selected stories of h. g. wells

Table of Contents

Title Page

PUBLICATION - HISTORY

INTRODUCTION - WELLS’S WORLDS

PART ONE - VISIONARY SCIENCE FICTION

INTRODUCTION

A SLIP UNDER - THE MICROSCOPE

CLASS I H. J. Somers Wedderburn William Hill

THE REMARKABLE CASE OF DAVIDSON’S EYES

THE PLATTNER STORY

UNDER THE KNIFE

THE CRYSTAL EGG

THE NEW ACCELERATOR

THE STOLEN BODY

PART TWO - TECHNOLOGICAL AND PREDICTIVE SCIENCE FICTION

INTRODUCTION

THE ARGONAUTS OF THE AIR

IN THE ABYSS

THE STAR

THE LAND IRONCLADS

1

2

3

4

5

A DREAM OF ARMAGEDDON

PART THREE - HORROR STORIES

INTRODUCTION

THE LORD OF THE DYNAMOS

THE VALLEY OF SPIDERS

PART FOUR - FANTASIES

INTRODUCTION

THE STORY OF THE LATE MR. ELVESHAM

THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES

APANTOUM IN PROSE

THE MAGIC SHOP

MR. SKELMERSDALE IN FAIRYLAND

THE DOOR IN THE WALL

1

2

3

4

THE PRESENCE BY THE FIRE

PART FIVE - FABLES

INTRODUCTION

A VISION OF JUDGMENT

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

THE STORY OF THE LAST TRUMP

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

THE WILD ASSES OF THE DEVIL

1

2

3

4

5

ANSWER TO PRAYER

PART SIX - PSYCHO-SOCIAL SCIENCE FICTION

INTRODUCTION

THE QUEER STORY OF BROWNLOW’S NEWSPAPER

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

THE COUNTRY OF THE BLIND

ABOUT THE EDITOR

THE MODERN LIBRARY EDITORIAL BOARD

OTHER MODERN LIBRARY PAPERBACK CLASSICS

About the Author

Copyright Page

PUBLICATION

HISTORY

Throughout his more than fifty-year career, H. G. Wells wrote over eighty short stories. Some stories were first published in periodicals, others in five short-story collections. Many of these stories appeared numerous times in Wells’s collections, sometimes slightly revised, other times reworded or with new endings, as was the case with “The Country of the Blind.” Numerous bibliographies detailing the publication history of Wells’s fiction and nonfiction can be found online or in reference libraries.

The following list details where the stories included in this edition were first published and their subsequent republications in short-story collections.

“A Slip Under the Microscope”:
Yellow Book,
January 1896; later in
The
Plattner Story and Others
(1897) and
The Country of the Blind and
Other Stories
(1913).

“The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes”:
Pall Mall Budget,
March 28, 1895; later in
The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents
(1895) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Plattner Story”:
New Review,
April 1896; later in
The Plattner Story
and Others
(1897) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“Under the Knife”:
New Review,
January 1896; later in
The Plattner Story
and Others
(1897) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Crystal Egg”:
New Review,
May 1897; later in
Tales of Space and
Time
(1899) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The New Accelerator”:
Strand Magazine,
December 1901; later in
Twelve Stories and a Dream
(1903) and
The Country of the Blind and
Other Stories
(1913).

“The Stolen Body”:
Strand Magazine,
November 1898; later in
Twelve
Stories and a Dream
(1903).

“The Argonauts of the Air”:
Phil May’s Annual,
December 1895; later in
The Plattner Story and Others
(1897) and
Thirty Strange Stories
(1897).

“In the Abyss”:
Pearson’s Magazine,
August 1, 1896; later in
The Plattner
Story and Others
(1897).

“The Star”:
Graphic,
December 1897; later in
Tales of Space and Time
(1899) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Land Ironclads”:
Strand Magazine,
December 1903.

“A Dream of Armageddon”:
Black and White Budget,
May–June 1901; later in
Twelve Stories and a Dream
(1903) and
The Country of the
Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Lord of the Dynamos”:
Pall Mall Budget,
September 6, 1894; later in
The Stolen Bacillus, and Other Incidents
(1895),
Thirty Strange
Stories
(1897), and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Valley of Spiders”:
Strand Magazine,
March 1903; later in
Twelve
Stories and a Dream
(1903) and
The Country of the Blind and Other
Stories
(1913).

“The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham”:
Idler,
May 1896; later in
The
Plattner Story and Others
(1897),
Thirty Strange Stories
(1897)
,
and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Man Who Could Work Miracles”:
Illustrated London News,
July 1898; later in
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Magic Shop”:
Strange Magazine,
June 1903; later in
Twelve Stories
and a Dream
(1903) and
The Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“Mr. Skelmersdale in Fairyland”:
London Magazine,
July 1898; later in
Twelve Stories and a Dream
(1903).

“The Door in the Wall”:
Daily Chronicle,
July 14, 1906; later in
The
Country of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Presence by the Fire”:
Penny Illustrated Paper,
August 14, 1897.

“A Vision of Judgment”:
Butterfly,
September 1899; later in
The Country
of the Blind and Other Stories
(1913).

“The Story of the Last Trump”: first published as chapter 10 of
Boon,
the Mind of the Race, the Wild Asses of the Devil, and the Last Trump,
Being a First Selection from the Literary Remains of George Boon,
Appropriate to the Times
(1915).

“The Wild Asses of the Devil”: first published as chapter 8 of
Boon.

“Answer to Prayer”:
New Statesman,
April 10, 1937.

“The Queer Story of Brownlow’s Newspaper”:
Strand Magazine,
February 1932.

“The Country of the Blind”: the first version of this story appeared in
Strand Magazine,
April 1904, and later in
The Country of the Blind
and Other Stories
(1913). The revised, expanded version appeared in
The Country of the Blind
(1939).

INTRODUCTION

WELLS’S WORLDS

Ursula K. Le Guin

Herbert George Wells was born in 1866, in the heyday of Queen Victoria’s reign, and died at nearly eighty, just after the end of the Second World War. Like most of us, he experienced what is often dismissed as a science fictional invention: existence in incompatibly different worlds, time-travel to an unknown planet.

For the last couple of centuries, people who live more than thirty years or so have been likely to realize, suddenly or gradually, that they are strangers in a changed, incomprehensible world: lands of exile for refugees, cities of ruin for those whose nation suffers war, a labyrinth of high technology in which the untrained mind strays bewildered, a world of huge wealth which the poor stare at through the impenetrable glass of a shop window or a TV set. . . . From the early nineteenth century on, the stable, single worlds of pre-industrial societies were broken down and drawn into a multiverse of constantly increasing variety and change.

Caught in those transformations, H. G. Wells wrote about them all his life.

He was no passive observer. He worked long and hard to change his world—in the first place, to get himself into a better situation in it. He was born into the servant class in a rigidly hierarchical society, his father a gardener, his mother a personal maid at Uppark, a country house of the gentry. The bright, ambitious boy got himself out of that (but always looked back with love at the lovely rural England of his childhood). He got himself out of apprenticeship to a cloth seller (where he learned a great deal about the lower middle class), and back into school—education, the road up. He won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science, where he studied biology under Thomas Huxley and others, and the new universe of science opened out to him along with the social and intellectual realms of professional status. Injury and illness led him from teaching to writing. By his mid-thirties he was an increasingly successful and respected author, building himself a fine new house—a world away from the servants’ quarters at Uppark.

He was ambitious also to improve the world for other people. He became a socialist and briefly a member of the theoretical Socialist group, the Fabian Society, which wasn’t activist enough for him; a utopian futurist; a feminist—up to a point; a critic of society, of injustice, of capitalist commercialism; an unsuccessful Labour candidate; a tireless prophet both of cataclysm and of social betterment. In his late seventies, writing
Mind at the End of Its Tether,
after all the struggles and both the wars, after sticking it out in London through the bombing, he was still looking for hope for mankind, though he could find it only in the idea of a new humanity, a changed, improved species: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is Nature’s inexorable imperative.”

Trained as a biologist under a very great teacher, he never wavered in his acceptance of Darwin’s dynamic view of existence: life understood not as a Social Darwinist struggle for mere domination, not as a Christian Darwinist ascent to humanity as a final goal, but life as evolution: necessary and unceasing change. What stays fixed, dies. What adapts, goes on. The more flexibly it adapts, the farther it goes. Openness is all. Change can be brainless and brutal or intelligent and constructive. Morality enters the system only with the thinking, choosing mind. Wells imagined both dark and bright futures because his creed allowed both while promising neither, and because the eighty years of his life were years of immense intellectual and technological accomplishment and appalling violence and destruction.

In his own eyes and those of his contemporaries, Wells’s realistic novels established his importance as a writer. Idea-centered, observant of social class and stress, topical, provocative, often satirical, sometimes passionately indignant, books such as
Ann Veronica
and
Tono-Bungay
are comparable to Bernard Shaw’s plays, though they haven’t worn quite as well. Wells was a quirky, sometimes heavy-handed novelist, and most of his novels, though entertaining and in flashes brilliant, have dated. What has lasted, beyond any expectation of his own and in defiance of all the snobberies of academia, are his “scientific romances”—novellas and short stories of fantasy and science fiction.

They were written before the realistic works, most of them before he was forty. His early reputation was founded on them. Later on he was rather dismissive of them, partly no doubt because it galls an artist to hear people forever talk about work done decades ago, partly because he was a demanding self-critic and knew a good many of his early stories were potboilers. Moreover, the modern critical canon excluded all nonrealistic fiction as inherently inferior, and Wells was a self-made man, competitive, edgy about aspersions of inferiority. Possibly he convinced himself that imaginative fiction is less powerful or useful than the fiction of social observation. His training after all was in science, not in art, and scientists are taught to put observation first. But his calling was art, not science, and his nature was that of a visionary, a seer of the unseen, the unobservable. He could never be satisfied by the world as we see it, as it is. He had to change it, reinvent it, or dream a new one.

The Time Machine, The First Men in the Moon, The War of the Worlds,
The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau—
these are what the name H. G. Wells means to most of us now. And rightly so. These short novels established whole genres. They left a set of indelibly vivid images, imageries, archetypes in the minds of generations of readers—and filmmakers, graphic artists, comic book devotees, TV sci-fi fans, pop cultists, and Po-Mo pundits. Introducing the recent Modern Library edition of
The Time Machine,
I wrote, “Nobody can write science fiction, or discuss science fiction as literature, without having read them; they are fundamental in a way even Verne is not, though Mary Shelley is. They established certain mythical tendencies in our fiction, which we have explored ever since.”

Wells wrote science fiction long before it had a name. He called it “scientific romance,” and later “fantasy of possibility”—better names, perhaps, than the one it’s stuck with. His originality and inventiveness were astonishing. Whatever kind of science fiction you look at, you’re likely to find an example of it—a first example of it—among his tales. He didn’t distinguish between science fiction and fantasy because nobody did then or for years to come; but he invented a literature, because he was the first man to write fiction as a scientist. His imagination was formed and informed by the study of biology, a science in its bright dawn of discovery and expansion, and he brought that sense of limitless possibility, both playful and fearful, to his speculations and explorations of other worlds where the mind alone can go.

And then he turned to social commentary, political exhortation, and programmatic utopias, and stopped writing short stories. Almost all the stories in this volume were written and published in the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, before the First World War—many of them before the death of Queen Victoria. Enough to make one reconsider the meaning of the word “Victorian.”

Some students of science fiction insist that its particular quality depends on its ideas alone, so that attention to literary considerations apart from clarity and narrative drive, or to character as opposed to stereotype, merely weakens or dilutes it. There are memorable stories to support this view, and Wells wrote several of them. His interest in society and psychology and his high literary standards, however, led him away from such a narrow focus on idea-driven plot.

Introducing his own selection of his short stories (
The Country of the
Blind and Other Stories,
1913), he discusses the form and his relation to it. Citing the work of Kipling, Henry James, Conrad, and many others, he calls the 1890s the high point of the short story and speaks of “lyrical brevity and a vivid finish” as its virtues. Chekhov had not yet been translated, to show the limitless possibilities of the form. Maupassant’s bleak, tight, neat tales were the accepted model. Wells could not be comfortable with that. “I am all for laxness and variety in this as in every field of art. Insistence upon rigid forms and austere unities seems to me the instinctive reaction of the sterile against the fecund,” he wrote. “I refuse altogether to recognise any hard and fast type for the Short Story. . . .” He was surely right to do so; but his own almost patronizing description of it as “this compact and amusing form” hardly includes Henry James’s, or Kipling’s, or his own best stories, though it describes the lesser ones very well.

He knew the difference, of course. In 1939, in his discussion of his revision of what is probably his finest story, “The Country of the Blind,” he says he had lost his tolerance for the idea story, the gimmick, the trick ending—the potboiler he had written so many of. “You laid hands on almost anything that came handy, a droning dynamo, a fluttering bat, a bacteriologist’s tube . . . ran a slight human reaction round it, put it in the oven, and there you were.” He could have gone on doing it forever, he says, but for the feeling that “not only might the short story be a lovely, satisfying, significant thing, but that it ought to be so, that a short story that wasn’t whole and complete like a living thing, but just something bought and cut off like half a yard of chintz on a footstool, was either an imposture or a lost opportunity.” But “the vogue for appreciating the exceptional in short stories was passing,” he says, and when he tried to write stories that didn’t suit the market, editors rejected his submissions, and so he “drifted out of the industry.”

He had quit selling cloth by the yard at seventeen when he broke his apprenticeship. Selling words by the yard got him going as a writer, but maybe it led him to underestimate the form itself. For it is certainly untrue that the short story flowered in the 1890s and then declined into triviality; it went on developing and flourishing right through the twentieth century. I wonder if what stopped him was not so much the editors’ lack of appreciation for the exceptional as the critics’ increasing restriction of literary fiction to social and psychological realism, all else being brushed aside as subliterary entertainment. No matter how good his stories, if they were fantastic in theme or drew on science or history or any intellectual discipline for their subject, they could be dismissed categorically as “genre fiction.”

It is a risk every imaginative writer runs, even now; writers who crave literary respectability still hasten to deny that their science fiction is science fiction. At least Wells stood by his imaginary guns. But he stopped firing them.

Meanwhile,
The Time Machine
has never been out of print for a hundred and some years now. And though only a few of the short stories have come near that genuine literary permanence, the best of them remain vividly alive, amazingly pertinent, sometimes unnervingly prescient, as haunting as nightmares or as bright unrecallable dreams.

I chose twenty-six stories from the eighty-four collected in John Hammond’s massive and invaluable
Complete Short Stories of H. G. Wells.
I selected for excellence, of course, not as defined by the standards of realism, which have little use or application here, but generic excellence. Was the story outstanding in itself for intellectual urgency or moral passion, for some particular virtue or strangeness or beauty? Was the story outstanding of its kind, and was the kind an interesting one? Was it fruitful, vital, did it lead forward to other works of other writers? It makes no sense to me to define “great” art as inimitable, unique, a dead end, and to prize only such greatness. Seeing art as a community enterprise both in place and time, I think an art that leads to more art is more valuable than sterile excellence.

Certain stories I left out with regret; one is “A Story of the Days to Come,” full of interesting stuff, but so long it would have taken up half the book. I would have liked to include some of the satirical, joking tales that Wells was good at, such as “Aepyornis Island” and “The Pearl of Love”—but being light, they got pushed out of the boat.

Because almost all Wells’s stories are genre stories and because I value them as such, I arranged them, not chronologically, but in sections by kind. Each section has a brief introduction, discussing what kind of stories they are, where this kind of story came from and what it may have led to.

As for trying to sum up the stories as a whole, as a set, it’s difficult. Wells is an elusive writer. Certainly one sees his distinctive style throughout the book. Many of the stories are told in a journalistic tone, easy and breezy, extremely self-confident but unpretentious, clear, moving forward at a good clip—it all seems quite simple, quite artless, which is exactly what the author wanted. He distrusted the high aesthetic manner (a charming note to his friendship with Henry James is that each man confessed he often longed to rewrite the other’s stories). But he was a careful writer and tireless rewriter, keenly aware of what he was doing, sensitive and skilled in his craft. A modulation of his tone can be as effective as a key-change in music.

We are often told that, in stories written less to reveal individual experience or character than to entertain or inform or stimulate the imagination, plot is needed to provide structure, and action is all-important. Wells plotted cleverly, and his action scenes are vivid and suspenseful; but his true mastery, I think, was in that very difficult, underestimated, even maligned element of storytelling, visual description. Wells can make you see what he wants you to see. When this is something that does not in fact exist, a fantastic scene, a dream or prophecy, his power seems uncanny. He was—literally—a visionary. Perhaps the finest things he wrote are the wonderful description of a lunar morning in
The First Men in the Moon
and the glimpses of the dying world at the end of
The Time Machine.
In the short stories one comes again and again on a similarly vivid scene, a glimpse into another world, fearful or radiant or simply very strange. These visions have the authority, in memory, of something seen with one’s own eyes. A squadron of airplanes over Naples (two years before Kitty Hawk)— two men laughing and making faces at people who stand frozen in time—a dreaming garden behind a door in a wall—the faces of the townsfolk in the Country of the Blind. . . .

 

 

PART ONE

VISIONARY SCIENCE FICTION

INTRODUCTION

The first story in this book is the only one in it that obeys the rules of fictional realism. Nothing impossible happens, so it isn’t fantasy. Nothing “futuristic” or “predictive” or “speculative” happens, so most people wouldn’t call it science fiction. But it is about scientists. And about being young, and poor, and ambitious.

It certainly draws its setting from Wells’s experience at the Normal School of Science (now the Imperial College of Science and Technology) as a scholarship student among mostly middle-class students and professors. The competition in science to be first, get the top mark, the hot job, was fierce enough to drive students to cheating, already in the 1880s—a sad note. But what the story really is about is, to alter C. P. Snow’s title, “the conscience of the poor.” An insecure, angry, striving boy, a cobbler’s son among the sons (and daughters) of the professional classes, is tempted by pure chance to cheat. He knows all too well that lower social status is assumed to mean lower ethical standards. So what does he do? The moral question posed is complex; the outcome is subtle and disturbing.

It is significant that the crux of the story is what young Hill sees on a microscope slide: a field of vision. That’s why I put the story in this section, though it is “scientist fiction” rather than science fiction. In one way or another all the stories in this section have to do with
what
somebody sees.
“I saw it with my own eyes”—that’s how we attest to the reality of the implausible. Imaginative literature takes us into other worlds, altered states of consciousness, alien perceptions, by making us see another reality or see through other eyes. H. G. Wells was singularly gifted at presenting such changed fields of vision with intense, vivid actuality.

“The Remarkable Case of Davidson’s Eyes” is a what-if: what if a man could see only what he’d see if he were someplace else? The premise is perfectly fantastic, but the setting is a laboratory, and Wells works out the implications elegantly, with science-fictional accuracy and aplomb.

“The Plattner Story” and “The Stolen Body” are two quite different approaches to a similar subject: a man disappears—one in an explosion, one in an experiment—out of ordinary life, sees some very strange things, and reappears. . . . The tale is like that of the Time Traveler, but instead of the future these men visit other worlds coexistent with ours, ominous and weird. These are ghost stories, reveling in the uncanny, playing with the theme of alternate realities, of a world that shadows, that tries to break through, into what we call the real world.

“Under the Knife” is a story of altered states of mind: the psychology of a man just before a major operation; an out-of-body experience, in which the disembodied patient sees the surgeon make a fatal mistake; and then a tremendous, headlong, visionary voyage through time and space and spirit. . . . I think this is one of the most extraordinary stories in this book, and I can’t imagine anyone but this author writing anything remotely like it. It is quintessential Wells.

In “The Crystal Egg,” the medium of vision, the way of seeing the other world, is through a crystal. A familiar idea, with ages of wishful thinking behind it. And the tale with its curiosity-shop setting seems to be of a familiar fantasy type. But when we see what is to be seen through the stone, and realize where it is, we’re reading classic science fiction. Yet, returning to the fantasy element, I cherish the notion that J. R. R. Tolkien may well have read this story, and that in the crystal egg lies the ancestor of the
palantir.

“The New Accelerator” is a highly original time-travel story, with many descendants in fiction throughout the twentieth century. The idea of moving really,
really
fast, so fast nobody could even see you, so fast that time would seem to freeze—did we learn that notion from Wells, or is it something children have always imagined? Certainly Professor Gibberne is Superman’s great-grandfather. . . . Again, Wells works out with wonderful vividness what the (as far as we know) impossible experience would feel like, look like, sound like—and how it would affect those experiencing it. There are some fine throwaway lines, too. My favorite is “We ceased to smoulder almost at once.”

A SLIP UNDER

THE MICROSCOPE

Outside the laboratory windows was a watery-grey fog, and within a close warmth and the yellow light of the green-shaded gas lamps that stood two to each table down its narrow length. On each table stood a couple of glass jars containing the mangled vestiges of the crayfish, mussels, frogs, and guineapigs upon which the students had been working, and down the side of the room, facing the windows, were shelves bearing bleached dissections of spirits, surmounted by a row of beautifully executed anatomical drawings in whitewood frames and overhanging a row of cubical lockers. All the doors of the laboratory were panelled with blackboard, and on these were the half-erased diagrams of the previous day’s work. The laboratory was empty, save for the demonstrator, who sat near the preparation-room door, and silent, save for a low, continuous murmur, and the clicking of the rocker microtome at which he was working. But scattered about the room were traces of numerous students: hand-bags, polished boxes of instruments, in one place a large drawing covered by newspaper, and in another a prettily bound copy of
News from Nowhere,
a book oddly at variance with its surroundings. These things had been put down hastily as the students had arrived and hurried at once to secure their seats in the adjacent lecture theatre. Deadened by the closed door, the measured accents of the professor sounded as a featureless muttering.

Presently, faint through the closed windows came the sound of the Oratory clock striking the hour of eleven. The clicking of the microtome ceased, and the demonstrator looked at his watch, rose, thrust his hands into his pockets, and walked slowly down the laboratory towards the lecture theatre door. He stood listening for a moment, and then his eye fell on the little volume by William Morris. He picked it up, glanced at the title, smiled, opened it, looked at the name on the flyleaf, ran the leaves through with his hand, and put it down. Almost immediately the even murmur of the lecturer ceased, there was a sudden burst of pencils rattling on the desks in the lecture theatre, stirring, a scraping of feet, and a number of voices speaking together. Then a firm footfall approached the door, which began to open, and stood ajar as some indistinctly heard question arrested the newcomer.

The demonstrator turned, walked slowly back past the microtome, and left the laboratory by the preparation-room door. As he did so, first one, and then several students carrying notebooks entered the laboratory from the lecture theatre, and distributed themselves among the little tables, or stood in a group about the doorway. They were an exceptionally heterogeneous assembly, for while Oxford and Cambridge still recoil from the blushing prospect of mixed classes, the College of Science anticipated America in the matter years ago— mixed socially too, for the prestige of the College is high, and its scholarships, free of any age limit, dredge deeper even than do those of the Scotch universities. The class numbered one-and-twenty, but some remained in the theatre questioning the professor, copying the blackboard diagrams before they were washed off, or examining the special specimens he had produced to illustrate the day’s teaching. Of the nine who had come into the laboratory three were girls, one of whom, a little fair woman wearing spectacles and dressed in greyish-green, was peering out of the window at the fog, while the other two, both wholesome-looking, plain-faced schoolgirls, unrolled and put on the brown holland aprons they wore while dissecting. Of the men, two went down the laboratory to their places, one a pallid, dark-bearded man, who had once been a tailor; the other a pleasant-featured, ruddy young man of twenty, dressed in a well-fitting brown suit; young Wedderburn, the son of Wedderburn the eye specialist. The others formed a little knot near the theatre door. One of these, a dwarfed, spectacled figure with a hunch back, sat on a bent wood stool; two others, one a short, dark youngster and the other a flaxen-haired, reddishcomplexioned young man, stood leaning side by side against the slate sink, while the fourth stood facing them, and maintained the largest share of the conversation.

This last person was named Hill. He was a sturdily built young fellow, of the same age as Wedderburn; he had a white face, dark grey eyes, hair of an indeterminate colour, and prominent, irregular features. He talked rather louder than was needful, and thrust his hands deeply into his pockets. His collar was frayed and blue with the starch of a careless laundress, his clothes were evidently ready-made, and there was a patch on the side of his boot near the toe. And as he talked or listened to the others, he glanced now and again towards the lecture theatre door. They were discussing the depressing peroration of the lecture they had just heard, the last lecture it was in the introductory course in zoology. “From ovum to ovum is the goal of the higher vertebrata,” the lecturer had said in his melancholy tones, and so had neatly rounded off the sketch of comparative anatomy he had been developing. The spectacled hunchback had repeated it with noisy appreciation, had tossed it towards the fair-haired student with an evident provocation, and had started one of those vague, rambling discussions on generalities so unaccountably dear to the student mind all the world over.

“That is our goal, perhaps—I admit it, as far as science goes,” said the fair-haired student, rising to the challenge. “But there are things above science.”

“Science,” said Hill confidently, “is systematic knowledge. Ideas that don’t come into the system—must anyhow—be loose ideas.” He was not quite sure whether that was a clever saying or a fatuity until his hearers took it seriously.

“The thing I cannot understand,” said the hunchback, at large, “is whether Hill is a materialist or not.”

“There is one thing above matter,” said Hill promptly, feeling he made a better point this time, aware, too, of someone in the doorway behind him, and raising his voice a trifle for her benefit, “and that is, the delusion that there is something above matter.”

“So we have your gospel at last,” said the fair student. “It’s all a delusion, is it? All our aspirations to lead something more than dogs’ lives, all our work for anything beyond ourselves. But see how inconsistent you are. Your socialism, for instance. Why do you trouble about the interests of the race? Why do you concern yourself about the beggar in the gutter? Why are you bothering yourself to lend that book”—he indicated William Morris by a movement of the head—“to everyone in the lab?”

“Girl,” said the hunchback indistinctly, and glanced guiltily over his shoulder.

The girl in brown, with the brown eyes, had come into the laboratory, and stood on the other side of the table behind him, with her rolled-up apron in one hand, looking over her shoulder, listening to the discussion. She did not notice the hunchback, because she was glancing from Hill to his interlocutor. Hill’s consciousness of her presence betrayed itself to her only in his studious ignoring of the fact; but she understood that, and it pleased her. “I see no reason,” said he, “why a man should live like a brute because he knows of nothing beyond matter, and does not expect to exist a hundred years hence.”

“Why shouldn’t he?” said the fair-haired student.

“Why
should
he?” said Hill.

“What inducement has he?”

“That’s the way with all you religious people. It’s all a business of inducements. Cannot a man seek after righteousness for righteousness’ sake?”

There was a pause. The fair man answered, with a kind of vocal padding, “But—you see—inducement—when I said inducement,” to gain time. And then the hunchback came to his rescue and inserted a question. He was a terrible person in the debating society with his questions, and they invariably took one form—a demand for a definition. “What’s your definition of righteousness?” said the hunchback at this stage.

Hill experienced a sudden loss of complacency at this question, but even as it was asked, relief came in the person of Brooks, the laboratory attendant, who entered by the preparation-room door, carrying a number of freshly killed guineapigs by their hind legs. “This is the last batch of material this session,” said the youngster who had not previously spoken. Brooks advanced up the laboratory, smacking down a couple of guineapigs at each table. The rest of the class, scenting the prey from afar, came crowding in by the lecture theatre door, and the discussion perished abruptly as the students who were not already in their places hurried to them to secure the choice of a specimen. There was a noise of keys rattling on split rings as lockers were opened and dissecting instruments taken out. Hill was already standing by his table, and his box of scalpels was sticking out of his pocket. The girl in brown came a step towards him, and leaning over his table said softly, “Did you see that I returned your book, Mr. Hill?”

During the whole scene she and the book had been vividly present in his consciousness; but he made a clumsy pretence of looking at the book and seeing it for the first time. “Oh yes,” he said, taking it up. “I see. Did you like it?”

“I want to ask you some questions about it—some time.”

“Certainly,” said Hill. “I shall be glad.” He stopped awkwardly. “You liked it?” he said.

“It’s a wonderful book. Only some things I don’t understand.”

Then suddenly the laboratory was hushed by a curious braying noise. It was the demonstrator. He was at the blackboard ready to begin the day’s instruction, and it was his custom to demand silence by a sound midway between the “Er” of common intercourse and the blast of a trumpet. The girl in brown slipped back to her place: it was immediately in front of Hill’s, and Hill, forgetting her forthwith, took a notebook out of the drawer of his table, turned over its leaves hastily, drew a stumpy pencil from his pocket, and prepared to make a copious note of the coming demonstration. For demonstrations and lectures are the sacred text of the College students. Books, saving only the professor’s own, you may—it is even expedient to—ignore.

Hill was the son of a Landport cobbler, and had been hooked by a chance blue paper the authorities had thrown out to the Landport Technical College. He kept himself in London on his allowance of a guinea a week, and found that, with proper care, this also covered his clothing allowance, an occasional waterproof collar, that is; and ink and needles and cotton and such-like necessaries for a man about town. This was his first year and his first session, but the brown old man in Landport had already got himself detested in many public-houses by boasting of his son, “the Professor.” Hill was a vigorous youngster, with a serene contempt for the clergy of all denominations, and a fine ambition to reconstruct the world. He regarded his scholarship as a brilliant opportunity. He had begun to read at seven, and had read steadily whatever came in his way, good or bad, since then. His worldly experience had been limited to the island of Portsea, and acquired chiefly in the wholesale boot factory in which he had worked by day, after passing the seventh standard of the Board school. He had a considerable gift of speech, as the College Debating Society, which met amidst the crushing machines and mine models in the metallurgical theatre downstairs, already recognised—recognised by a violent battering of desks whenever he rose. And he was just at that fine emotional age when life opens at the end of a narrow pass like a broad valley at one’s feet, full of the promise of wonderful discoveries and tremendous achievements. And his own limitations, save that he knew that he knew neither Latin nor French, were all unknown to him.

At first his interest had been divided pretty equally between his biological work at the College and social and theological theorising, an employment which he took in deadly earnest. Of a night, when the big museum library was not open, he would sit on the bed of his room in Chelsea with his coat and a muffler on, and write out the lecture notes and revise his dissection memoranda until Thorpe called him out by a whistle—the landlady objected to open the door to attic visitors—and then the two would go prowling about the shadowy, shiny, gas-lit streets, talking, very much in the fashion of the sample just given, of the God Idea and Righteousness and Carlyle and the Reorganisation of Society. And in the midst of it all, Hill, arguing not only for Thorpe but for the casual passer-by, would lose the thread of his argument glancing at some pretty painted face that looked meaningly at him as he passed. Science and Righteousness! But once or twice lately there had been signs that a third interest was creeping into his life, and he had found his attention wandering from the fate of the mesoblastic somites or the probable meaning of the blastopore, to the thought of the girl with the brown eyes who sat at the table before him.

She was a paying student; she descended inconceivable social altitudes to speak to him. At the thought of the education she must have had, and the accomplishments she must possess, the soul of Hill became abject within him. She had spoken to him first over a difficulty about the alisphenoid of a rabbit’s skull, and he had found that, in biology at least, he had no reason for self-abasement. And from that, after the manner of young people starting from any starting-point, they got to generalities, and while Hill attacked her upon the question of socialism—some instinct told him to spare her a direct assault upon her religion—she was gathering resolution to undertake what she told herself was his aesthetic education. She was a year or two older than he, though the thought never occurred to him. The loan of
News from
Nowhere
was the beginning of a series of cross loans. Upon some absurd first principle of his, Hill had never “wasted time” upon poetry, and it seemed an appalling deficiency to her. One day in the lunch hour, when she chanced upon him alone in the little museum where the skeletons were arranged, shamefully eating the bun that constituted his midday meal, she retreated, and returned to lend him, with a slightly furtive air, a volume of Browning. He stood sideways towards her and took the book rather clumsily, because he was holding the bun in the other hand. And in the retrospect his voice lacked the cheerful clearness he could have wished.