at a glance, and could construct the picture without a pause. This amazing percipience often caused her distress, for no man-made article appeared to her to achieve the shape that its maker intended. And in the sphere of art she was excruciated, not merely by inaccuracy of execution but also by crudity of conception.

Besides Jelli, there was the French girl, Marianne Laffon, quite normal in contrast with Jelli, and rather pretty with her dark eyes and olive skin. She was seemingly a repository of the whole of French culture, and could quote any passage of any classic, and, by some magic of her own, so amplify it that one seemed to plumb the author’s mind.

There was also a Swedish girl, Sigrid, whom John called the Comb–Wielder, “because she has such a gift for combing out tangled minds till they’re all sleek and sane.” She had been a consumptive, but had apparently cured herself by some sort of mental “immunizing” of her tissues. Even after her cure she retained the phthisic’s cheerfulness. A great-eyed, fragile thing, she combined her wonderful gift of sympathy and insight with a maternal tenderness toward brute strength. When she found it being brutal, she censured but still loved it. She was moved to send it away howling with its tail between its legs, but at the same time she “felt all sloppy about it. as though it were just a delicious little naughty boy.”

Several young male supernormals turned up, one by one, to join the Skid. (The Wainwrights’ house became at this time a shocking slum.) There was Kemi, the Finn, a younger John; Shahîn, the Turk, a few years older than John, but well content to be his subordinate; and Kargis from the Caucasus.

Of these. Shahîn was from the normal point of view the most attractive, for he had the build of a Russian dancer and in social intercourse a lightness of touch which one took according to one’s mood, either as charming frivolity or as sublime detachment.

Kargis, who was not much younger than John, arrived in a state bordering on mania. He had had a very trying journey in a tramp steamer, and his unstable mind had failed to stand the strain. In appearance he was of John’s type, but darker and less hardy. I found it very difficult to form a consistent idea of this strange being. He oscillated between excitement and lethargy, between passion and detachment. The cause of these fluctuations was not, I was assured, anything in his body’s physiological rhythm, but external events which were hidden from me. When I inquired what kind of events, Lo, who was trying to help me, said, “He’s like Sigrid in having a great sense of personality. But he regards persons rather differently from her way. She just loves them, and laughs at them too, and helps them, and cures them. But for him each person is like a work of art, having a particular quality or style, or ideal form which he embodies well or ill. And when a person is jarringly untrue to his peculiar style or ideal form, Kargis is excruciated.”

The ten young people and one helpless infant set sail in the Skid in August of 1928.

John kept in communication with us by the ordinary mail. As I shall explain later, the Skid, and sometimes the plane, had occasion to make frequent voyages among the Islands or to Valparaiso. Thus it was possible to post John’s brief and guarded letters. From these documents we learned first that the voyage out had been uneventful; that they had called at Valparaiso to load as much of the stores as possible; that they had reached the island; that the Skid, manned by Ng–Gunko, Kemi and Marianne, was plying to and from Valparaiso to transport the rest of the stores; that the building of the settlement was now well under way; that the Asiatic members had arrived, and were “settling in nicely,” that a hurricane had struck the island, destroying all the temporary buildings, depositing the damaged Skid on a little hill beside the harbour, and hurting one of the Tibetan boys; that they had sowed large tracts of fruit and vegetables; that they had built six canoes for fishing; that Kargis had fallen seriously ill of some digestive disease and was expected to die; that he had recovered; that the remains of a Galapagos lizard had been washed up on the shore after God knows how long a journey; that Sigrid had tamed an albatross, and that it stole the breakfast; that the Colony had suffered its first tragedy, for Yang Chung had been caught by a shark, and Kemi had been seriously mauled in the vain attempt to rescue him, that Sambo was spending all his time reading, but could not yet sit upright; that they had made for themselves pipes on the James Jones model, but with special attachments so that they could be played by normal five-fingered hands; that Tsomotre (one of the Tibetans) and Shahîn were composing wonderful music; that Jelli had developed acute appendicitis and Lo had operated successfully; that Lo herself had been working too hard on some embryological experiments and had fallen into one of her terrible nightmares; that she was awake again; that Marianne and Shên Kuo had gone to live on the far side of the Island “because they wanted to be alone for a bit”; that “Washy” was going mad, for she complained of feeling hate for Lankor (a Tibetan girl) who had won the heart of Shahîn; that “Washy” had tried to kill Lankor and herself; that Sigrid, in spite of prolonged and patient efforts, had failed to cure “Washy,” and was now herself showing signs of strain; that both girls were not being cured from afar by Langatse’s telepathic influence; that the Colonists had completed their stone library and meeting-house, and the observatory was being started; that Tsomotre and Lankor, who were evidently the most expert telepathists, were now able to provide the colony with the news of the world in daily bulletins; that the more advanced members of the party, under the direction of Langatse, were undergoing severe exercises in spiritual discipline, which in time should raise them to a new plane of experience; that a severe earthquake had caused the whole island to sink nearly two feet, so that they had to lay several new courses of stone on the quays, and would henceforth need to keep the Skid in readiness for a sudden exodus, in case the island should disappear.

As the months protracted themselves into years, John’s letters became less frequent and more brief. He was evidently entirely absorbed in the affairs of the colony; and as the party became more and more concerned with supernormal activities, he found it increasingly difficult to give us an intelligible account of their life.

In the spring of 1932, however, I was greatly surprised to receive a long letter from John, the main purport of which was to urge me to visit the island as soon as possible. I quote the essential passage. “You will laugh when I tell you I want you to come and use your journalistic prowess upon us. In fact I want you to write that threatened biography after all, not for our sakes but for your own species. I must explain. We have made a wonderful start. Sometimes it was a bit grim, but now we have worked out a very satisfactory life and society. Our practical activities run smoothly, delightfully, and we are able at last to join in a great effort to reach the higher planes of experience. Already we are very different mentally from what we were when we landed. Some of us have seen far and deep into reality, and we have at least gained a clear view of the work we have undertaken. But a number of signs suggest that before very many months have passed the colony will be destroyed. If your species discovers us, it will certainly try to smash us; and we are not yet in a position to defeat it. Langatse has urged us (and he is right) to push on with the spiritual part of our work, so as to complete as much as possible of it before the end. But also we may as well leave records of our little adventure as an example for any future supernormals who may attempt to found the new world, and for the benefit of the more sensitive members of Homo sapiens. Langatse will take charge of the record for supernormals; the record for your species entails only normal powers and can be done satisfactorily by yourself.”

I was now a tolerably successful free-lance journalist, and I had a full programme before me. I was married, and Bertha was expecting a child. Yet I eagerly accepted the invitation. That afternoon I made inquiries about steamers for Valparaiso, and replied to John (post restante at that city), telling him when to expect me.

Guiltily, I broke my news to Bertha. She was hard hit by it, but she said, “Yes, if John wants you, of course you must go.” Then I went round to the Wainwrights’. Pax greatly surprised me, for no sooner had I begun to tell her about the letter than she interrupted me. “I know,” she said, “for some weeks he has been giving me little stray visions of the island, and even talking to me. He said he would be asking for you.”


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