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

Chapter 5

Thought and Action

During the six months which followed this incident, John became increasingly independent of his elders. The parents knew that he was well able to look after himself, so they left him almost entirely to his own devices. They seldom questioned him about his doings, for anything like prying was repugnant to them both; and there seemed to be no mystery about John’s movements. He was continuing his study of man and man’s world. Sometimes he would volunteer an account of some incident in his day’s adventure; sometimes he would draw upon his store of data to illustrate a point in discussion.

Though his tastes remained in some respects puerile, it was clear from his conversation that in other respects he was very rapidly developing. He would still spend days at a stretch in making mechanical toys, such as electric boats. His electric railway system spread its ramifications all over the garden in a maze of lines, tunnels, viaducts, glass-roofed stations. He won many a competition in flying home-made model aeroplanes. In all these activities he seemed at heart a typical schoolboy, though abnormally skilful and original. But the actual time spent in this way was really not great. The only boyish occupation which seemed to fill a large proportion of his time was sailing. He had made himself a minute but seaworthy canoe, fitted both with sail and an old motor-bicycle engine. In this he spent many hours exploring the estuary and the sea-coast, and studying the sea-birds, for which he had a surprising passion. This interest, which at times seemed almost obsessive, he explained apologetically by saying, “They do their simple jobs with so much more style than man shows in his complicated job. Watch a gannet in flight, or a curlew probing the mud for food. Man, I suppose, is about as clever along his own line as the earliest birds were at flight. He’s a sort of archiopteryx of the spirit.”

Even the most childish activities which sometimes gripped John were apt to be illuminated in this manner by the more mature side of his nature. His delight in Comic Cuts, for instance, was half spontaneous, half a relish of his own silliness in liking the stuff.

At no time of his life did John outgrow his childhood interests. Even in his last phase he was always capable of sheer schoolboy mischief and make-believe. But already this side of his nature was being subordinated to the mature side. We knew, for instance, that he was already forming opinions about the proper aims of the individual, about social policy, about international affairs. We knew also that he was reading a great deal of physics, biology, psychology, astronomy; and that philosophical problems were now seriously occupying him. His reaction to philosophy was curiously unlike that of the normal philosophically minded adult human being. When one of the great classical philosophical puzzles attracted his attention for the first time, he plunged into the literature of the subject, read solidly for a week, and then gave up philosophy entirely till the next puzzle occurred to him.

After several of these raids upon the territory of philosophy he undertook a serious campaign. For nearly three months philosophy appeared to be his main intellectual interest. It was summer-time, and he liked to study out of doors. Every morning he would set off on his push-bike with a box of books and food strapped on the carrier. Leaving his bicycle at the top of the clay cliffs which formed the coastline of the estuary, he would climb down to the shore, and settle himself for the day. Having undressed and put on his scanty “bathers,” he would lie in the full sunshine reading, or thinking. Sometimes he broke off to bathe or wander about the mud flats watching the birds. Shelter from rain was provided by two rusty pieces of corrugated iron sheeting laid across two low walls, which he built of stones from a ruined lime-kiln near at hand. Sometimes, when the tide was up, he, went by the sea route in his canoe. On calm days he might be seen a mile or two from the coast, drifting and reading.

I once asked John how his philosophical researches were progressing. His answer is worth recording. “Philosophy,” he said, “is really very helpful to the growing mind, but it’s terribly disappointing too. At first I thought I’d found the mature human intelligence at work at last. Reading Plato, and Spinoza, and Kant, and some of the modern realists too, I almost felt I had come across people of my own kind. I walked in step with them. I played their game with a sense that it called out powers that I had never exercised before. Sometimes I couldn’t follow them. I seemed to miss some vital move. The exhilaration of puzzling over these critical points, and feeling one had met a real master mind at last! But as I went on from philosopher to philosopher and browsed around all over the place, I began to realize the shocking truth that these critical points were not what I thought they were, but just outrageous howlers. It had seemed incredible that these obviously well-developed minds could make simple mistakes; and so I had respectfully dismissed the possibility, and looked for some profound truth. But oh my God, I was wrong! Howler after howler! Sometimes a philosopher’s opponents spot his howlers, and are frightfully set up with their own cleverness. But most of them never get spotted at all, so far as I can discover. Philosophy is an amazing tissue of really fine thinking and incredible, puerile mistakes. It’s like one of those rubber ‘bones’ they give dogs to chew, damned good for the mind’s teeth, but as food — no bloody good at all.”

I ventured to suggest that perhaps he was not really in a position to judge the philosophers. “After all,” I said, “you’re ridiculously young to tackle philosophy. There are spheres of experience that you have not touched yet.”

“Of course there are,” he said. “But — well, for instance, I have little sexual experience, yet. But even now I can see that a man is blathering if he says that sex (properly defined) is the real motive behind all agricultural activities. Take another case. I have no religious experience, yet. Maybe I shall have it, some day. Maybe there’s really no such thing. But I can see quite well that religious experience (properly defined) is no evidence that the sun goes round the earth, and no evidence that the universe has a purpose, such as the fulfilment of personality. The howlers of philosophers are mostly less obvious than these, but of the same kind.”

At the time of which I am speaking, when John was nearly nine, I had no idea that he was leading a double life, and that the hidden part of it was melodramatic. On one single occasion my suspicion was roused for a few moments, but the possibility that flashed upon me was too fantastic and horrible to be seriously entertained.

One morning I happened to go round to the Wainwrights to borrow one of Thomas’s medical books. It must have been about 11.30. John, who had recently developed the habit of reading late at night and rising late in the morning, was being turned out of bed by his indignant mother. “Come and get your breakfast before you dress,” she said. “I’ll keep it no longer.”

Pax offered me “morning tea,” so we both sat down at the breakfast-table. Presently a blinking and scowling John appeared, wearing a dressing-gown over his pyjamas. Pax and I talked about one thing and another. In the course of conversation she said, “Matilda has come with a really lurid story today.” (Matilda was the washerwoman.) “She’s as pleased as Punch about it. She says a policeman was found murdered in Mr. Magnate’s garden this morning, stabbed, she says.” John said nothing, and went on with his breakfast. We continued talking for a while, and then the thing happened that startled me. John reached across the table for the butter, exposing part of his arm beyond the end of the dressing-gown sleeve. On the inner side of the wrist was a rather nasty-looking scrape with a certain amount of dirt still in it. I felt pretty sure that there had been no scrape there when I saw him on the previous evening. Nothing very remarkable in that, but what disturbed me was this: John himself saw that scrape, and then glanced quickly at me. For a fraction of a second his eyes held mine; then he took up the butter-dish. In that moment I seemed to see John, in the middle of the night, scraping his arm as he climbed up the drain-pipe to his bedroom, And it seemed to me that he was returning from Mr. Magnate’s. I pulled myself together at once, reminding myself that what I had seen was a very ordinary abrasion, that John was far too deeply engrossed in his intellectual adventures to indulge in nocturnal pranks, and anyhow far too sensible to risk a murder charge. But that sudden look?

The murder gave the suburb matter for gossip for many weeks. There had recently been a number of extremely clever burglaries in the neighbourhood, and the police were making vigorous efforts to discover the culprit. The murdered man had been found lying on his back in a flower-bed with a neat knife-wound in his chest. He must have died “instantaneously,” for his heart was pierced. A diamond necklace and other valuable pieces of jewellery had disappeared from the house. Slight marks on a window-sill and a drain-pipe suggested that the burglar had climbed in and out by an upper storey. If so, he must have ascended the drain-pipe and then accomplished an almost impossible hand-traverse, or rather finger-tip-traverse, up and along one of the ornamental timbers of the pseudo-Elizabethan house.

Sundry arrests were made, but the perpetrator of the crime was never detected. The epidemic of burglaries, however, ceased, and in time the whole matter was forgotten.

At this point it seems well to draw upon information given me by John himself at a much later stage, in fact during the last year of his life, when the colony had been successfully founded, and had not yet been discovered by the “civilized” world. I was already contemplating writing his biography, and had formed a habit of jotting down notes of any striking incident or conversation as soon as possible after the event. I can, therefore, give the account of the murder approximately in John’s own words.

“I was in a bad mess, mentally, in those days,” said John. “I knew I was different from all other human beings whom I had ever met, but I didn’t realize how different. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I knew I should soon find something pretty big and desperate to do, and that I must make myself ready for it. Also, remember, I was a child; and I had a child’s taste for the melodramatic, combined with an adult’s cunning and resolution.

“I can’t possibly make you really understand the horrible muddle I was in, because after all your mind doesn’t work along the same lines as mine. But think of it this way, if you like. I found myself in a thoroughly bewildering world. The people in it had built up a huge system of thought and knowledge, and I could see quite well that it was shot through and through with error. From my point of view, although so far as it went it was sound enough for practical purposes, as a description of the world it was simply crazy. But what the right description was I could not discover. I was too young. I had insufficient data. Huge fields of experience were still beyond me. So there I was, like some one in the dark in a strange room, just feeling about among unknown objects. And all the while I had a frantic itch to be getting on with my work, if only I could find out what it was.

“Add to all this that as I grew older I grew more and more lonely, because fewer and fewer people were able to meet me half-way. There was Pax. She really could help, bless her, because she really did see things from my angle — sometimes. And even when she didn’t she had the sense to guess I was seeing something actual, and not merely fantasies. But at bottom she definitely belonged with the rest of you, not with me. Then there was you, much blinder than Pax, but more sympathetic with the active side of me.”

Here I interposed half seriously, half mischievously, “At least a trusty hound.” John laughed, and I added, “And sometimes rising to an understanding beyond my canine capacity, through sheer devotion.” He looked at me and smiled, but did not, as I had hoped he would, assent.

“Well,” he continued, “I was most damnably lonely. I was living in a world of phantoms, or animated masks. No one seemed really alive. I had a queer notion that if I pricked any of you, there would be no bleeding, but only a gush of wind. And I couldn’t make out why you were like that, what it was that I missed in you. The trouble really was that I didn’t clearly knew what it was in myself that made me different from you.

“Two clear points emerged from my perplexity. First and simplest, I must make myself independent, I must acquire power. In the crazy world in which I found myself, this meant getting hold of much money. Second I must make haste to sample all sorts of experience, and I must accurately experience my own reactions to all sorts of experience.

“It seemed to me, in my childishness, that I should at any rate begin to fulfil both these needs by bringing off a few burglaries. I should get money, and I should get experience, and I should watch my reactions very carefully. Conscience did not prick me at all. I felt that Mr. Magnate and his like were fair game.

“I first set about studying the technique, partly by reading, partly by discussing the subject with my friend the policeman whom I was afterwards forced to kill. I also undertook a number of experimental and innocuous burglaries on our neighbours. House after house I entered by night, and after locating but not removing the small treasures which they contained, I retired home to bed, well satisfied with my progress.

“At last I felt ready for serious work. In my first house I took only some old-fashioned jewellery, which, I surmised, would not be missed for some time. Then I began taking modern jewellery, cash, silver plate. I found extraordinarily little difficulty in acquiring the stuff. Getting rid of it was much more ticklish work. I managed to make an arrangement with the purser of a foreign-going vessel. He turned up at his home in our suburb every few weeks and bought my swag. I have no doubt that when he parted with it, in foreign ports he got ten times what he gave me for it. Looking back, I realize how lucky I was that the export side of my venture never brought me to disaster. My purser might so easily have been spotted by the police. Of course, I was still far too ignorant of society to realize the danger. Bright as I was, I had not the data.

“Well, things were swimmingly for some months. I entered dozens of houses and collected several hundred pounds from my purser. But naturally the suburb had got thoroughly excited by this epidemic of housebreaking. Indeed, I had been forced to extend my operations to other districts so as to dissipate the attention of the police. It was clear that if I went on indefinitely I should be caught. But I had been badly bitten by the game. It gave me a sense of independence and power, especially independence, independence of your crazy world.

“I promised myself three more ventures. The first, and the only one to be accomplished, was the Magnate burglary. I went over the ground pretty carefully, and I ascertained the movements of the police pretty thoroughly too. On the actual night all went according to plan until, with my pockets bulging with Mrs. Magnate’s pearls and diamonds (in her full regalia she must have looked like Queen Elizabeth), I started back along that finger-traverse. Suddenly a torch flashed on me from below, and a quiet cheery voice said, ‘Got you this time, my lad.’ I said nothing, for I recognized the voice, and did not wish mine to be recognized in turn. The constable was my own particular pal, Smithson, who had unwittingly taught me so much.

“I hung motionless by my finger-tips, thinking hard, and keeping my face to the wall. But it was useless to conceal my identity, for he said, ‘Buck up, John, boy, come along down or you’ll drop and break your leg. You’re a sport, but you’re beat this time.’

“I must have hung motionless for three seconds at most, but in that time I saw myself and my world as never before. An idea toward which I had been long but doubtfully groping suddenly displayed itself to me with complete clarity and certainty. I had already, some time before, come to think of myself as definitely of a different biological species from Homo sapiens, the species of that amiable bloodhound behind the torch. But at last I realized for the first time that this difference carried with it what I should now describe as a far-reaching spiritual difference, that my purpose in life, and my attitude to life, were to be different from anything which the normal species could conceive, that I stood, as it were, on the threshold of a world far beyond the reach of those sixteen hundred million crude animals that at present ruled the planet. The discovery made me feel, almost for the first time in my life, fear, dread. I saw, too, that this burglary game was not worth the candle, that I had been behaving very much like a creature of the inferior species, risking my future and much more than my personal success for a cheap kind of self-expression, if that amiable bloodhound got me, I should lose my independence. I should be henceforth known, marked, and in the grip of the law. That simply must not be. All these childish escapades had been a blind, fumbling preparation for a lifework which at last stood out more or less clearly before me. It was my task, unique being that I was, to ‘advance the spirit’ on this planet. That was the phrase which flashed into my mind. And though at that early stage I had only a very dim idea about ‘spirit’ and its ‘advance’, I saw quite clearly that I must set about the more practical side of my task either by taking charge of the common species and teaching it to bring out the best in itself, or, if that proved impossible, by founding a finer human type of my own.

“Such were the thoughts that flashed on me in the first couple of seconds as I hung by my finger-tips in the blaze of poor Smithson’s torch. If ever you do write that threatened biography, you’ll find it quite impossible to persuade your readers that I, a child of nine, could have had such thoughts in such circumstances. Also, of course, you won’t be able to give anything of the actual character of my new attitude, because it involved a kind of experience beyond your grasp.

“During the next two seconds or so I was desperately considering if there was any way to avoid killing the faithful creature. My fingers were giving out. With their last strength I reached the drain-pipe, and began to descend. Half-way I stopped, ‘How’s Mrs. Smithson?’ I said. ‘Bad,’ he answered. ‘Look sharp, I want to get home.’ That made matters worse. How could I do it? Well, it just had to be done, there was no way out of it. I thought of killing myself, and getting out of the whole mess that way. But I couldn’t do that. It would be sheer betrayal of the thing I must live for. I thought of just accepting Smithson and the law; but no, that, I knew, was betrayal also. The killing just had to be. It was my own childishness that had got me into this scrape, but now — the killing just had to be. All the same, I hated the job. I had not yet reached the stage of liking whatever had to be done. I felt over again, and far more distressingly, the violent repulsion which had surprised me years earlier, when I had to kill a mouse. It was that one I had tamed, you remember, and the maids wouldn’t stand it running about the house.

“Well, Smithson had to die. He was standing at the foot of the pipe. I pretended to slip, and fell on him, overbalancing him by kicking off from the wall. We both went down with a crash. With my left hand I seized the torch, and with my right I whipped out my little scout’s knife. The position of the human heart was not unknown to me. I plunged the knife home, leaning on it with all my weight. Smithson flung me off with one frantic spasm, then lay still.

“The scrimmage had made a considerable noise, and I heard a bed creak in the house. For a moment I looked at Smithson’s open eyes and open mouth. I pulled out the knife, and then there was a spurt of blood.”

John’s account of this strange incident showed me how little I had known of his real character at that time.

“You must have felt pretty bad on the way home,” I said.

“As a matter of fact,” he answered, “I didn’t. The bad feeling ended when I made my decision. And I didn’t go straight home. I went to Smithson’s house, intending to kill his wife. I knew she was down with cancer and in for a lot of pain, and would be broken-hearted over her husband’s death; so I decided to take one more risk and put her out of her misery. But when I got there, by secret ways of my own, I found the house lit up and awake. She was evidently having a bad night. So I had to leave her, poor wretch. Even that didn’t really upset me. You may say I was saved by the insensitivity of childhood. Perhaps to some extent; though I had a pretty vivid notion of what Pax would suffer if she lost her husband. What really saved me was a kind of fatalism. What must be, must be. I felt no remorse for my own past folly. The ‘I’ that had committed that folly was incapable of realizing how foolish it was being. The new ‘I’, that had suddenly awakened, realized very clearly, and was anxious to make amends so far as possible; but of remorse or shame it felt nothing.”

To this confession I could make only one reply, “Odd John!”

I then asked John if he was preyed on by the dread of being caught. “No,” he said. “I had done all I could. If they caught me, they caught me. But I had done the job as efficiently as it is ever done. I had worn rubber gloves, and left a few false fingerprints, made by an ingenious little instrument of my own. My only serious anxiety was over my purser. I sold him the swag in small instalments over a period of several months.”


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