HiLobrow is pleased to present the sixteenth 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.
I take again a new page and make a new start — I hardly know why, since this is not a formal narrative, but a sequence of experience in reminiscence. And yet one’s memory, dwelling upon the past, instinctively divides it into parts — into chapters, into sections, into paragraphs, corresponding to the unities of experience, to the rises and falls of the intensity of consciousness. Every night closes a chapter, and every morning begins a new one; yet there are also chapters shorter than a day in one’s life — hours and half-hours of heightened living, cut off before and after by flat stretches which are relatively of no greater significance than the hours spent in sleep.
And the hour we spent in the library at Marling that evening was, to me at least, an experience so much apart as to be almost on a plane of existence other than that of ordinary life. It seemed as much of its own kind as the experience of watching the acting of a tragedy. And if it had, in fact, been rounded off like a stage play, without practical implications, and had affected my life no more than the actions of the imaginary characters of Hamlet or Oedipus affect one’s life the next morning, it would have been very well for me. But how is one to deal with a Hamlet who, as a child would say, “comes real”?
The evening certainly began in no impressive manner. Hilda and Michael went to the library immediately dinner was over, and a few minutes later the old farmer, Naylor, arrived. I welcomed the splendid old man with relief after my conflict with Michael’s manner at dinner. Like most of the old yeomen stock, Naylor was one who “knew his place” and graced it.
I sent him on to join them in the library, and, after a moment, made up my mind to follow. A man may be unwelcome in his own library, but he can hardly be turned from the door.
I saw at once that, in the short interval, Michael had somehow managed to work himself into a state of meaningless hysterical exasperation. He refused to begin making the tests with his apparatus, though the old man, invited for the purpose, was quietly waiting.
“Oh, what’s the use of bothering? He won’t feel anything.” Although he had had no possible cause for annoyance, Michael spoke in the strained dangerous voice of one who is utterly at the limits of his patience. He had thrown himself into one of the leather arm-chairs in a queer twisted attitude, with hanging arm and head, sagging in the middle. He was apt, as I had often noticed before, to adopt such postures — the sort of posture which I have always despised in the modern “artistic” youth.
Hilda bent over him, talking quietly, while Naylor stood waiting with a perfect reticent dignity. I walked away, unwilling to be drawn in, and glanced over the odd mechanism on the table. I had seen it before, of course. It was a queer untidy-looking object — a miscellany of batteries, stands and small magnets all connected up in various ways with a switchboard of numbered switches. It looked complicated and unintelligible, but was, in fact, merely a cumbrous way of doing a very simple thing, or rather a number of simple things — that is, of sending magnetic currents through various kinds of metals, separately, or at the same time. The switches formed a rough sort of keyboard by which these combinations were controlled. I do not think that Michael can have had much mechanical talent; there was nothing about the machine of the trimness which one sometimes sees in the apparatus set up by quite young boys. Probably a smart boy of fourteen could have made it very much better for him, if he could have explained what he wanted. But then, probably, no mechanic, boy or man, could have understood what he wanted, or why he should want it. It must have been a strong impulse, I thought, that had made him undertake so uncongenial an effort. Even to me, who am myself nothing of a mechanic, the thing looked pathetic in its clumsiness, like the stone axe-heads of primitive man.
“Well, if you won’t, Michael, I shall.” Hilda’s firm voice broke in upon my reflections. She stepped up beside me, and began moving the switches in a haphazard manner.
Michael sprang to his feet with a furious exclamation. A sudden influx of energy seemed to fill his limp figure as he almost hurled himself across the floor towards us.
“For God’s sake, Hilda, leave that alone!” pushed her roughly to one side, and snapped off again the switches she had moved.
It was the first time I had ever known him rude to Hilda, in spite of his frequent incivilities to other people, and my temper blazed. I started forward, and should have taken him by the collar if Hilda’s hand had not fallen compellingly on my arm.
“The point is,” — she turned to where the quiet old man was still standing — “did Naylor notice anything?”
“Well, miss,” he answered deprecatingly, “I did seem to see a sort of a light.”
“A light!” Michael, suddenly struck quiet, gazed at him with bent brows for a moment. Then he woke to an abrupt, business-like activity. “Look here, sit down there.” He put Naylor into a chair, a little way in front of the apparatus, made him extend his hands on his knees, and stepped back to the switchboard.
Hilda gently drew me away to one of the window seats. Dusk was just falling outside, and the light in the room was getting dim. Once I moved to put on the lights, but Hilda’s hand restrained me as she whispered in my ear that Michael preferred to be without them. The scene began to take on a fantastic quality. Ignored, outsiders, we watched, for what seemed hours, a process which we were incapable of comprehending. Only occasional odd snatches of conversation, a quick question and answer, exclamations, told us that things were happening, things of which we had no cognisance, as Michael moved his switches up and down.
“It’s a sort of a blue flame, Mr. Michael … oh! … you’re spoiling it!”
“Shut your eyes,” Michael commanded abruptly, and the old man obeyed. Some more manoeuvres followed.
“Now. That’s not a flame, is it?”
“No.… It’s something different. It’s like a flame, but it isn’t.… I don’t know how to say it.”
Something between a chuckle and a grunt came from Michael. “Never mind. Don’t try,” he said. “There aren’t any words for it. If you know the difference, that’s all I want.”
It was like hearing a man communicate with invisible spirits. The strangeness of it was almost intolerable. My mouth went dry, and I felt my hair lift as I watched. Michael’s isolated feats had never affected me as powerfully as this. In our presence, under our eyes, waves were passing, communications effected, understandings attained, while for us absolutely nothing was happening. That was what terrified — not that for them something happened, but that for us there was nothing. I have heard “the direct voice” at a spiritualist séance, but it never gave me so eerie a sensation as this. I strained all my senses, I held all my muscles rigid, I made myself into a quivering receptivity. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing.
In an attempt to keep my mental balance, I tried to rationalise the thing. Evidently the sequence of Michael’s currents signified something, both to himself and to Naylor. There must be some kind of rhythm, some principle of harmony, implied. It occurred to me that the only normally constituted man who might begin to understand it would be a mathematician. He might perhaps have found some remote, abstract, harmonic law in Michael’s combinations, and formed some idea of them on that plane of pure intellect of which most of us can hardly even realise the existence. Even this suggestion of explanation seemed to comfort me a little. Then I started violently as Naylor shifted in his seat and gave an uneasy grunt.
“All right. I’ll stop it.” Michael looked up at him, and, as in the old days before his illness, I saw the broad elfish grin light up his dark face.
I glanced at Hilda. She was flushed and taut, her eyes travelling from the alert figure of Michael to the old man in his chair. It was clear that for her, as for me, the only drama that was passing was what we could see dimly reflected in our companions’ faces.
And then, suddenly, after a few moments’ silence, Naylor’s face, on which my eyes were fixed, seemed to wrinkle and break up, so that I drew in a sharp breath. The next moment he had broken into a clear gentle laugh of such pure quality of amusement as I have heard from a musical child at the finish of one of Grieg’s goblin pieces. And, as he heard it, Michael threw up his head and laughed too, pleasantly, like a child.
I think it was that laugh that completed my demoralisation. It was as if we were “fairy-led.” I have no very clear idea of what followed. All those monsters of the mind which one’s consciousness ordinarily keeps at bay came swarming over the border. Reality had become vague and wavering ; the bounds of personality were moved. I no longer felt sure if this were indeed my own library at Marling or some unsubstantial circumstance called up from a dream world. In the growing darkness, lit only by the flickering of the fire, Michael at his machine seemed half wizard, half monster, and the white-bearded old man on the chair seemed to advance and recede, to swell and to shrink, as if he had been a demon inadequately materialised from another plane of existence. I know that Michael went on for a long time, moving those flexible white hands of his over the switches, and I was conscious that abrupt questions and answers were still passing, and that Michael muttered frantically from time to time, “But that’s nothing! That’s nothing!” and then went on again. But I was engrossed with the fragmentary ideas flung out by the turmoil of my own mind. Only Hilda, sitting beside me, with shining watchful eyes, seemed to retain full reality. I fixed my eyes on her face as on the only stable refuge in a tottering world.
“It’s very clumsy. There’s an awful lot to do yet. I shall never finish it; but I’ll do better than this.” Michael’s voice, perfectly matter-of-fact, but alert and vigorous, as I had not heard it since his illness, cut through my dazzlement. And I heard old Naylor’s reply.
“It’s wonderful, Mr. Michael, it’s wonderful. I don’t rightly understand it all — you mustn’t think that I do. But it’s wonderful, I can see that.… I can’t say what I mean as I’d like to.…” They were standing together by the door.
“No one can say anything about this…”
I realised that they had finished and were going, but I could not summon the energy to move.
Hilda, too, sat on for a moment.
“They’ve forgotten us,” she said at last, and drew herself to her feet with a difficult effort. “I must go after them. Michael will be worn out.… He’ll be needing me.”
Left by myself, I came back slowly to normality. Presently, I was ashamed and distressed to find that tears were running down my face. I do not know whether it is truly a disgrace to a man to recognise an utterly new thing with a flood of tears. But this new thing was my enemy, and I did not know how to fight it. Michael’s faculty, a nuisance, a marvel, a puzzle, many things before that day, had suddenly become a live menacing entity in a sense that it had never been before. It was partly that another man had recognised it, however imperfectly. It had proved itself communicable; that seemed to give it a validity it had never yet possessed. But my state of shock was due also to the realisation that it had creative force. I knew intuitively, with the knowledge that belongs to one who has himself, however meagrely, the power of creation, that what I had been present at that evening had been an artistic achievement. I had been present at it — not witnessed it, not listened to it — for this was art beyond my range, art in a sphere to which I had no access. The humiliation had to be accepted. And Michael — the tiresome insufferable neurasthenic — had greatness because of it. He had greatness as a man of genius has it, who may be intolerable in himself, yet is the vehicle of something transcendent. As I forced myself to think more quietly, I began to apply what I had observed to be Hilda’s method in dealing with Michael’s peculiarity — to work out an analogy with the senses that we know, I considered, was the boy then an artist? He had, of course, the “artistic temperament,” as it is commonly recognised, but which, in fact, often exists apart from any creative skill. How were we to know whether he was an artist in this unique sphere of his, where, at best, there could be hardly any who could begin to follow him at an immense distance, and no one who could criticise? We had only old Naylor’s testimony that Michael’s inexplicable vagaries with his magnets had indeed produced something significant, something with the principle of symmetry in it. It might be comparable to “Jack and Jill,” or to Paradise Lost; it might be a jazz jingle or a Moonlight Sonata.
Then I realised that such absolute pioneer work could hardly be measurable on any such scale. It would be more analogous to the scratchings of a mammoth or a buffalo made by a man of the Stone Age on a tusk — those drawings where power and spirit strove so heroically through the poverty of the instruments, or to the first rhythmic beating of a tom-tom waking new delights in the breasts of a savage tribe. But these things were all relative, and we had no standard.
Speculation was useless.… I longed with intensity to be rid of the whole coil. There was no way of tackling it. Why had this thing come upon me of all people upon earth? I was just a normal man who wanted the ordinary pleasant life of my country and my birth. I wanted Hilda, my natural mate, with whom I could share a happy and normal life. I did not expect to be proof against ordinary misfortune, or wish to shirk the usual responsibilities. I had gone voluntarily into the War at its beginning, and would have stayed it out without faltering, however long it had lasted.… But this thing was not in the rules of the game of life, as I knew it. I felt that Fate had given me a foul blow; and I had a moment of sheer stupid rebellion against fact, such as I have always regarded as unworthy of a man of my race and class. I suppose that the long psychological struggle of the past year, with this incalculable factor in it, against which it was useless to fight, had undermined my manhood. For those few moments I couldn’t help whining that “It wasn’t fair!”
Just under the open window by which I was sitting, I heard Hilda letting the old farmer out at a little side door, and thanking him for his help to Michael.
The old man’s voice, still clear and strong for all his years, but now with a quiver of pleading emotion in it, came up to me. “Look after him well now, Miss Hilda. There aren’t many of his kind.”
There was a moment’s pause before Hilda answered. “None at all, I think.… I mean to do everything that I can.”
I shrank back into my seat, and thought seemed to stop as a black depression struck me like a sandbag.
* Edvard Grieg was a Norwegian composer and pianist. He composed “Peer Gynt Suite —’In the Hall of the Mountain King,’” which was used as incidental music for the play Peer Gynt. In this piece of music, Peer wakes up in a mountain surrounded by trolls. The music represents the angry trolls taunting Peer, and gets louder each time the theme repeats.
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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”
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