HiLobrow is pleased to present the nineteenth installment of our serialization of Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. New installments will appear each Friday for 20 weeks.
When Hilda, a beautiful young member of England’s cynical postwar generation, meets Michael, a hapless mutant capable of perceiving the molecular composition of objects and the ever-shifting patterns of electromagnetic fields, she becomes his apostle. However, her efforts to convince others of the prodigy’s unique importance end disastrously; and Michael himself is slowly destroyed — mentally and physically — by his uncanny gift. In the end, Hilda must decide whether she is willing and able to make a supreme sacrifice for the sake of humankind’s future.
This early and brilliant effort to export the topic of extra-sensory perception out of folklore and occult romances and import it into science fiction was first published in 1927 — by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press. In December 2013, HiLoBooks will publish a beautiful paperback edition of this long-unattainable book — with an Introduction by Mark Kingwell.
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So I went. I could not, after all, endure to think of her alone and in difficulties, whatever the pain of the meeting to me. But I went with deliberate effort, not as the moth back to the candle. I knew too well — no man as introspective as I am can deceive himself in such matters — that what I had loved was in the past. It could not exist now. But I was going to be horribly reminded of it.
Yet it had been, after all, so short a time since we had parted in the garden at Marling. When I thought back to it, the mood and the atmosphere of that time came back so vividly that I could almost imagine that I was still living in those days of hope and uneasiness. For a moment the gulf made by the complete overturn of sentiments, hopes and life-plans was bridged, and present realities, when they came back, would come back with a jar. It is curious how the phase of one’s life in which one has been most interested, has lived most intensely, may still dominate one’s imagination sometimes for years afterwards. It remains in some way the norm, the criterion, of subsequent experience. No doubt, psychologists will, some day measure the duration of such influences. One changes one’s body entirely in the space of seven years, it is said; perhaps, one’s brain and one’s mind change with it, so that, until time has made distinct progress with the work of transforming one into another person, the effect of strong experience cannot begin to disappear.
And, after all, my meeting with Hilda was oddly hushed. I think that in every meeting emotionally anticipated, there must be something of anticlimax. The personality which has come to loom so large in imagination appears in the form of a small, concrete, human frame, moving and talking, in the human manner, like an animated puppet. The queer flatness of human intercourse, like the notes of a harpsichord, impresses one at such moments of reunion. Then, too, Hilda, as might have been expected, had lost vitality. She spoke quietly and a little draggingly, as though she were very tired. Even her shining hair had lost something of its lustre. But she spoke straightly, and held herself erect as ever. There was no such terrible change as I had half expected.
Nothing could have been less like our last tempestuous conversation. It was like the calm morning after the storm, when, with a queer sense of leisure and emptiness, one looks about to see what the damage has been. The furniture of Hilda’s Bloomsbury flat distributed about the light little cottage living-room seemed like jetsam rescued from the sea, and the little servant like a shipwrecked mariner. The unreality of an excessive commonplaceness gripped us.
After the first conventional greetings — and we were punctiliously conventional —Hilda surprised me by putting into words my own thought of herself:
“You are looking very tired, Ralph!”
I said that there was nothing wrong with me, and asked her to tell me at once how I could be of assistance to her.
She told me gravely without any trace of self-consciousness. It was a pitiful little difficulty, which wrung my heart by its sheer pettiness — simply a phase of the money trouble which I had foreseen. The illness which had preceded Michael’s death had used up all their reserves. An instalment of his tiny income was now due which, if she could get it, would be enough to help her over the crisis; but he had died intestate, and there was some delay and difficulty. The doctor would not let her go in and out of Town to see to the necessary formalities.
“The doctor!” I glanced at her in alarm. And then I understood. It was not yet certain that her sacrifice had been for nothing — nor was Michael Bristowe yet completely finished with. I hurried on before she could speak, asking questions about the business problem. I suggested that I could easily advance the money, and should be glad to do so, but she did not seem to wish that.
“It only needs someone to interview the solicitor,” she assured me. “I would go myself — but I daren’t take any risks. Almost everything is paid.… Mrs. Hastings has got a temporary substitute; but, of course, she can’t go on paying me as well in the meantime. It has made things rather difficult.… But if I can get this, I can carry on all right.” A change in her expression at the mere idea of the relief told me that the pressure was greater than she had let me know — perhaps a landlord dunning for rent, perhaps provision for immediate necessities lacking.
And it was twenty pounds! I wanted to weep for the sheer pity and irony of it. I would gladly have paid ten times as much to be spared the wrench to my feelings. But, obviously, the most helpful thing I could do was to promise that I would see the solicitor and do my best.
I added tentatively, “Your aunt? Is there any chance of her coming over soon?”
Hilda shook her head and answered my intention: “No, I can’t bring her over. She can’t stand English winters now.… But there is an old friend of mine who helps to run a nursing-home. I am going to her later on.”
I questioned her a little further as tactfully as I could. It was distressing to me to do so, the more that I felt a certain painful ludicrousness in my position; but I suspected that there was no one else who would even ask a question.
I found, as I might have expected, that her arrangements were admirable. Michael’s child was to have every chance. I divined, as we talked, though she was reticent, that Michael’s child was now the centre of all her hopes and ambitions. It must, in fact, be her sole remaining hope. That was why, even after all that she must have gone through, she showed no sign of demoralisation. She was keeping going and keeping her poise for this reason. But I felt that there was more effort in it than there had ever been before. It had become conscious. It had to be maintained against strain.
I wondered more than ever about Michael Bristowe, and how he had conducted himself during those last months of his life. But about that I asked no questions. Her obvious fatigue was my best evidence. She told me very little about it, then or at any time, and what I learnt I gathered from allusions. For her, it must have been a life of sickening strain with no compensating touch of dignity. At times in his career, Michael Bristowe had been impressive, though always difficult and dangerous to deal with. But there was no ennobling element of dangerousness in the fretful neurasthenic that she had married. I had been sure in the old days that she had sometimes been afraid that Michael, in one of his desperate moods, might commit suicide, though the word was never mentioned between us. But the Michael Bristowe of these last days had no longer the spirit to make even a suicide. He just became more and more of a crank. There were more and more things that he could not endure. He had to be kept in an isolation that became constantly more complete, while Hilda tried to fulfil the function of vacuum chamber between him and the world. And so on, with life becoming more and more impossible, until, mercifully, he got the chill that finished him. Certainly, he went in no blaze of glory, this Messiah, not even the dark glory of a crucifixion. One can only express it in the indignity of modern slang. He fizzled out. I suppose that this is the most that we can expect of our Messiahs in this Age of Lead.
I left Hilda as soon as I reasonably could. My very spirit was sick within me. And, apart from my own feelings, I could not be sure, grotesque as the supposition seemed, that I might not strain her resources if I stayed to lunch. Nevertheless, I thought that she clung to my company a little when I came to say good-bye. Yet there was so little that I could do. She had to face alone a dreary, yet hazardous, period of waiting. I wondered, what I could never ask, whether she still thought that her experiment had been worth while. Perhaps she did, with Michael’s child to hope for. It seemed to me that she had stilled her spirit, driven fears and misgivings under by sheer force of will, in order to make smooth the path for this young prince to come into his kingdom.
Hilda’s child was born in her friend’s nursing-home early in the spring of the New Year. It was a girl. Hilda was very ill, a long dragging illness, not dangerous after the first fortnight, but a tedious weakness and disability — such an illness as she had not calculated upon, never before having had reason to distrust her magnificent health. But I suppose that nervous strain cannot always be discounted by will-power.
I was able to see her for the first time one April day when the sun was shining and the air exhilarating even in London, as it had been the day a year before when she had come to me in the garden at Marling and had predicted, or rather, one might almost say, had planned, all that had subsequently happened to her. She was in an invalid chair by the open window of a large light room looking out over a quiet West-End square of turf and budding trees. Her friend, Lettice Platt, had seen to it that she had the most favourable conditions possible. Miss Platt was a plump, plain, young woman with honest and intelligent eyes, and of the type obviously born to mother other people’s children. It had been almost with a groan of relief that I had seen Hilda safe into her competent keeping.
Hilda, lying back in her chair, had a look of fragility that made her strange to me. Her cheeks were pale and her manner listless. But she was evidently pleased to see me, and ready to attend to the business information that I had for her. Her illness had, of course, thrown out anew her financial calculations, and it had been necessary for me, in response to a message from her, to arrange with her own solicitors for an. advance to meet the emergency. Her face cleared, as I explained that the difficulty had been overcome.
“Lettice has been paying for me to stay on here out of her own pocket,” she explained, a slight flush disturbing her pallor; “I couldn’t have let it go on much longer.”
“You are lucky to have a friend like Miss Platt,” I remarked casually.
“I am lucky in having more than one friend who sticks to me.”
I knew that the tears standing in her eyes, and the quiver of sentiment in her voice, were only signs of physical weakness, but they were so unlike Hilda’s usual, clean-cut, controlled manner that I found myself embarrassed. I was glad that Miss Platt, entering the room with the child at the moment, made it unnecessary for me to make any reply.
I had seen Hilda’s daughter before, when I had called to enquire at the Home. By all the rules of the game, I ought to have hated the sight of the little creature with Michael’s dark eyes and hair. But this affair had been outside the rules of the game from the beginning. I found that I could not hate little Stella. She was too small and helpless. The high destiny for which she had been born (apart from which she never would have been born at all) seemed pathetic when one looked at the minute fumbling fingers which might or might not have in them the new magic sensibility. No one could tell yet. At present no one could be certain that she was not blind, or deaf, or idiot. The weight resting on her tiny personality seemed too heavy. To me, it seems a hard fate for any child to be born dedicate; and I cannot help suspecting that it may be the happiest thing for little Stella if she turns out, after all, to be completely commonplace.
Miss Platt had told me already of Hilda’s disappointment that the baby had not been a boy, and something in Hilda’s attitude as she reached and took her reminded me again that she had always thought and spoken of the coming child as a son. That was one thing that had not gone according to plan. Master of Arts as she was, and as much of a feminist as are most educated women nowadays, Hilda, like any Victorian, had attached her exceptional hopes to a young prince. Involuntarily, it flashed across my mind, as she took the child from Miss Platt, that perhaps a woman finds difficulty in seeing herself as Madonna towards an infant of her own sex. I was distressed and ashamed of the thought the next moment. And yet, the very fact that I could even hint to myself such a conjecture about Hilda —I suspect now that this was in truth the first painful step to my painful recovery.
I do not quite know how the suggestion reached me from Hilda’s manner at this moment. She handled the child gently, and looked at her quietly, as she lay in her arms, and smiled when I praised her. Perhaps, it was all a shade too quiet for an enthusiastic young mother; but then, after all, she was still obviously very weak. And it might have been merely in consideration for me that she changed the subject almost at once, and asked me about outside events, and listened while I gave her a flow of social gossip such as she had never shown much interest in of old, but now seemed to swallow with the avidity of isolation.
When tea was brought, she seized the opportunity to give the baby back to the nurse, and this time my impression was more definite.
“Here, take her, nurse. She’s getting too heavy for me.”
It was the first time that I had ever heard fretfulness in Hilda’s voice, and I felt that I wanted to turn away my eyes. But I went on talking as if I had noticed nothing unexpected, and she regained her equanimity immediately.
As I was leaving, I stopped to speak to Miss Platt in an outer room. What I had observed had puzzled and worried me, and I wanted, if possible, to gather a little more information. She and I had become good friends in the last weeks, and had discussed Hilda’s case together, though with reticence, since I did not know how far she was in Hilda’s confidence, or whether she understood what had been the truth behind her marriage to Michael Bristowe. I enquired casually now whether Hilda had the child with her very much.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HiLobrow’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
READ HERE AT HILOBROW: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “The Moon Men” | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss”
READ: HiLobrow’s previous serialized novels, both original works: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic) and Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda. We also publish original stories and comics.