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Chapter 5

THE MINIMIFICENCE OF MR. BENSINGTON.


I.

It was while the Royal Commission on Boomfood was preparing its report
that Herakleophorbia really began to demonstrate its capacity for
leakage. And the earliness of this second outbreak was the more
unfortunate, from the point of view of Cossar at any rate, since the
draft report still in existence shows that the Commission had, under the
tutelage of that most able member, Doctor Stephen Winkles (F.R.S. M.D.
F.R.C.P. D. Sc. J.P. D.L. etc.), already quite made up its mind that
accidental leakages were impossible, and was prepared to recommend that
to entrust the preparation of Boomfood to a qualified committee (Winkles
chiefly), with an entire control over its sale, was quite enough to
satisfy all reasonable objections to its free diffusion. This committee
was to have an absolute monopoly. And it is, no doubt, to be considered
as a part of the irony of life that the first and most alarming of this
second series of leakages occurred within fifty yards of a little
cottage at Keston occupied during the summer months by Doctor Winkles.

There can be little doubt now that Redwood's refusal to acquaint Winkles
with the composition of Herakleophorbia IV. had aroused in that
gentleman a novel and intense desire towards analytical chemistry. He
was not a very expert manipulator, and for that reason probably he saw
fit to do his work not in the excellently equipped laboratories that
were at his disposal in London, but without consulting any one, and
almost with an air of secrecy, in a rough little garden laboratory at
the Keston establishment. He does not seem to have shown either very
great energy or very great ability in this quest; indeed one gathers he
dropped the inquiry after working at it intermittently for about a
month.

This garden laboratory, in which the work was done, was very roughly
equipped, supplied by a standpipe tap with water, and draining into a
pipe that ran down into a swampy rush-bordered pool under an alder tree
in a secluded corner of the common just outside the garden hedge. The
pipe was cracked, and the residuum of the Food of the Gods escaped
through the crack into a little puddle amidst clumps of rushes, just in
time for the spring awakening.

Everything was astir with life in that scummy little corner. There was
frog spawn adrift, tremulous with tadpoles just bursting their
gelatinous envelopes; there were little pond snails creeping out into
life, and under the green skin of the rush stems the larvae of a big
Water Beetle were struggling out of their egg cases. I doubt if the
reader knows the larva of the beetle called (I know not why) Dytiscus.
It is a jointed, queer-looking thing, very muscular and sudden in its
movements, and given to swimming head downward with its tail out of
water; the length of a man's top thumb joint it is, and more--two
inches, that is for those who have not eaten the Food--and it has two
sharp jaws that meet in front of its head--tubular jaws with sharp
points--through which its habit is to suck its victim's blood ...

The first things to get at the drifting grains of the Food were the
little tadpoles and the little water snails; the little wriggling
tadpoles in particular, once they had the taste of it, took to it with
zest. But scarcely did one of them begin to grow into a conspicuous
position in that little tadpole world and try a smaller brother or so as
an aid to a vegetarian dietary, when nip! one of the Beetle larva had
its curved bloodsucking prongs gripping into his heart, and with that
red stream went Herakleophorbia IV, in a state of solution, into the
being of a new client. The only thing that had a chance with these
monsters to get any share of the Food were the rushes and slimy green
scum in the water and the seedling weeds in the mud at the bottom. A
clean up of the study presently washed a fresh spate of the Food into
the puddle, and overflowed it, and carried all this sinister expansion
of the struggle for life into the adjacent pool under the roots of the
alder...

The first person to discover what was going on was a Mr. Lukey
Carrington, a special science teacher under the London Education Board,
and, in his leisure, a specialist in fresh-water algae, and he is
certainly not to be envied his discovery. He had come down to Keston
Common for the day to fill a number of specimen tubes for subsequent
examination, and he came, with a dozen or so of corked tubes clanking
faintly in his pocket, over the sandy crest and down towards the pool,
spiked walking stick in hand. A garden lad standing on the top of the
kitchen steps clipping Doctor Winkles' hedge saw him in this
unfrequented corner, and found him and his occupation sufficiently
inexplicable and interesting to watch him pretty closely.

He saw Mr. Carrington stoop down by the side of the pool, with his hand
against the old alder stem, and peer into the water, but of course he
could not appreciate the surprise and pleasure with which Mr. Carrington
beheld the big unfamiliar-looking blobs and threads of the algal scum at
the bottom. There were no tadpoles visible--they had all been killed by
that time--and it would seem Mr. Carrington saw nothing at all unusual
except the excessive vegetation. He bared his arm to the elbow, leant
forward, and dipped deep in pursuit of a specimen. His seeking hand went
down. Instantly there flashed out of the cool shadow under the tree
roots something--

Flash! It had buried its fangs deep into his arm--a bizarre shape it
was, a foot long and more, brown and jointed like a scorpion.

Its ugly apparition and the sharp amazing painfulness of its bite were
too much for Mr. Carrington's equilibrium. He felt himself going, and
yelled aloud. Over he toppled, face foremost, splash! into the pool.

The boy saw him vanish, and heard the splashing of his struggle in the
water. The unfortunate man emerged again into the boy's field of vision,
hatless and streaming with water, and screaming!

Never before had the boy heard screams from a man.

This astonishing stranger appeared to be tearing at something on the
side of his face. There appeared streaks of blood there. He flung out
his arms as if in despair, leapt in the air like a frantic creature, ran
violently ten or twelve yards, and then fell and rolled on the ground
and over and out of sight of the boy. The lad was down the steps and
through the hedge in a trice--happily with the garden shears still in
hand. As he came crashing through the gorse bushes, he says he was half
minded to turn back, fearing he had to deal with a lunatic, but the
possession of the shears reassured him. "I could 'ave jabbed his eyes,"
he explained, "anyhow." Directly Mr. Carrington caught sight of him, his
demeanour became at once that of a sane but desperate man. He struggled
to his feet, stumbled, stood up, and came to meet the boy.

"Look!" he cried, "I can't get 'em off!"

And with a qualm of horror the boy saw that, attached to Mr.
Carrington's cheek, to his bare arm, and to his thigh, and lashing
furiously with their lithe brown muscular bodies, were three of these
horrible larvae, their great jaws buried deep in his flesh and sucking
for dear life. They had the grip of bulldogs, and Mr. Carrington's
efforts to detach the monsters from his face had only served to lacerate
the flesh to which it had attached itself, and streak face and neck and
coat with living scarlet.

"I'll cut 'im," cried the boy; "'old on, Sir."

And with the zest of his age in such proceedings, he severed one by one
the heads from the bodies of Mr. Carrington's assailants. "Yup," said
the boy with a wincing face as each one fell before him. Even then, so
tough and determined was their grip that the severed heads remained for
a space, still fiercely biting home and still sucking, with the blood
streaming out of their necks behind. But the boy stopped that with a few
more slashes of his scissors--in one of which Mr. Carrington was
implicated.

"I couldn't get 'em off!" repeated Carrington, and stood for a space,
swaying and bleeding profusely. He dabbed feeble hands at his injuries
and examined the result upon his palms. Then he gave way at the knees
and fell headlong in a dead faint at the boy's feet, between the still
leaping bodies of his defeated foes. Very luckily it didn't occur to the
boy to splash water on his face--for there were still more of these
horrors under the alder roots--and instead he passed back by the pond
and went into the garden with the intention of calling assistance. And
there he met the gardener coachman and told him of the whole affair.

When they got back to Mr. Carrington he was sitting up, dazed and weak,
but able to warn them against the danger in the pool.


II.

Such were the circumstances by which the world had its first
notification that the Food was loose again. In another week Keston
Common was in full operation as what naturalists call a centre of
distribution. This time there were no wasps or rats, no earwigs and no
nettles, but there were at least three water-spiders, several dragon-fly
larvae which presently became dragon-flies, dazzling all Kent with their
hovering sapphire bodies, and a nasty gelatinous, scummy growth that
swelled over the pond margin, and sent its slimy green masses surging
halfway up the garden path to Doctor Winkles's house. And there began a
growth of rushes and equisetum and potamogeton that ended only with the
drying of the pond.

It speedily became evident to the public mind that this time there was
not simply one centre of distribution, but quite a number of centres.
There was one at Ealing--there can be no doubt now--and from that came
the plague of flies and red spider; there was one at Sunbury, productive
of ferocious great eels, that could come ashore and kill sheep; and
there was one in Bloomsbury that gave the world a new strain of
cockroaches of a quite terrible sort--an old house it was in Bloomsbury,
and much inhabited by undesirable things. Abruptly the world found
itself confronted with the Hickleybrow experiences all over again, with
all sorts of queer exaggerations of familiar monsters in the place of
the giant hens and rats and wasps. Each centre burst out with its own
characteristic local fauna and flora....

We know now that every one of these centres corresponded to one of the
patients of Doctor Winkles, but that was by no means apparent at the
time. Doctor Winkles was the last person to incur any odium in the
matter. There was a panic quite naturally, a passionate indignation, but
it was indignation not against Doctor Winkles but against the Food, and
not so much against the Food as against the unfortunate Bensington, whom
from the very first the popular imagination had insisted upon regarding
as the sole and only person responsible for this new thing.

The attempt to lynch him that followed is just one of those explosive
events that bulk largely in history and are in reality the least
significant of occurrences.

The history of the outbreak is a mystery. The nucleus of the crowd
certainly came from an Anti-Boomfood meeting in Hyde Park organised by
extremists of the Caterham party, but there seems no one in the world
who actually first proposed, no one who ever first hinted a suggestion
of the outrage at which so many people assisted. It is a problem for M.
Gustave le Bon--a mystery in the psychology of crowds. The fact emerges
that about three o'clock on Sunday afternoon a remarkably big and ugly
London crowd, entirely out of hand, came rolling down Thursday Street
intent on Bensington's exemplary death as a warning to all scientific
investigators, and that it came nearer accomplishing its object than any
London crowd has ever come since the Hyde Park railings came down in
remote middle Victorian times. This crowd came so close to its object
indeed, that for the space of an hour or more a word would have settled
the unfortunate gentleman's fate.

The first intimation he had of the thing was the noise of the people
outside. He went to the window and peered, realising nothing of what
impended. For a minute perhaps he watched them seething about the
entrance, disposing of an ineffectual dozen of policemen who barred
their way, before he fully realised his own importance in the affair. It
came upon him in a flash--that that roaring, swaying multitude was after
him. He was all alone in the flat--fortunately perhaps--his cousin Jane
having gone down to Ealing to have tea with a relation on her mother's
side, and he had no more idea of how to behave under such circumstances
than he had of the etiquette of the Day of Judgment. He was still
dashing about the flat asking his furniture what he should do, turning
keys in locks and then unlocking them again, making darts at door and
window and bedroom--when the floor clerk came to him.

"There isn't a moment, Sir," he said. "They've got your number from the
board in the hall! They're coming straight up!"

He ran Mr. Bensington out into the passage, already echoing with the
approaching tumult from the great staircase, locked the door behind
them, and led the way into the opposite flat by means of his duplicate
key.

"It's our only chance now," he said.

He flung up a window which opened on a ventilating shaft, and showed
that the wall was set with iron staples that made the rudest and most
perilous of wall ladders to serve as a fire escape from the upper flats.
He shoved Mr. Bensington out of the window, showed him how to cling on,
and pursued him up the ladder, goading and jabbing his legs with a bunch
of keys whenever he desisted from climbing. It seemed to Bensington at
times that he must climb that vertical ladder for evermore. Above, the
parapet was inaccessibly remote, a mile perhaps, below--He did not care
to think of things below.

"Steady on!" cried the clerk, and gripped his ankle. It was quite
horrible having his ankle gripped like that, and Mr. Bensington
tightened his hold on the iron staple above to a drowning clutch, and
gave a faint squeal of terror.

It became evident the clerk had broken a window, and then it seemed he
had leapt a vast distance sideways, and there came the noise of a
window-frame sliding in its sash. He was bawling things.

Mr. Bensington moved his head round cautiously until he could see the
clerk. "Come down six steps," the clerk commanded.

All this moving about seemed very foolish, but very, very cautiously Mr.
Bensington lowered a foot.

"Don't pull me!" he cried, as the clerk made to help him from the open
window.

It seemed to him that to reach the window from the ladder would be a
very respectable feat for a flying fox, and it was rather with the idea
of a decent suicide than in any hope of accomplishing it that he made
the step at last, and quite ruthlessly the clerk pulled him in. "You'll
have to stop here," said the clerk; "my keys are no good here. It's an
American lock. I'll get out and slam the door behind me and see if I can
find the man of this floor. You'll be locked in. Don't go to the window,
that's all. It's the ugliest crowd I've ever seen. If only they think
you're out they'll probably content themselves by breaking up your
stuff--"

"The indicator said In," said Bensington.

"The devil it did! Well, anyhow, I'd better not be found--"

He vanished with a slam of the door.

Bensington was left to his own initiative again.

It took him under the bed.

There presently he was found by Cossar.

Bensington was almost comatose with terror when he was found, for Cossar
had burst the door in with his shoulder by jumping at it across the
breadth of the passage.

"Come out of it, Bensington," he said. "It's all right. It's me. We've
got to get out of this. They're setting the place on fire. The porters
are all clearing out. The servants are gone. It's lucky I caught the man
who knew.

"Look here!"

Bensington, peering from under the bed, became aware of some
unaccountable garments on Cossar's arm, and, of all things, a black
bonnet in his hand!

"They're having a clear out," said Cossar, "If they don't set the place
on fire they'll come here. Troops may not be here for an hour yet. Fifty
per cent. Hooligans in the crowd, and the more furnished flats they go
into the better they'll like it. Obviously.... They mean a clear out.
You put this skirt and bonnet on, Bensington, and clear out with me."

"D'you _mean_--?" began Bensington, protruding a head, tortoise fashion.

"I mean, put 'em on and come! Obviously," And with a sudden vehemence he
dragged Bensington from under the bed, and began to dress him for his
new impersonation of an elderly woman of the people.

He rolled up his trousers and made him kick off his slippers, took off
his collar and tie and coat and vest, slipped a black skirt over his
head, and put on a red flannel bodice and a body over the same. He made
him take off his all too characteristic spectacles, and clapped the
bonnet on his head. "You might have been born an old woman," he said as
he tied the strings. Then came the spring-side boots--a terrible wrench
for corns--and the shawl, and the disguise was complete. "Up and down,"
said Cossar, and Bensington obeyed.

"You'll do," said Cossar.

And in this guise it was, stumbling awkwardly over his unaccustomed
skirts, shouting womanly imprecations upon his own head in a weird
falsetto to sustain his part, and to the roaring note of a crowd bent
upon lynching him, that the original discoverer of Herakleophorbia IV.
proceeded down the corridor of Chesterfield Mansions, mingled with that
inflamed disorderly multitude, and passed out altogether from the thread
of events that constitutes our story.

Never once after that escape did he meddle again with the stupendous
development of the Food of the Gods he of all men had done most to
begin.


III.

This little man who started the whole thing passes out of the story, and
after a time he passed altogether out of the world of things, visible
and tellable. But because he started the whole thing it is seemly to
give his exit an intercalary page of attention. One may picture him in
his later days as Tunbridge Wells came to know him. For it was at
Tunbridge Wells he reappeared after a temporary obscurity, so soon as he
fully realised how transitory, how quite exceptional and unmeaning that
fury of rioting was. He reappeared under the wing of Cousin Jane,
treating himself for nervous shock to the exclusion of all other
interests, and totally indifferent, as it seemed, to the battles that
were raging then about those new centres of distribution, and about the
baby Children of the Food.

He took up his quarters at the Mount Glory Hydrotherapeutic Hotel, where
there are quite extraordinary facilities for baths, Carbonated Baths,
Creosote Baths, Galvanic and Faradic Treatment, Massage, Pine Baths,
Starch and Hemlock Baths, Radium Baths, Light Baths, Heat Baths, Bran
and Needle Baths, Tar and Birdsdown Baths,--all sorts of baths; and he
devoted his mind to the development of that system of curative treatment
that was still imperfect when he died. And sometimes he would go down in
a hired vehicle and a sealskin trimmed coat, and sometimes, when his
feet permitted, he would walk to the Pantiles, and there he would sip
chalybeate water under the eye of his cousin Jane.

His stooping shoulders, his pink appearance, his beaming glasses, became
a "feature" of Tunbridge Wells. No one was the least bit unkind to him,
and indeed the place and the Hotel seemed very glad to have the
distinction of his presence. Nothing could rob him of that distinction
now. And though he preferred not to follow the development of his great
invention in the daily papers, yet when he crossed the Lounge of the
Hotel or walked down the Pantiles and heard the whisper, "There he is!
That's him!" it was not dissatisfaction that softened his mouth and
gleamed for a moment in his eye.

This little figure, this minute little figure, launched the Food of the
Gods upon the world! One does not know which is the most amazing, the
greatness or the littleness of these scientific and philosophical men.
You figure him there on the Pantiles, in the overcoat trimmed with fur.
He stands under that chinaware window where the spring spouts, and holds
and sips the glass of chalybeate water in his hand. One bright eye over
the gilt rim is fixed, with an expression of inscrutable severity, on
Cousin Jane, "Mm," he says, and sips.

So we make our souvenir, so we focus and photograph this discoverer of
ours for the last time, and leave him, a mere dot in our foreground, and
pass to the greater picture that, has developed about him, to the story
of his Food, how the scattered Giant Children grew up day by day into a
world that was all too small for them, and how the net of Boomfood Laws
and Boomfood Conventions, which the Boomfood Commission was weaving even
then, drew closer and closer upon them with every year of their growth,
Until--

H.G. Wells

    Book I-The Dawn of Food

    Book II-The Food in the Village

    Book III-The Harvest of the Food

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