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MR. WELLS's address as president of the Educational Science Section of the British Association last year dealt with certain aspects of education in the schools only. In his latest story, with its cover of dark and light blue, he deals with university education and its place in society. The story begins with an amusing sketch of a dyed-in-the-wool scholar, the master of Holy Innocents College, a preserver of culture, of true scholarship, born to appreciate without ever creating.
His breakfast oration has got to the stage of denouncing "the dictatorship of the half-educated. We are being endowed, Sir, and told what to know and teach, by the unholy wealth of ironmongers and the overblown profits of syndicated shop-keepers."
Then enters the visitant as a voice, an unseen presence, asking: "Half-educated? Now how can you measure education and divide it into halves and quarters? What do you mean by education?..."
For the rest of the story the visitant subjects human life, and in particular its treatment by the University of Camford, to a sympathetic but quite unsparing scrutiny. The general thesis is an appeal to the universities to play a part in "so heroic an ordering of knowledge, so valiant a beating out of opinions, such a refreshment of teaching and such an organization of brains as will constitute a real and living world university, head, eyes and purpose for Man".
—Nature, 12 February 1938
THE story of the Camford Visitation begins quite suddenly in the dining-room of Holy Innocents College. Four or five of the Fellows had assembled for breakfast, there was a guest of the Senior Fellow and there was of course the Master. There was nothing remarkable and certainly nothing sinister or disagreeable about the visible scene. It was—as people say—brightly matutinal—though why anyone should ever use that detestable word is difficult to explain. There was no suggestion at all of occult influences or unseen participation. The company was cheered by a bright coal-fire and protected from it by a vast glass screen. The wistaria on the garden wall outside which separates the domains of Holy Innocents from the garden of the Warden of University was brightly sunlit and at its glowing best.
The Master was talking at his guest.
Talking at a guest was a habit with him. He was grey and leathery and wrinkled about the face, he had a large nose and a variously baggy neck in which his voice reverberated and was enriched, his mouth was wide and wayward and dropped a little and his eyes beneath his grey eyebrow thatch were bright and brown and wicked. The guest was in fact a New Zealander but the Master had conceived an idea that he was an American full of intellectual unseemliness, presuming on the impertinent endowments of his fellow-countrymen to have opinions in matters far above his quality and erudition. Anyhow he looked modern and neat and unscholarly—and he passed opinions. He did pass opinions. The Master had never got over the gross disloyalty of the War of Independence and blamed it for practically everything that had happened since.
"Beautiful old wall," the guest had said, pausing, his ham and eggs in hand, midway between hot plate and table and staring out of the window. "Your Camford walls are wonderful."
"We need high walls," said the Master.
There had been a certain sense of strain about the table-talk. The academic weather was unsettled and even into the large comfort of Holy Innocents the disturbance had penetrated. Projects were afoot in Camford that the Master manifestly disliked intensely. One of the fellows present was an archaeologist, one of those tiresome creatures who dig and dig beneath the foundations of our classical culture, and the other was an exploring ethnologist, an unbookish stray, who treated the disgusting habits of Papuans, the shameful speculations of Dr Freud and the extravagancies of Dr Jung as suitable material for theorization about early Greek life. Early Greek life was beautiful and sacred, the Gods and fauns were gentlemen who ought not to be spied and pried upon; old Triton blew his wreathed horn, and that was that; the less you went into details about it the better. It seemed to the Master that these younger Fellows had bit the hand that had reared them. Recently both of them had favoured two monstrous new proposals for setting up strange schools, one in modern industrial and commercial history—no doubt, the Master sneered, with a professor or so of permissible adulteration and prize-coupon giving—and the other in human ecology, in which mankind was to be studied as though they were rabbits or guinea-pigs or lemmings, and much good would that do anyone. Birth-rates and emigration and statistics. An invasion of laborious claptrap on an unprecedented scale, the Master reiterated: "Laborious claptrap. We had better import a few Americans to show us how," said the Master.
This guest before he apprehended the tension in the air had been actually asking questions, at once ignorant and exasperating, about these matters, and the Master had already strung a few epithets. It was possibly with the idea of creating a diversion that the guest had expressed his aesthetic appreciation of Camford. But the Master's reply had jerked things back again.
"We are a beleaguered fastness," he said. "True scholarship lives here, Sir, on the defensive. The Philistine rages without. We need these walls.
"Maybe they will hold," he said, making his voice reveal something of its deeper nuances. "Maybe."
The pause encouraged him to go on.
"It was the Germans, those disastrous people, who first discovered that slag heaps and by-products might also count as learning, but I doubt if we can blame any one race or nation in particular for setting dumps and dustbins above the treasure cabinets of scholarship. Crudity is in the spirit of the age. We make war for raw materials. We live by paper money, canned food and substitutes for learning. There is a positive antagonism to any crystalline thing. In South Africa they corner diamonds and hide them away. Everywhere pure gold is buried. They take it out of mines to put it into vaults. That University affair they are building in London, that glorified mechanics' institute, is all made, they tell me, of a sort of mineral nougat, lavatory style, no taste, no dignity—quite suitable, very suitable there—for shop-boys and night schools. It's the dictatorship of the half-educated we are under. We are being endowed, Sir, and told what to know and teach, by the unholy wealth of ironmongers and the overblown profits of syndicated shop-keepers. We certainly need our walls here, Sir. We need them badly, every wall we have."
And then it was the Voice spoke.
It said very clearly and distinctly: "Half-educated? Now how can you measure education and divide it into halves and quarters? What do you mean by education?..."
It is to be noted that the first impulse of everyone present was to turn towards the space between the table and the window. It was as if someone had come into the room and stood there and spoken. Everyone had either been watching the eloquent workings of the Master's face folds or looking shamefacedly at his eggs and bacon and sausages or what not, and now by a common attraction they all turned to look at—
Two of the college servants stood in the doorway beyond and to the left of that talking piece of space, but they were both as incapable of that clear enunciation as of piping like a nightingale or barking like a dog.
Then the eyes of the company came back to the Master and the guest.
"You said, Sir—?" said the Master, leaning forward on his elbow.
"I said nothing," said the guest.
He spoke clearly and precisely but unless he was fitted with a double system of vocal organs he was certainly not responsible for the curiously penetrating intonations they had just heard.
Because later when they came to compare notes there was a general agreement that there was something in the colour of the voice that was not quite human. What that difference was they found it difficult to say. "Steely" was one word used, and another was "luminous". But upon the subtle inhumanity of it they were all agreed.
They questioned each other mutely. Had they really heard it? Was there an element of hallucination in their apprehension? Had they located it properly? The youngest fellow got up briskly and went to the open window and scrutinized the space below the sill. Nothing but innocent lavender and antirrhinum. No lurking golden- voiced undergraduate there. The comparative ethnologist was moved by this to look under the table. The college butler came forward to assist him.
"Did you hear a voice, Martilow?" asked the comparative ethnologist.
Martilow backed out from under the table and knelt up interrogatively.
The comparative ethnologist repeated his question.
"Yessir. It seemed to me, if you ask me, Sir, to come from—"
He got up and went back to the space between window and table, stood and then with an air of the most delicate discrimination, put out his left foot and tapped the faded carpet. "Here," he said.
"Lift up the carpet," said the archaeologist, and the servants set about it with brisk curiosity.
But there was nothing under the carpet.
AT first no one who heard the voice in the dining room of Holy Innocents College seems to have talked very much about it. The Master said nothing further—nothing whatever. He looked suspicious and menacing, at large, and for the rest followed the normal routines of his life. He was not going to give himself away. Over him, as over all eminent dons, hung the Fear of the Bright and Sportive Undergraduate. Dons who pray, and some do pray, pray always to be preserved from Hoaxing and Impersonation. If hoaxers could speak invisibly in his most sacred presence maybe they could hear and watch. The other fellows felt very much as the Master did and the guest was quick and sensitive enough to realize that discretion best became him.
He had already assimilated enough of the Camford atmosphere to realize that a voice that could shout in Holy Innocents College "What is Education?" was as outrageous as one that would demand sexual instruction from a meditation of nuns. He tried to banish all memory of that incongruous moment from his mind and so for a while did the others.
But Martilow got in a plumber that very afternoon and went with him all over the building in a futile search for wires and speaking-tubes.
If nothing further had happened, the interruption would probably have sunken down into complete forgetfulness and left not the faintest mark upon history. It would have become one of those things that could not possibly have happened. But in the next few days a number of trivial occurrences laid the almost impalpable basis of a belief that something or somebody, unknown and unseen, was present in Camford, as a voice, as a slight but palpable pressure, mental rather than bodily, as a faint stir and draught during a lecture, as a deeper shadow in the shadows that waited and watched. Many of these incidents went unrecorded, a few had the passing recognition of an exclamation, some were at last spoken of. And then more.
Presently they were being talked about, not simply mentioned but talked about.
The second recorded instance broke cover in a conversation between little Trumber of Clayfoot College and his congenial gossip the vicar of St Hippolytus.
"Are you free this afternoon?" said Trumber.
"What is it?" asked the vicar. "You look bothered."
"I want to get some fresh air. I want to clear my head. I've slept badly. I've had an—an exhausting night. Something—something is worrying me. Let us walk out to Cramber Meadows and get tea at Chuck's Hill Farm as we used to do in the old times."
The vicar reflected upon the sacred duties of the day. "I can be with you by a quarter to two," he said.
Until they were well out of the town and over Puntingdon Bridge, their conversation was disconnected and trivial. "Those meadows are to be the new experimental station for animal psychology—if Foxfield gets his way."
"Kind of zoological gardens."
"You may well ask. A sort of Ruskin College for dogs and chimpanzees. À la Pavloff."
"Howling all night."
"I don't doubt it."
"As if Camford had not enough insomnia!"
"That's bothering you again?" asked the vicar.
"I had a bad night last night."
"You tried that soup bromide stuff I suggested?"
"No. It wasn't, as a matter of fact, my ordinary sleeplessness. It was something—. Bream, you are one of those people who dabble a little in psychotherapy?"
"I do my best to know something about it. I regard it as part of my calling. In fact—I am writing about it. At least I am accumulating notes."
They strode on in silence for a couple of minutes.
"Something queer happened last night," said Trumber and in spite of the encouragement in the vicar's "Yes?" got for awhile no further.
At length in a fragmentary way, with considerable obstetric assistance from the vicar of St Hippolytus, Trumber produced his story. He had, he explained, been hearing from Rexwill the ethnologist, about the voice in the dining-room of Holy Innocents and Rexwill and he had gone on to discuss what sort of reply one could make to such a question as "What is education?"
"Naturally we were silent," said Rexwill.
"It is almost like asking 'What am I?'" said Trumber.
"If one had answered it," said Rexwill opening a new line, "I wonder if that voice would have gone on talking."
"Pity someone didn't try."
"We were all too taken aback, and then, you know, it seemed to evaporate."
"Whatever it was."
They speculated in a rather futile fashion about the voice, what it was, whence it came. "It must be in space and time," said Rexwill, "it must be producing material waves in material air or we couldn't hear it."
"A sort of Invisible Man," said Trumber. "There are a thousand reasons why an Invisible Man is impossible," said the scientific Rexwill. "Visual purple of the eyes. Food. Dirt. So forth. It's something—subtler than that."
"I wish I had been there," said Trumber. "You don't think—perhaps the sound wasn't on the air at all—merely in your ears? Or rather in your brain?"
"Martilow heard it. The scout with him heard it. I have never suspected either of them of brains. And—it came definitely from a point in space."
"Where there was nothing," said Trumber.
"Where there was nothing."
After this conversation with Rexwill, which occurred after dinner in the Clayfoot smoking-room, Trumber explained to the vicar that he had felt restless and had gone for a walk round Carshary alone. To think it out. He said he found something very disturbing in this story—more disturbing than was reasonable and natural. Possibly the idea of a disturbing challenge was already germinating in his mind. His mind was an uneasy one, addicted to almost impalpable activities. It was a calm night but he no longer felt that that evening calm had any profundity. Behind it, ready now to become vocal at any time, lurked a threat of interrogation. He had taken his walk to think things out but he got nothing thought out. His mind was too intent upon what he would do if he found himself challenged—for example during his lectures.
Trumber's subject was English literature, a poorly but earnestly attended course. He dealt in taste and judgment. He was one of those who teach us how to appreciate poetry and prose and when to learn it by heart and recite it and say Oh and Ah! and when to shake one's head at it discouragingly like a 'bus conductor who is proffered a doubtful coin. He taught how to distinguish what was truly great from what was meritorious and what meretricious. He taught how T. S. Eliot was really it and why Rupert Brooke wasn't, and what was chic in poetry and what was quite de mode, and the proper tones and phrases for a snort of disapproval or a sick ecstasy of appreciation. He was building up a new school of literary criticism, more finely fastidious than any that had ever gone before, in which he taught that what is generally regarded as third-rate is really first-rate, that what is commonly accepted as first-rate is really very trite and vulgar, and that the chief aims of literary effort are superiority, exasperation and obscurity. His school he called the Sensitives. He was the quintessence of the intellectually genteel, though that word would have crucified him. He was all for conceits and secondary and tertiary values. He hated primary meanings as he hated primary colours. His criticism was aloof from life, but since literature, alas! has to be about something, he reflected upon life. He was all against what he called this "so-called progress". Progress that was not "so-called" did not exist for him. He lived for revivals and restorations. He was sharp set against machines, newspapers, films, suburbanism and any plain sort of successfulness, good or bad, in the world. That an adequate university and educational organization should have initiated, controlled and corrected these developments which he found so undesirable, had never and probably could never have entered his head. He snapped at them and barked sharply at them and taught kindred souls to bark at them, an intellectual Pekinese.
He was a small, slender, downcast man with exophthalmic eyes behind thick glasses, a bulging forehead, a look of extreme obstinacy about his shoulders; he gesticulated with long tentacular hands that looked bleached, and he spoke rapidly and wetly. It gave him a sense of almost divine power to put down the mighty from their seats and exalt little chaps as unimportant as himself. It gave his followers all the warm satisfaction of a cult to realize how quintessential was their little classroom and how wrong the outer world. He would knock Milton all round the room, so to speak, and lay bare the self-educated errand-boy vulgarity of Shakespeare, Hardy or Dickens. These were his great hours and his soul was exalted and his face flushed. And when he was not lecturing he would sit and write himself into authority in a little lemon-covered monthly magazine which was also very reassuring. Yet he was sufficiently aware of the case against himself to feel that a sudden Voice asking questions of an elementary sort might be extremely embarrassing. And with this oddly disturbing thought very busy in his mind he went up to bed, went to sleep and presently drifted up towards consciousness again, answering the challenge in a dream.
At least, he told his friend, it had seemed at first to be a dream. It was more or less of a dream.
He was lecturing in the smaller theatre in Clayfoot; or rather it felt like that, except that on one side the room had no wall but, after the convincing absurdity of dreams, opened between pillars on a confused landscape that looked like lawns of printed newspaper and gardens of budding and opening books. And his audience stretched away into this garden and sat on garden chairs, and it was exactly like his usual small select audience of poetic and critical embryos who aspired to become bright, artistic, indecent, reactionary writers, Communist, Fascist, Anglican or what not, except that it also included a number of faces of grateful dead departed writers he had resuscitated and rueful living writers he had decided were dead and literary hostesses and rich patronesses who might subsidize the lemon- covered magazine and suchlike persons of taste, and other faces, enigmatical faces, at which he wanted to look and yet couldn't look for fear he might lose his thread, and they were all being overwhelmingly and magnetically attentive to his fine discriminations, his subtle transpositions of values, his eccentric eulogies and his fresh, bright, outrageous detractions.
Usually he loved lecturing. It was the reward and compensation of his life. But now in his dream he was no longer happy. He lectured on with the usual stuff—but now in fear. He perspired through his discourse, because he knew, as one knows in dreams, that the Voice was near at hand.
And it began. He raised his voice, he raised his hand, but the Voice spoke through his lecturing as a trumpet speaks through chatter.
"What is this literature you are talking about?" it asked. "What is this gathering? What in the name of Time and the Stars do you think you are doing here?"
"I certainly had an answer ready," Trumber said, recounting his experience to Bream, the vicar of St Hippolytus. "It was exactly what I had expected. I had thought of an answer, several answers, already, but—you know the nightmare quality—they wouldn't come. 'This is a dream,' I said, and awoke with a dry rattle in my throat. That dream audience, those fantastic gardens—left not a wrack behind. I sat upright in my bed in the darkness of my bedroom. Sweating. Stiff with that exaggerated cold terror only dreamers know."
He stopped short.
"Just a nightmare," the vicar hazarded.
Trumber pressed his lips together and shook his head quickly.
"No?" said the vicar.
"No," said Trumber.
"The Voice went on," said Trumber in a whisper.
His warm flushed face, his magnifying spectacles came close to the vicar.
"The Voice went on... It was still there. In my room. It wasn't a part of my dream. On the contrary. It was the Voice that had made my dream, and it was still talking to me."
Bream scrutinized his friend.
"No," said Trumber. "It was no hallucination. It was a clear, firm, rather metallic voice out of the air in the half-light between me and the window."
"What was it saying?" asked Bream after a pause.
"It was demanding—well not exactly demanding—asking me with a sort of cool civility why I had got these young men and women of mine into that lecture theatre and what I thought I was doing to them. What was all this about poetry that was the right sort and poetry that was all wrong? What did I mean by poetry? No, no. What did I mean by it? In relation to biological reality? Yes, he said that,—in relation to biological reality? Biology! Had this literature a function? Or were I and my group making a little limited conspiracy about values? To hearten each other. And set a fashion. He said, he actually said, that criticism as I conceive it, is a self-defensive conspiracy in appreciation that has practically no importance in the universe at all. A freak of response. In fact a pretence.
"I felt I had to do something to justify myself. I stood up. I stuck out a pointing finger. As though I could see the Thing. I summoned all my strength. 'Who are you?'"
"And what did it answer?"
"'First ask yourself 'What am I?'. For so far as I am concerned, I am beyond your understanding."
"That wasn't much."
"No. That wasn't much. But then it went on—crude irrational stuff really, but at the time the Voice was so clear, the sentences so sharply cut, that it carried a kind of conviction. Bream, he did actually talk me down—alone there in the darkness. His voice is a stabbing voice, a knife. I tried to dismiss him by a wave of the hands—you know my gesture- like this." He flapped his tentacular hands like a dusting-brush. "But I couldn't lift my hand. Out here over the tea-cups in the sunshine I get back to Camford and the graces and distinctions and subtleties of life, my values are restored, my school becomes a reality again, but there—with him—it was different. Bream, it's astounding how sometimes a dim bedroom can seem larger than the visible universe, stars and comets and all.
"'Literature,' said he, 'should be a part of man's attempt to take hold of life. You make it a little fiddling with the aesthetic incidents of life. It should rise in masses to transcendent efforts. It should be the solvent glory of reality, the flux of life. The greatness of its occasions dwarf you and so you hate and belittle its greatness. What is literature without magnanimity? You teachers are set here at Camford to be the captains of the human mind. Fine captains! You—you particularly I mean—are like a captain who takes his chronometer to pieces to make a clockwork mouse.'
"And so on, ad libitum, for quite a long time. Just insults. Anyone can say things like that. Obvious they are, and from the critical standpoint of no value at all.
"'I protest,' I shouted.
"'I protest. I protest,' louder and faster.
"'Refinement,' I said. 'Delicacy. Cultivated appreciation. Whatever else Camford has done or not done it has kept out the Philistines. Even if you try to poke this Voice of yours in here, we will not listen to you. Camford is Camford. We have never listened here to this sort of thing. We never will.'
"And then, Bream, I found myself in the room alone. In a moment he had gone. Quite suddenly he had made an end and gone. And old Philbertson in the room above was bumping on the floor. So I guess, what with my shouts and that voice we had been making a pretty considerable row. And that's the story."
"That's all?" said Bream.
"Practically all. Except—"
"The room was aching with... a sort of positivist doubt... What do you make of it, Bream?"
"Something quite simple," said the vicar of St Hippolytus after a judicial pause. "The projection of a long-standing conflict in your subconscious between the aesthetic pretentions of your criticism and your suppressed sense of its lack of spiritual values. I have long wanted to discuss this with you. I am glad of this occasion. Forgive me if I am a trifle technical and if I seem to reflect upon you a little. But this is exactly what I am dealing with in my forthcoming book Doubt from a Physico-Psycho-logical Standpoint. In everyone, in everyone, even in God's holy saints, there is an undercurrent of adverse self-criticism in the subconscious. There is an interrogation—an opposition to whatever direction you have given your life. Which may emerge during seasons of trial. St Anthony for example—as Luther would have us believe—exaggerated his fear of sensual appetities to the extent of giving them physical form. St Augustine witnesses to a similar Protestant uprising in his being. In the good we call this opposition Doubt or Temptation."
The vicar of St Hippolytus was now fairly launched upon a long elaborated theme. He was just ready for this opportunity. He paid no heed to the fading interest in Trumber's face and pose. When Trumber showed signs of interpolating anything he raised his voice.
"You see," he continued, "unsureness is integral to human life. The mind would have no play without it. In sinners as in saints, it is equally in evidence and still more so is it the case with those who, like yourself, are well disposed but fall short of complete righteousness. Then it becomes, to use the good old terminology, the Voice of Conscience. Now, as I shall show in my book—for you know we are gradually assimilating all the best of modern materialism—whatever they put up against us we take in,—as I shall show in my book, all through the ages, in the troubled minds of intelligent men, these subconscious doubts and urgencies assume an hallucinatory physical quality, take the form of Visions, as in the case of St Anthony, or still more frequently Voices. Most frequently Voices. But the reality is within."
Trumber's love of lecturing was only equalled by his hatred of being lectured to. His face had assumed a sullen expression and now suddenly he interrupted.
"I heard that voice. It is a real voice. It is about the world."
"Forgive me, Trumber! I am here as your mental healer. You were dreaming just as much when you stood up in your room as when you were lying down. I assure you. And I ask you seriously to consider what that voice was saying to you. Is this literature of yours correlated? Have you not been disregarding spiritual values for aesthetic and what one might call social associations—?"
"I tell you I heard a real voice."
Bream waved his smiling face from side to side, ineffably satisfied by his interpretation.
"You and your school go back to the long-neglected literature of the seventeenth century. But not in one respect. The religiosity of Donne for example was intrinsic and profoundly sincere. It was the outcome of a real rebirth. It was not in the least imitative. But have you ever asked yourself whether your religiosity—"
"That Voice wasn't any sort of self-criticism," Trumber contradicted. "It was something from Outside bent on destroying my self-confidence. An attack..."
"But, my dear man, I know better."
"Wait till he talks to you."
"I suppose today," the vicar continued relentlessly, "we know infinitely more about space-time than we ever did before. Something—something in our dimensional orientation has changed. I have assembled the evidence for that in my book. An extraordinary convergence. The effect is to bring the subconscious nearer to the surface, so that everywhere, everywhere, the internal oppositions in men are becoming more acute. Everywhere, everyone is being subjected to abnormal mental stresses."
"Oh let's get back," said Trumber rudely, rising to his feet...
The vicar stared and stopped short. Then shrugged his shoulders and stood up also.
"Bill, Miss, please," said Trumber. "Thank you. Keep the change..."
They returned side by side towards the dreaming spires of Camford, but a silence had fallen between them. Trumber spoke only once and that was as they crossed Puntingdon Bridge.
"It was a real voice," he said. "As real as you." And then rather needlessly, "Much more real."
Bream replied by a gesture of his hands and shoulders.
Further argument was impossible.
Later on Bream published this book from which he had quoted so freely. But he had changed it very considerably. The title had become Extra-Terrestrial Disturbances of Human Mentality. He enlarges upon the idea of an upthrust of the subconscious through some sort of space-time dislocation. He makes it the main thesis of his work. Many of his phrases must be read to be believed. The "orientation of the spiritual plane in multi- dimensional space" or "the Time-Factor in Justification" is just plain sailing to him. But to no one else I am afraid.
No wonder the stuff infuriated Trumber. It was in a different field of affectation altogether from the one he worked so industriously to establish.
Extra-Terrestrial Disturbances of Human Mentality has not sold very extensively but it has added greatly to the vicar's prestige. There is talk of making him a bishop. In the Middle Ages they would have burnt him at the stake.
THESE are the first two intimations of the Visitant to Camford. The third also depends upon the word of a single individual. It is the word of Scott-Harrowby the Hooker Professor of Latent History, and curiously enough it is at once the most detailed and convincing of all the recorded dualogues with the Visitant. But it had one thing against its entire credibility. Scott-Harrowby told nobody about it until some weeks after the Visitation had become a common topic. He was a man already suspect of imagination, invention and irony. One or two undergraduate rags are still remembered against him. At the best his evidence is to be treated as second-class matter.
It has to be realized that side by side with the plainly authentic stories—or at least reasonably authentic stories, on which this narrative is based, a considerable apocrypha grew up before many weeks were out, and did much to confuse people's minds. But Scott-Harrowby manifestly had no desire to mystify or defraud. His speculative imaginative mind, he admits, had been exercised profoundly by the problem of how a bodiless voice could be heard in a roomful of people and at the worst he worked out that explanation either in the form of a waking dream or of a dream so vivid that it incorporated itself with his waking memories as real. His story is that he had gone for a walk beside the Cramb and where the woods came down to the river's edge about half a mile beyond Chuck's Hill Farm, he found a felled tree and sat down on it and lit a pipe. And then—and this is very peculiar among the accounts of the Visitant,—he believes he felt the tree pressing upward against him. "It was exactly," he says, "as though someone, somebody fairly substantial, was sitting down at the other end."
He sat quite still staring where this heavy nothingness was presumably seated.
Scott-Harrowby is under the impression that he began the conversation. He thinks he said "Well?"
The Presence spoke almost as soon as he did. "Are you what is called a don?" it asked. "You are one of those who direct and control the education in this place?"
"And may I ask with whom I have the pleasure of conversing?"
"I wish I could explain to you. I'm looking at Camford. I'm asking questions."
"But you have no eyes to look with."
"I have vision of a sort. The light comes through."
"There are no words for it in this language of yours."
"Your voice comes through to us all right."
"It is rather good, isn't it?"
"And you've got a weight."
"I felt you—when you sat down."
"I haven't sat down. I'm not really here."
"But I felt you."
"No. I was feeling your weight. Fifteen stone I should say."
"All that," said Professor Scott-Harrowby; "nearer sixteen. Wouldn't it be nice if you showed yourself a bit?"
"My appearance might distract you."
"What do you want here—in Camford?"
"I wish you would tell me a few things."
"I wish you would materialize—from wherever you are."
"Quite impossible. Physically impossible. One can't bring a lot of fresh atoms into your air suddenly without a violent explosion. Surely you know that?"
"But you get sound waves going."
"Do you want me to talk a lot about dimensions and things of that sort? Analogies and metaphors I should have to use; each looser than the other. Your words cannot say it. You wouldn't begin to understand. I suppose you would have a faint feeling of confused satisfaction—distended with wind so to speak and hoping to digest it."
"Let it go at that," said Scott-Harrowby. "Here you are."
"But you can tell me things, you know. Manifestly I understand your language—such as it is."
"Though hardly a word or an idiom of mine would carry meaning to you."
"But what are you doing on, by, near or over Camford?"
"I happened to pass your planet. I was just strolling about. I looked at it. I found it interesting."
"Just strolling about? Like a man coming on an ant-hill and saying, 'Why are these creatures so busy?'"
"Rather like that. Comparisons are always more or less misfits."
"A man looking through a microscope?"
"Something after that fashion too. Things under a microscope have a way of being transparent, but your little heads are opaque to everything. At the first glance I thought these animalcules—"
"You are talking to fifteen stone ten of Camford don. But I lent myself to it. Quite probably fifteen stone ten is nothing to you. Maybe we are just Lilliputians in your eyes."
"These animalcules," the Voice went on in complete disregard of the Professor's protest, "are amazingly clever—and stupid. The cleverer they are, the more stupid they seem to be."
"I can't lay my hands on anything for a tu quoque. It is your road, Sir. Go on."
"I have been watching your human affairs, for—you'd count it some years. I've listened to speeches, talk, outcries, noises—I've read your newspapers and most of your books."
"All languages. Your languages don't amount to very much yet. Know one, know all. They are all very much to pattern, like your bodies and brains. All a little distorted and mixed up."
"You've listened no doubt. But have you read? There are no stories of books having their pages turned over by an invisible reader. I've never heard of you taking down and turning over the pages of books."
"I don't. I can read books without opening them. That puzzles you?"
"I agree to be puzzled so long as you don't talk about dimensions or relativity or planes or anything like that."
"I won t."
"Good. Go on, Mr Gulliver disincarnate. I am a micro- Lilliputian. I don't mind answering your questions, but I find your talk better than mine. You can read a book but you can't read a brain. Mine is at your disposal—to the best of my ability. What exactly do you want to know? Your animalcule to command."
That is what the Hooker Professor of Latent History considered he said when five weeks later he decided to write it down. Those who know him best are most disposed to believe that he was fearless and animated to that extent.
"The thing I want most to know is whether something has gone wrong inside those opaque little heads of yours. Or perhaps not so much gone wrong as reached a limit. Always so far your interesting little species has met almost every challenge Nature has given it. Its adaptabilities have been enormous. But now. It seems to be trying to sit down just when it ought to be learning and adapting harder than ever. What is the matter? Are those bony little skulls of yours getting too tight? Full up? Pot bound? unable to move? That is what I want to know."
"About this adaptability in the past?" Scott Harrowby asked, playing for time.
"The little beasts came along astonishingly. You see I've been in the habit of looking at this planet ever and again."
"Ever and again?"
"Every—by your measurements—few million years. My time is different. For several hundred million years this Life here has been going on—fantastic and quite silly. Big and little things, rush and bolt and gobble, spread and feed, suck and soak and snare. No sense in it at all. Lumps like the dinosaurs going about their blind business as though it mattered. Pterodactyls flapping through the air from nowhere interesting to nothing in particular. Brutes like the plesiosaurs, the dinocerata, the mammoths, eating endlessly and leaving their droppings. The grass plains and the herds of clumsy pre-cattle and pre-horses chewing and chewing. And the early dogs and wolves. Then at last your sort, your ancestral submen, between the high grass and the trees. Chattering, emotional, quarrelsome but undeniably clever. There was something attractive in the way they chipped flints, made things out of branches of trees and mud. I came back presently to look again and there they were in little villages, talking to one another, singing songs, dressed up a bit, and with pots and pans and carved bones and all sorts of things no creatures had ever thought of before. Every time I came back they had something fresh for me to see. I became really interested in them. Life had never done anything so nimble before. It was an end to vain repetitions. They seemed afraid of nothing and they attempted everything. They built with mud. They built with stone. They rode horses, they ambushed and domesticated all sorts of creatures, they tamed rivers with embankments, they took logs of wood, burnt them hollow and used them as boats and were presently sailing out to sea. They invented trading, writing, money. They reduced copper and then iron. They made wheels and high roads. Hardly a century passed without some profound change sweeping across their spreading world and always they seemed equal to the occasion. They explored and mapped all this planet, little enough, God knows, but big for them. They made steam engines. In just a little bunch of years they discovered electricity and turned it to a thousand uses. They worked out a funny but quite useful theory of radiations and particles. They learnt to fly in thirty short years.
"Quite bright little beasts. Yes. But doing it all incoherently, disconnectedly—jostling against each other. More and more dangerously. The faster they go the more they jostle. And now they seem to be turning more and more away from progress to thwart and destroy one another as they run. I am concerned for them. That really, considering the size of them, tremendous human uprush seems losing its direction, losing its cohesion, just on the verge of a crowning victory. Have you played yourselves out? What is happening in those little heads of yours now that you have got the ball at your feet? I shall hate the very sight of this little planet if man flares out and disappears."
To that effect, if not, he says, in those exact words, Scott- Harrowby reports the Visitant.
No one seems to have wandered by while this talk in the Chuck's Hill meadows was going on. That is a pity because some of us would willingly pay quite a considerable sum to know what such a passer-by would have overheard. Would he have observed a large, elderly, grizzled don sitting all alone on a fallen tree, smoking a pipe and occasionally making disconnected remarks, or would he too have heard the voice and been witness to an actual duologue?
"What ought to hold your minds together?" the Voice went on. "What is it that isn't there?"
"I give it up," said Scott-Harrowby.
"In the past you men invented all sorts of things to create solidarities, so that you could work together and get things done, religions, philosophies, moralities, customs, social organizations of all sorts. The most ingenious and effective nets. Limited but effective. They invented priesthoods to hold these nets together, initiations, schools, temples, symbols, laws and law-courts. But now—with everything calling daily for mental and moral adjustment—I find they haven't invented anything new of that sort that matters for the past four centuries. It is almost unbelievable to me. I have been looking all over your planet and I cannot find the least evidence that any but a few odd people are even dissatisfied with the ways you have of learning things, recording knowledge and holding yourselves in agreement. Your schools and books and colleges have changed last and changed least. They are dragging along half a century behind. The links that hold your busy little heads together in any sort of community of purpose, of interpretation, of information, are feebler than ever they were. Mostly they are just the old links, worn out, frayed old religions, threadbare sentimentalities. The bricks in your social fabric are changing to sand. Is a progressive solidarity too much for you? Here is this new mankind, world-wide, able to talk to itself all over the planet, able to fly to the ends of the earth, possessed of what would have seemed a hundred years ago incredible power, and it produces no sort of brain. It has just the old tired-out ganglia of its disunited past. So far as I could see when I returned this time to look again, it had not the beginnings of a common brain. I looked and listened for the Scientific World, the Learned World, for a Literature of Power—for you use those phrases—and so far as I have been able to see there are just these universities of yours—this Camford of yours ranks high among them—that even pretend to be gathering and concentrating knowledge, carrying on thought, dominating education and radiating fresh mental impulse into these hundreds of millions of little brains which are mankind. I'm incredulous. I'm frightened—beyond space and time I am frightened—at the headlessness of this planet to which I have taken a fancy. Is it really still advancing, or has it overgrown its mind and become a pimple head, an acephalous monster?"
"Like a hen running about after its head is chopped off," said Scott-Harrowby, reflecting over his pipe. "Not a bad image that... But... I don't think it's done for yet."
"Like a decapitated hen spouting blood and still running about," said the Voice. "A very good image indeed. Why is it like that?"
"Wars, I admit, have certainly become more and more disastrous and uncontrollable," said Scott-Harrowby.
"Everything is becoming uncontrollable. Things are just happening to you."
"But still I don't think we are done for yet."
"If you are not done for yet, you must be doing something about it here. Here if anywhere. In this focus, this sample focus of collective mental life. Here if anywhere is where adjustment should begin. Where can it begin if it does not begin in this central ganglion? What are you doing?"
"Camford... And you—as representing Camford."
"You are a very uncomfortable person to meet on an afternoon walk... We are not doing very much."
"I can't see inside your heads. Are you aware?"
Scott-Harrowby gesticulated with his pipe, sitting forward, elbow on knee. Was he aware? Why pretend not to understand? A violent impulse to frankness seized him. He did his best to state the truth. "We certainly do our best not to be aware."
"And if anyone else begins talking—"
"We do our best to shut him up."
"You have given birth to a new world and behold! the new-born creature insists upon being a mental defective."
"Practically we have only begun to apprehend the new state of affairs in the last thirty years. Things have moved fast. And formerly our ruling idea was conservation. Give us time to get going."
"But what are you doing about it? What are you beginning to do? You have had time—some time anyhow. Thirty years is time enough to turn round in. What are you doing about it? I ask you."
The Voice was impatient.
"You in particular as a sample."
"I didn't," said Scott-Harrowby in his later description of this conversation, "know what to say to that. The silence lengthened. 'Well?' said the Voice.
"Still I didn't know what to say... I wanted time...
"And suddenly I realized that I was completely alone. My pipe was out and I was completely alone. And completely alone I got up and made my way back to Camford."
STILL more apocryphal than the Scott-Harrowby conversation is the account the Visitant gave of himself and his purpose and ideas to Mr Henry Preeder, a temporary assistant reader for the University Press. Mr Preeder seems to have been accosted by the unknown in one of the rooms attached to the new warehouse of that organization, and to have acted as a sort of guide to him in an inspection of the book store, the printing plant and the distributing arrangements of the Press.
No witnesses are forthcoming of this peripatetic conversation, though quite a lot of people must have been passed en route and what is equally remarkable Mr Preeder does not seem to have told anyone about it for nearly seven weeks until after the publication of Scott Harrowby's story.
He accounts for the delay by saying that for a time he thought the whole thing was a dream. Quite possibly it was a dream. During that interval he was turning the discussion if ever it occurred over and over in his mind and it is hard to believe that this hay-making in his memory did not involve considerable additions, transpositions, amplifications and the substitutions of many of Mr Preeder's own ideas for the less comprehensible remarks of the Visitant. As it is, slightly more than two-thirds of Mr Preeder's printed report tells us of what Mr Preeder said to his interlocutor.
The Preeder contribution is indeed more in accordance with Dr Bream's theories of a release of subconscious dreams and wishes, than any other of the quasi-authentic accounts of the strange visitation.
There is something mulish about Mr Preeder and there is no reason to suppose he changed his nature in the presence of the unknown. He is a bachelor of small private means and his connexion with the academic world is quite incidental. He is a small rather crooked resentful little man with a peevish face and a querulous voice; he says what he has to say over and over again. "That may be as you say," he says, "but—" and da capo.
He has long been obsessed by the idea—which is certainly spreading abroad—that the next great task before mankind is to get everything it knows fully and completely tidied up and pigeon-holed. That is what is called Modern Encyclopaedism. He is an expert in the new and rising technique of documentation and he believes more than he believes anything else in the world that every book, pamphlet, paper, statement, letter, photograph, chart in existence, every fact and all discussion could be filmed upon an ultra-microscopic scale, stored away, indexed in accordance with the ingenious system of the International Institute of Bibliography and any part or item in it reproduced upon a suitable screen whenever required. This collection would constitute a sort of World Memory. It could be made in triplicate or quadruplicate and each complete copy of it housed in a secure shelter in some remote part of the world. "An overwhelming task!" says Mr Preeder. "Not in the least"—and produces his chapter and verse cut and dried, so many billion documents with an average surface reduced to one in ten million, so many billion millimetres of film and so forth.
"Store rooms, student rooms, projection theatres, everything would go into a building—Oh! a quite possible and manageable building. If only you get the idea."
"An index of fact perhaps. Scientific fact. But a synthesis of religion and philosophy?"
"But men," you protest, "will always think differently—about the ends of life."
"Feel differently," says Mr Preeder. "That is a matter of upbringing. That depends upon what has happened to your egotism since your first cluck. But sound thinking and sufficient knowledge can dominate feeling. Most of this stuff about incurable differences of opinion is nonsense, brains are as alike as eggs. You can beat them up or boil them hard or scramble them or poach them or let them go rotten. But cook them the same way and they will come out very much alike."
He has quite elaborate plans for digesting these vast central accumulations he contemplates into workable general encyclopaedias, into students' handbooks, taking out and peptonizing this or that special section into histories and textbooks. He does indeed contemplate a universally educated world, and his parody of a physical brain on a world scale in which micro-photographic records parallel cerebral cells, is not to be dismissed too cavalierly because of the nagging insistence with which he propounds it. He wants a universally educated world, educated on the same lines, with every artificial difference eliminated. He is a cantankerous disagreeable little nobody and yet at times one feels he has got hold of something most exasperatingly vast and right.
It is equally difficult to resist the persuasion that in some way, to some extent the great intruder was on Mr Preeder's side.
"You have to pull your minds together," said the Voice—according to Mr Preeder. "And soon. Or you'll just kill yourselves off the planet with your diverse suggestions, your uncontrolled hates and your half-witted mechanical cleverness... And there are such splendid things now for you to do."
That is not Mr Preeder's natural phraseology. That sounds like the authentic Voice.
IT seems probable that in the case of both Dr Scott-Harrowby and Mr Preeder an actual encounter with the unknown did take place. The Visitant in their stories, so far as manner and quality go, sounds "like himself". His penetrating audibility and the sense of his presence are true to type. But what he says is, to say the least of it, also strongly coloured by the known qualities and disposition of the interlocutor. This is precisely what would happen to one's memory of a strange communication that was not immediately put on record. And even at the time he spoke, his hearers, without any conscious disposition to misunderstand him, seem to have been translating his hard alien questions and statements into the idiom of their own habitual preconceptions.
There is a highly probable story told by Raymond Dedlock, who is a man of conspicuous integrity, of a discussion in his study in the small hours between himself and the Visitor, about the difference between the Humanities and Science.
"Why do you cling to such useless and decaying distinctions?" the Visitor reiterated. "Why must you get things askew even before you begin to teach? Knowledge is one and Wisdom is one. Why let this poisonous pretence that the Humanities as you call them, these stale scraps of past thought, are Wisdom and that Science is not, why let that soak into the minds of generation after generation of undergraduates? Is it through a pervading laziness, or is it the partizanship of professionalism, or is it just malignity?"
"I said all sorts of things to him," said Raymond Dedlock with a sigh, "but I couldn't make him understand. I cannot imagine a Camford mind at all without the Humanities. We build on them.
"You may say what you like about Literae humaniores, I told him, but see the men we have produced!
"'That is what I am thinking of,' he said.
"'What are you producing now?' he said. 'The dull ones get nothing from that stuff, the cunning ones compromise; the bright impatient ones rebel and go off after Marx or Mussolini or any odd heretic. But your stuff—nowadays...'"
"Did he say your stuff'?" asked someone.
"I'm not quite sure," Raymond Dedlock admitted. "It may have been just a dream."
Whatever we may think of the authenticity of these particular conversations, however widely we may vary in our answers to the question of what this Visitant or Visitation was, the fact remains that throughout the months of April and May 1937 up to the last astonishing outbreak, there was a widespread feeling that some sort of Presence was subjecting human life in general and its treatment by Camford in particular, to a sympathetic but quite unsparing scrutiny.
It is however a principle hitherto applied chiefly to the evidences for spiritualistic phenomena that any number of imperfectly established cases, any assembly of uncontrolled statements, whatever quality they may have in common, do not constitute a scientific proof, and by this standard we are bound to suspend our judgment about all this business.
Directly we lower our standard of evidence below that scientific level we are confronted with a vast tangle of quasi- corroborative statements. Quite a number of undergraduates think they heard a voice pursuing them with the question: "What do you think you are learning here? You are preparing for the world. What sort of world are you preparing for?"
Nothing very fresh in that. Some of the brighter minds in every annual wave of freshmen have asked themselves that question since the beginning of things. But freshmen are young and timid. Few venture to attempt a real answer, they just worry and argue about it for a week or so and then drop it altogether, or slip into Fascism, Communism, Buchmanism, Catholicism or whatever other ready-made formula of dissent, whatever form of escape from the dreary and manifestly sterile academic assumptions, is in fashion. From which they presently slip back into ordinariness. The problem is too vast for them to tackle unaided, the university offers them no help, hushes them up, provides the opiate of irrelevant work and the reassurance of a degree.
Whatever it was the unknown said or did not say to aggravate such natural, if transitory, heart-searchings in the undergraduate mind, there is only one instance where we have evidence of any effectual penetration. An intervention at a small Communist gathering in Pecklington, although it seems to have been partially drowned at the time by the bawling of the Red Flag and afterwards by shouts of "Yah boojaw"—shouted in unison after the fashion of an American college yell—does seem to have left a perceptible residuum of mental uneasiness. All witnesses agree about the penetrating quality of the Voice. It was not a loud or authoritative Voice, but it penetrated. It could cut its way through protesting cries, organized uproar, prohibitions and suppression, and this time it seems to have done this youthful gathering the honour of talking for some time.
Conspicuous in the tumult of class-conscious proletarians on this occasion was young Lord Fauntleroy, Harold Biggs, the poet son of Biggs the colliery proprietor, Turnbull Jix the editor of The Camford Red and the Honourable Reginald Blupper who had been four times to Russia. These were all disputatious spirits whose mental consciences were still sufficiently youthful and alert to rankle at an imperfectly parried thrust. They could not leave issues simply shouted down. They went back to their rooms and talked about them. Some were shaken and something had to be done about it. An article appeared in The Camford Red denouncing the Voice in unsparing terms, and through this article we catch unmistakable echoes of what was actually said. Manifestly we are dealing with that same enquirer who talked to Professor Scott-Harrowby and Mr Preeder and who troubled the mind of Dr Raymond Dedlock.
The article runs as follows:
"Some pale pink Utopian ventriloquist seems to have been going about Camford in the favourite role of the common or garden capitalistic Stooge, doing his feeble best to minimize the supreme significance of the class war in history, questioning the omniscience of Marx and the moral ascendency of Stalin, and attacking party discipline by impossible demands for detailed explanations, from which, as every seasoned party member knows, disputes and dissensions are most conveniently evoked.
"Most of it we have heard before—the chief novelty is the ventriloquism, which seems to be of an unusually high quality. There is the usual hypocritical pretence of sympathy with our criticisms of the capitalist system. Sham leftward phrases he uses glibly, leading ingeniously away from the vigorous prosecution of the class war to that woolly utopia- spinning, dear alike to liberals, technocrats and the I.L.P. One or two of our critic's favourite gags which are, comparatively speaking, novel, are: 'Insurrection is not revolution' and 'No revolution can create until it ceases to be revolutionary', followed up by 'What are you trying to make' This is the stale, old indictment that when Communism found itself in control of Russia it had no plans ready and has been improvising ever since, and that Marxism was no more than a diagnosis and prophecy of the decline of Private Capitalism.
"The unknown seems to think he has scored a new point by demanding the relevance of the ideology of the class struggle to the training of an airman or the discoveries of an explorer or ecologist or therapeutist. These latter, he declares, are things that change the world for good, they are the 'true revolution', but the class-war, if you please, is only 'bickering in the working team'. His words these—his preposterous words! Our ventriloquist has evidently got many of his ideas from the swiftly exploded school of the Technocrats. His case, so far as we can consider it a case, seems to be that there is an actual and more or less inevitable revolution going on in human conditions, due to physical and biological innovations, accelerated communications, birth control, artificial fertilization, release of staple production from geographical conditioning, et cetera, et cetera, and that the whole magnificent fabric of Marxist ideology is in fact—again we quote his phrases— 'a faint preliminary mental response' to these conditioning changes—'a transitory experiment in mental adaptation'—which already demands revision and research. Revision and research which would end inevitably in party disorganization.
"There is just enough demoralizing plausibility, however, in these pseudo-psychological insinuations to challenge a reply. Happily in Camford we need not go far to find it. Here is a fresh influence trying to scrabble together again all the scattered confusions, relics, middle-class illusions, veiled imperialism, pacifist make-believe, constitutionalism, utopianism, defeatism, et cetera, et cetera, which still shackle the advance of the working class in Britain. Only by the continual challenging and smashing up of this ideology can the working class free its path forward, and Communism be established in its future position as the theory and practice of the British working class.
"If this irrepressible heckler in the streets of Camford would stop heckling, listen, attend, consulting for example Hinkle Brewster's modest but useful little pamphlet, The Practical Finality of the Marxist Formula, he might discover that all his fancied novelties of criticism were fully foreseen by the Master and dealt with exhaustively. Given sufficient integrity indeed (though we find it difficult to credit anyone outside the Communist Party with even a minimum of integrity) he might even be induced (consummation devoutly to be wished) to shut up altogether.
"The more he will study Communist literature the more he will come to realize the fundamental conclusiveness of Marx. In every field of art, science and human interest whatever, Marx is, in his essence, all-sufficient. The more He is revealed by the exegesis of such exponents as Lenin, Stalin, Palme Dutt, Harold Laski, John Strachey, Hinkle Brewster et cetera, et cetera, the more one realizes His practical Omniscience, and the belatedness of such detraction as our ventriloquist attempts. No wonder the latter prefers to remain anonymous and invisible. Vox et praeterea nihil."
The article was evidently intended to be unsigned, but by one of the slips of the mind that happen to all of us at times, Hinkle Brewster had set his name to it.
In spite of the manifest bias and irritation of the reporter, the gist of what the Visitant said shows through clearly enough, and is manifestly true to form. He did interrupt that meeting of temporary proletarians, he did get his shots home on them and he left his arrows to fester in their convictions in spite of their self-protective uproar. His is the insatiable urgency of science. He reveals himself as the enemy of all final doctrines and convictions. Marxist jargon, Freudian jargon, precious literary criticism, the dear old Humanities, were plainly all the same to him; all so much mental thumb-twiddling. His appeal to the mind of the world in general and to Camford in particular, was to get up and go on. And keep going on. He was progress articulate. He was the spirit of the provisional. His message was an intellectual drive without a glimmer of surcease.
But the report that he spoke suddenly at a lecture Professor Foxfield was giving upon the history of the Ascidians, how they are hatched as free-swimming larvae, swim about gaily for a time and then fix themselves by their heads, surround themselves by a cellulose covering and become practically vegetables, is quite recent and probably a pure invention. "Exactly what your minds do here in Camford," the Voice is alleged to have interpolated. That is too apt to the general tenor of the stories about him. It is like those Sayings of Jesus in which some excited and undiscriminating disciples underline, overstate and accumulate things they could not bear to think the Master had not said.
Most of these invented sayings exaggerate his characteristics. They are in every way ruder. Generally they contradict flatly. They lose their interrogative tone. They sink towards the level of "Don't talk rot" or "I don't think".
In a later issue The Camford Red returned to the question of the Voice. Hinkle Brewster after his little slip about the signature seems to have retired into the background and the article was plainly by another hand.
It denounced "the supreme impertinence of imploring us to think harder and better. Left-wing Camford thinks as hard as it knows how or anyone knows how. Nobody can think harder or better or with a greater certainty of arriving at the desired conclusion than a properly trained proletarian. To see a novel proposition pass through a Marxist gathering is like watching a breeze across a field of ripe corn. It passes; and the serried minds return to their upstanding integrity. The Communist ideology has a close- knit assurance that puts the Roman Catholic theologian to shame. It is, thank Heaven, the absolute antithesis to the oafish gaping 'open mind' of nineteenth-century liberalism. And that is why it marches on relentless to the 'Seizure of Power'—that mighty phrase, that glorious idea."
If the Visitant had his way with Camford and the rest of us life would be an unceasing exploration from the cradle to the grave. Never would he have us clench our minds—dictatorially. Never at any moment in our lives would he concede us the satisfaction of feeling at last, completely right. Never would he let us sit down and say 'There! Now I know exactly where I am.'
THE crowning outrage of the Visitant was committed upon a far larger and more important gathering than the Communist meeting in the little Pecklington Hall. It was Congregation Day; all that was best, brightest and most picturesque in Camford life was assembled in the Great Hall of University. Dons in robes, dons' wives in smart new dresses, beadles, officials in quasi-mediaeval costumes, distinguished visitors from foreign universities in queer hats and strange confections of silk and velvet, a few scattered common gentlemen in morning coats and silk hats to recall us to the twentieth century, made a brilliant assembly, over which an unusually bright Mayday sun splashed a thousand patches of colour from the glorious stained glass of the south windows.
The Princess Susan Magenta, smirking like anything, was receiving, very graciously, an honorary degree in philosophy, when the Voice began.
It began and yet, quite incredibly, the ceremony went on.
"I have come out of the deeps beyond space and time to look again at this little planet I have visited since its beginning. I have seen life clambering out of drifting slime towards consciousness and will. I have watched the ascent of your species to the dawn of understanding and the beginnings of power. I care for you, and now I am impatient with you. For I see plainly that I overrated your intelligence, that you have blundered into knowledge and opportunity, and that you do not know how to grasp your knowledge nor how to realize your opportunities. Individually and incidentally you can be bright creatures but collectively you are a feeble folk. Time marches on and you trifle with your lives. You realize neither the dangers nor the possibilities of human life. You fail to organize, you fail to educate. Everywhere the world falls into disorder for the want of the mental leadership such people as you here, pretend to supply—which cannot be supplied so long as you dominate the schools and block the way. How trivial is this display! How monstrously and tragically trivial! Your academic triviality is the half-spiteful triviality of inadequate minds conscious of their essential failure. This Congregation Day is your annual culmination. It is a defiant coronation of mediocrity. You dress up this poor commonplace girl in these pretentious robes almost as if she were a symbol, your Goddess of Unreason, you recite your scraps of Latin over her. You have this millionaire and these other odd conspicuous folk to follow her in the acceptance of what you call honours. It is not in your nature to honour anyone that you cannot secretly despise.
"Time marches on. The ingenuity of your race, working without coordination or foresight, produces one disconnected invention after another, so that mechanical Power grows in your world like a cancer. In quite a little while now, in a few decades at most, it will be possible for any small body of desperate men to poison your whole atmosphere, sweep your world bare with infections or blow your planet to pieces. You here will do nothing to anticipate and prevent that. When the catastrophe comes maybe it will still find Camford dressed up in its gowns and its Gothic, performing its age-old function of keeping education within limits and obstructing the growth of any controlling intelligence in the world.
"Why am I saying these things here to you in Camford? Because I have come to like this breed of mankind. Because you represent the limits of its education. Because you stand both at its head and in its way. You who are assembled here today constitute a typical centre of education. And deliberately you ignore the fact that human life is mental. The essential thing in human life is education, the growth of a common mind and will. If mankind fails it will be through the failure of its teachers, the weakness of its schools, the obstinacy, the wilful obstruction of its universities. Cannot you realize so plain a thing as that? It is appalling that you here are so central and so important to the human future, but you are. Outsiders cannot do anything if you resist. You are too well entrenched. You are feeble in innovation but invincible in resistance. Your littleness here has blocked the education of the English and blighted the educational development of the rest of the world through a century of opportunity, and still your predominance is unchallenged. You—and your sister imitations throughout the world—have monopolized the best of the youth of each generation, because there was nowhere else for it to go for instruction. Monopolized you have, and mistaught and marred. Maybe presently there will be mundane voices to echo mine, and maybe then you may change your note, but will you change your spirit? Can you change the spirit of this place? This old, this weakly lovely place? This dreadful place?
"Surely even you for all your elaborately cultivated affectations and self-protections, must know—reluctantly and secretly indeed—but still you know it—that there can be no escape for your world, for all mankind, from the ages of tragic confusion ahead of you, except through so heroic an ordering of knowledge, so valiant a beating out of opinions, such a refreshment of teaching and such an organization of brains as will constitute a real and living world university, head, eyes and purpose for Man. That is the primary need of your species now. It is your world's primary want. It must come now—if it ever is to come. Disintegration and decay wait for no one. They wait for nothing. Plainly before you now—I cannot believe you blind to it for all your refusal to see—is the ultimate frustration of the promise of mankind, defeat and an end. Have you no intimations of the enormity of your default here? Will you make no stir to save knowledge and thought before undisciplined ignorance destroys itself with its own machines? I who go to and fro outside space and time have seen and see. There is no salvation for races that will not save themselves. Half the stars in the sky are the burning rubbish of worlds that might have been."
And with these words, "the burning rubbish of worlds that might have been", the Voice made an end to what it had to say to mankind.
It is an impressive instance of the essential common sense of our human breed, that while this fantastic tirade was in progress, a majority of the chief actors in the ceremony was able to ignore it and carry on as though no sounds but those right and proper for the occasion were audible. The public orator recited the praises of the Princess Susan Magenta. The Lord Chancellor put the hood over her head gracefully but firmly. The assembly applauded—maybe rather more loudly and defiantly than they would otherwise have done. The Ushers guided her feet in the way they had to go to her seat on the dais, and then led forward the next recipient, an enormously rich Brazilian timber merchant. The public orator took up his burthen again. The Voice with its note of protest did not so much drown as frame this picturesque procedure, floated over it and contained it like the fretted roof of the hall above the great organ.
The Voice ceased and it was as if a cloud that had obscured the sun had passed. The Princess continued to smile with an august graciousness. To this day it is unknown whether she had any inkling whatever of that overriding Voice, because nobody has ever presumed to question her about it. The Brazilian timber merchant was hooded in his turn and gave way to a rising labour politician. The little chain of those whom Camford delighted to honour lost one link after another, dwindled and passed. The ceremony drew to its end.
The Voice had ceased; it had ceased completely, not only for that occasion but altogether.
It was only as the gathering dispersed that people could be heard asking one another: "Did you by any chance hear anything?"
"I did seem to hear..."
One changed the subject. "The princess I thought was looking charming..."
SIX, eight, ten, twelve months passed and there were no more stories about the Voice. With more and more confidence people began to question its reality.
Here are a few scraps from the Fellows' conversation in Holy Innocents Hall when the anniversary of the Visitation was coming round: —
"Ghosts come out of the past, why shouldn't they come out of the future?"
"Is that the sort of fellow we shall get in the future? Heaven help us!"
"Ghost you say! He was a lot more like a government inspector."
"I believe he was a sort of travelling ethnologist—from Elsewhere."
"All the same I wish there was some clear explanation of all that business. You know I heard it. I heard it the first time. That bit of carpet over there still makes me feel uncomfortable as I cross it. I hardly know why."
"It made all Camford feel uncomfortable for a bit. But we're settling down again all right now, I hope. We're settling down..."
And as this story goes to press a very interesting brochure comes to hand from the Royal Psychological Society. It is by Dr Stephen Peter McIntosh and it is called The Voice that Breathed o'er Camford, A Study in Contemporary Legend Building. It is a sceptical and destructive examination of the alleged Visitation. He never speaks of it as the Visitation simply, always as the "alleged Visitation." The method has been to set aside all hearsay testimony and to make a direct appeal to—ear witnesses. Under the withering enquiries of Dr McIntosh very few of those who had hitherto been counted upon as first-hand evidence, stood the test. Professor Scott-Harrowby stood by his account stoutly and rather irascibly and Mr Preeder increased in certitude and detail with each repetition. But Mr Trumber became more and more of the Vicar of St Hippolytus' opinion, and Dr Raymond Dedlock thought that quite possibly he had been asleep and had a nightmare.
"Well, isn't being asked what the Humanities are, and why—a bit of a nightmare?" he said. "When one has lived not unhappily in them and by them all one's life."
Martilow, the butler of Holy Innocents, insisted that he could not talk of "inside happenings to outside persons". This became his impregnable formula.
The young men of the Pecklington meeting had long ago decided they had been ragged by a practical joker at the back of the hall, and more and more persuaded that the Voice had spoken with that peculiar blurring of the labials which is so distinctive of ventriloquism. And if the things he said were ventriloquial then plainly there was nothing more to be said about them.
Even the extraordinary interruption in the Great Hall of University presented few difficulties to Dr McIntosh.
The reticence of the trained reporters present, he insists, is very significant. In spite of the alleged existence of a complete shorthand report, The Camford Mail ignored the incident absolutely, and the words of the speech only became available when the young stenographer who claims to have taken it was dismissed from the staff of that paper. Dr McIntosh rejects his report as a forgery. "Something of the sort might have been shouted from the gallery," he says. "That is the miserable residuum of conviction which remains after our careful scrutiny of all the available evidence. At best, it is a very improbable might-have-been."
Bream and Trumber made friends again and a time came when the tension between them had relaxed sufficiently for them to discuss the Voice. Trumber's conviction of the reality of the Visitation had faded and dissolved. "It was just a particularly vivid dream," said Bream, driving home his point of view.
"A dream that went on—after I was bodily awake," said Trumber, as though he was repeating a lesson. "Yes."
And then his mind twisted back and he added: "All the same, if he turns up here again, I shall go down. Lectures or no lectures. I won't have my lectures interrupted. I won't have my atmosphere destroyed. I won't have my values swept aside as an artificiality, an aesthetic sort of play."
"But as a matter of fact did he ever interrupt—?"
"He was there," said Trumber. "I felt him there after the—after the dream I had. Every day. For quite a long time. I did my best to ignore him...
"How can we go on," cried Trumber, "keeping where we are, unless we ignore him?"
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Non sibi sed omnibus
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