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

Chapter 3

Enfant Terrible

AT last, at the age of six, John turned his attention to locomotion. In this art he had hitherto been even more backward than the appearance of his body seemed to warrant. Intellectual and constructive interests had led to the neglect of all else.

But now at last he discovered the need of independent travel, and also the fascination of conquering the new art. As usual, his method of learning was original and his progress rapid. He never crawled. He began by standing upright with his hands on a chair, balancing alternately on each foot. An hour of this exhausted him, and for the first time in his life he seemed utterly disheartened. He who had treated mathematicians as dull-witted children now conceived a new and wistful respect for his ten-year-old brother, the most active member of the family. For a week he persistently and reverently watched Tommy walking, running, “ragging” with his sister. Every moment was noted by the anxious John. He also assiduously practised balancing, and even took a few steps, holding his mother’s hand.

By the end of the week, however, he had a sort of nervous breakdown, and for days afterwards he never set foot to ground. With an evident sense of defeat, he reverted to reading, even to mathematics.

When he was sufficiently recovered to take the floor again, he walked unaided right across the room, and burst into hysterical tears of joy — a most unJohn-like proceeding. The art was now conquered. It was only necessary to strengthen his muscles by exercise.

But John was not content with mere walking. He had conceived a new aim in life; and with characteristic resolution he set himself to achieve it.

At first he was greatly hampered by his undeveloped body. His legs were still almost fetal, so short and curved they were. But under the influence of constant use, and (seemingly) of his indomitable will, they soon began to grow straight and long and strong. At seven he could run like a rabbit and climb like a cat. In general build he now looked about four; but something wiry and muscular about him suggested an urchin of eight or nine. And though his face was infantile in shape, its expression was sometimes almost that of a man of forty. But the huge eyes and close white wool gave him an ageless, almost an inhuman look.

He had now achieved a very striking control of his muscles. There was no more learning of skilled movements. His limbs, nay the individual muscles themselves, did precisely as he willed. This was shown unmistakably when, in the second month after his first attempt to walk, he learned to swim. He stood in the water for a while watching his sister’s well-practised strokes, then lifted his feet from the bottom and did likewise.

For many months John’s whole energy was given to emulating the other children in various kinds of physical prowess; and in imposing his will upon them. They were at first delighted with his efforts. All except Tommy, who already realized that he was being outclassed by his kid brother. The older children of the street were more generous, because they were at first less affected by John’s successes. But increasingly John put them all in the shade.

It was of course John, looking no more than a rather lanky four-year-old, who, when a precious ball had lodged in one of the roof — gutters, climbed a drain-pipe, crawled along the gutter, threw down the ball; and then for sheer joy clambered up a channel between two slopes of tiles, and sat astraddle on the crest of the roof. Pax was in town, shopping. The neighbours were of course terrified for the child’s life. Then John, foreseeing amusement, simulated panic and inability to move. Apparently he had quite lost his head. He clung trembling to the tiles. He whimpered abjectly. Tears trickled down his cheeks. A local building contractor was hurriedly called up on the phone. He sent men and ladders. When the rescuer appeared on the roof, John “pulled snooks” at him, and scuttled for his drain-pipe, down which he descended like a monkey, before the eyes of an amazed and outraged crowd.

When Thomas learned of this escapade, he was both horrified and delighted. “The prodigy,” he said, “has advanced from mathematics to acrobatics.” But Pax said only, “I do wish he wouldn’t draw attention to himself.”

John’s devouring passion was now personal prowess and dominance. The unfortunate Tommy, formerly a masterful little devil, was eclipsed and sick at heart. But his sister Anne adored the brilliant John, and was his slave. Hers was an arduous life. I can sympathize with her very keenly, for at a much later stage I was to occupy her post.

John was now either the hero or the loathed enemy of every child in the neighbourhood. At first he had no intuition of the effect his acts would have on others, and was regarded by most as a “beastly cocky little freak.” The trouble was simply that he always knew when others did not, and nearly always could when others could not. Strangely he showed no sign of arrogance; but also he made no effort to assume false modesty.

One example, which marked the turning-point in his policy towards his fellows, will show his initial weakness in this respect, and his incredible suppleness of mind.

The big schoolboy neighbour, Stephen, was in the next garden struggling with a dismembered and rather complicated lawn-mower. John climbed the fence, and watched for a few minutes in silence. Presently he laughed. Stephen took no notice. Then John bent down, snatched a cogwheel from the lad’s hands, put it in place, assembled the other parts, turned a nut here and a grub-screw there, and the job was finished. Stephen meanwhile stood in sheepish confusion. John moved toward the fence saying, “Sorry you’re no good at that sort of thing, but I’ll always help when I’m free.” To his immense surprise, the other flew at him, knocked him down twice, then pitched him over the fence. John, seated on the grass rubbing various parts of his body, must surely have felt at least a spasm of anger, but curiosity triumphed over rage, and he inquired almost amiably, “Why did you want to do that?” But Stephen left the garden without answering.

John sat meditating. Then he heard his father’s voice indoors, and rushed to find him. “Hi! Doc!” he cried, “if there was a patient you couldn’t cure, and one day some one else came and cured him, what would you do?” Thomas, busy with other matters, replied carelessly, “Dunno! Probably knock him down for interfering.” John gasped, “Now just why? Surely that would be very stupid.” His father, still preoccupied, answered, “I suppose so, but one isn’t always sensible. It depends how the other fellow behaved. If he made me feel a fool, I’m sure I’d want to knock him down.” John gazed at his father for some time, then said, “I see!”

“Doc!” he suddenly began again, “I must get strong, as strong as Stephen. If I read all those books” (glancing at the medical tomes), “shall I learn how to get frightfully strong?” The father laughed. “I’m afraid not,” he said.

Two ambitions now dominated John’s behaviour for six months, namely to become an invincible fighter, and to understand his fellow human-beings.

The latter was for John the easier task. He set about studying our conduct and our motives, partly by questioning us, partly by observation. He soon discovered two important facts, first that we were often surprisingly ignorant of our own motives, and second that in many respects he differed from the rest of us. In later years he himself told me that this was the time when he first began to realize his uniqueness.

Need I say that within a fortnight, John was apparently a changed character? He had assumed with perfect accuracy that veneer of modesty and generosity which is so characteristic of the English.

In spite of his youth and his even more youthful appearance John now became the unwilling and unassuming leader in many an escapade. The cry was always, “John will know what to do,” or “Fetch that little devil John, he’s a marvel at this kind of job.” In the desultory warfare which was carried on with the children of the Council School (they passed the end of the street four times a day), it was John who planned ambushes; and John who could turn defeat into victory by the miraculous fury of an unexpected onslaught. He was indeed an infant Jove, equipped with thunder-bolts instead of fists.

These battles were partly a repercussion of a greater war in Europe, but also, I believe, they were deliberately fostered by John for his own ends. They gave him opportunities both for physical prowess and for a kind of unacknowledged leadership.

No wonder the children of the neighbourhood told one another, “John’s a great little sport now,” while their mothers, impressed more by his manners than his military genius, said to one another, “John’s a dear these days. He’s lost all his horrid freakishness and conceit.”

Even Stephen was praiseful. He told his mother, “That kid’s all right really. The hiding did him good. He has apologized about the mower, and hoped he hadn’t jiggered it up.”

But fate had a surprise in store for Stephen.

In spite of his father’s discouragement, John had been spending odd moments among the medical and physiological books. The anatomical drawings interested him greatly, and to understand them properly, he had to read. His vocabulary was of course very inadequate, so he proceeded in the manner of Victor Stott, and read through from cover to cover, first a large English dictionary, then a dictionary of physiological terms. Very soon he became so fluent that he had only to run his eye rapidly down the middle of a printed page to be able to understand it and retain it indefinitely.

But John was not content with theory. One day, to Pax’s horror, he was found cutting up a dead rat on the dining-room floor, having thoughtfully spread a newspaper to protect the carpet. Henceforth his anatomical studies, both practical and theoretical, were supervised by Doc. For a few months John was enthralled. He showed great skill in dissection and microscopy. He catechized his father at every opportunity, and often exposed the confusion of his answers; till at last Pax, remembering the mathematicians, insisted that the tired doctor must have respite. Henceforth John studied unaided.

Then suddenly he dropped biology as he had dropped mathematics. Pax asked, “Have you finished with ‘life’ as you finished with ‘number’?” “No,” replied John, “but life doesn’t hang together like number. It won’t make a pattern. There’s something wrong with all those books. Of course, I often see they’re stupid, but there must be something deeper wrong too, which I can’t see.”

About this time, by the way, John was actually sent to school, but his career lasted only three weeks. “His influence is too disturbing,” said the head mistress, “and he is quite unteachable. I fear the child, though apt in some limited directions, is really subnormal, and needs special treatment.” Henceforth, to satisfy the law, Pax herself pretended to teach him. To please her, he glanced at the school books, and could repeat them at will. As for understanding them, those that interested him he understood as well as the authors; those that bored him he ignored. Over these he could show the stupidity of a moron.

When he had finished with biology, John gave up all intellectual pursuits and concentrated on his body. That autumn he read nothing but adventure stories and several works on jiu-jitsu. Much of his time he spent in practising this art, and in gymnastic exercises of his own invention. Also he dieted himself extremely carefully upon principles of his own. John’s digestive organs had been his one weak spot. They seemed to remain infantile longer even than the rest of his body. Up to his sixth year they were unable to cope with anything but specially prepared milk, and fruit juice. The food-shortage caused by the war had added to the difficulty of nourishing John, and he was always liable to minor digestive troubles. But now he took matters into his own hands, and worked out an intricate but very scanty diet, consisting of fruit, cheese, malted milk, and whole-meal bread, carefully spaced with rest and exercise. We laughed at him; all but Pax, who saw to it that his demands should be fulfilled.

Whether through diet, or gymnastics, or sheer strength of will, he certainly became exceptionally strong for his weight and age. One by one the boys of the neighbourhood found themselves drawn into a quarrel with John. One by one they were defeated. Of course it was not strength but agility and cunning that made him fit to cope with opponents much bigger than himself, “If that kid once gets hold of you the way he wants, you’re done,” it used to be said, “and you can’t hit him, he’s too quick.”

The strange thing was that in every quarrel it seemed to the public that not John but the other was the aggressor.

The climax was the ease of Stephen, now captain of his school’s First Fifteen, and a thoroughly good friend to John.

One day when I was talking to Thomas in his study we heard an Unusual scuffling in the garden. Looking out, we saw Stephen rushing vainly at the elusive John; who, as he leapt side, landed his baby fist time after time with dire effect on Stephen’s face. It was a face almost unrecognizable with rage and perplexity, shockingly unlike the kindly Stephen. Both combatants were plastered with blood, apparently from Stephen’s nose.

John too was a changed being. His lips were drawn back in an inhuman blend of snarl and smile. One eye was half closed from Stephen’s only successful blow, the other cavernous like the eye of a mask. For when John was enraged, the iris drew almost entirely out of sight.

The conflict was so unprecedented and so fantastic that for some moments Thomas and I were paralysed. At last Stephen managed to seize the diabolic child; or was allowed to seize him. We dashed downstairs to the rescue. But when we reached the garden. Stephen was lying on his stomach writhing and gasping, with his arms pinned behind him in the grip of John’s tarantula hands.

The appearance of John at that moment gave me a startling impression of something fiendish. Crouched and clutching, he seemed indeed a spider preparing to suck the life out of the tortured boy beneath him. The sight, I remember, actually made me feel sick.

We stood bewildered by this unexpected turn of events. John looked around, and his eye met mine. Never have I seen so arrogant, so hideous an expression of the lust of power as on that childish face.

For some seconds we gazed at one another. Evidently my look expressed the horror that I felt, for his mood rapidly changed. Rage visibly faded out and gave place first to curiosity then to abstraction. Suddenly John laughed that enigmatic laugh of his. There was no ring of triumph in it, rather a note of self-mockery, and perhaps of awe.

He released his victim, rose and said, “Get up, Stephen, old man. I’m sorry I made you lose your hair.”

But Stephen had fainted.

We never discovered what it was all about. When we questioned John, he said, “It’s all over. Let’s forget about it. Poor old Stephen! But no, I won’t forget.”

When we questioned Stephen a few days later, he said, “I can’t bear to think of it. It was my fault, really. I see that now. Somehow I went mad, when he was intending to be specially decent, too. But to be licked by a kid like that! But he’s not a kid, he’s lightning.”

Now I do not pretend to be able to understand John, but I cannot help having one or two theories about him. In the present case my theory is this. He was at this time plainly going through a phase of concentrated self-assertion. I do not believe, however, that he had been nursing a spirit of revenge ever since the affair of the mower. I believe he had determined in cold blood to try his strength, or rather his skill, against the most formidable of his acquaintances; and that with this end in view he had deliberately and subtly goaded the wretched Stephen into fury. John’s own rage, I suspect, was entirely artificial. He could fight better in a sort of cold fury, so he produced one. As I see it, the great test had to be no friendly bout, but a real wild-beast, desperate encounter. Well, John got what he wanted. And having got it, he saw, in a flash and once for all, right through it and beyond it. So at least I believe.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00