H.G. Wells.

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Produced by Donald Lainson


by H. G. Wells
















The story of William Porphyry Benham is the story of a man who was led
into adventure by an idea. It was an idea that took possession of his
imagination quite early in life, it grew with him and changed with him,
it interwove at last completely with his being. His story is its story.
It was traceably germinating in the schoolboy; it was manifestly present
in his mind at the very last moment of his adventurous life. He belonged
to that fortunate minority who are independent of daily necessities, so
that he was free to go about the world under its direction. It led him
far. It led him into situations that bordered upon the fantastic, it
made him ridiculous, it came near to making him sublime. And this idea
of his was of such a nature that in several aspects he could document
it. Its logic forced him to introspection and to the making of a record.

An idea that can play so large a part in a life must necessarily have
something of the complication and protean quality of life itself. It is
not to be stated justly in any formula, it is not to be rendered by an
epigram. As well one might show a man's skeleton for his portrait. Yet,
essentially, Benham's idea was simple. He had an incurable, an almost
innate persuasion that he had to live life nobly and thoroughly. His
commoner expression for that thorough living is "the aristocratic life."
But by "aristocratic" he meant something very different from the
quality of a Russian prince, let us say, or an English peer. He meant an
intensity, a clearness.... Nobility for him was to get something out of
his individual existence, a flame, a jewel, a splendour - it is a thing
easier to understand than to say.

One might hesitate to call this idea "innate," and yet it comes soon
into a life when it comes at all. In Benham's case we might trace it
back to the Day Nursery at Seagate, we might detect it stirring already
at the petticoat stage, in various private struttings and valiant
dreamings with a helmet of pasteboard and a white-metal sword. We have
most of us been at least as far as that with Benham. And we have
died like Horatius, slaying our thousands for our country, or we have
perished at the stake or faced the levelled muskets of the firing
party - "No, do not bandage my eyes" - because we would not betray the
secret path that meant destruction to our city. But with Benham the
vein was stronger, and it increased instead of fading out as he grew
to manhood. It was less obscured by those earthy acquiescences, those
discretions, that saving sense of proportion, which have made most of
us so satisfactorily what we are. "Porphyry," his mother had discovered
before he was seventeen, "is an excellent boy, a brilliant boy, but, I
begin to see, just a little unbalanced."

The interest of him, the absurdity of him, the story of him, is that.

Most of us are - balanced; in spite of occasional reveries we do come to
terms with the limitations of life, with those desires and dreams and
discretions that, to say the least of it, qualify our nobility, we take
refuge in our sense of humour and congratulate ourselves on a certain
amiable freedom from priggishness or presumption, but for Benham that
easy declension to a humorous acceptance of life as it is did not occur.
He found his limitations soon enough; he was perpetually
rediscovering them, but out of these interments of the spirit he rose
again - remarkably. When we others have decided that, to be plain about
it, we are not going to lead the noble life at all, that the thing is
too ambitious and expensive even to attempt, we have done so because
there were other conceptions of existence that were good enough for us,
we decided that instead of that glorious impossible being of ourselves,
we would figure in our own eyes as jolly fellows, or sly dogs, or sane,
sound, capable men or brilliant successes, and so forth - practicable
things. For Benham, exceptionally, there were not these practicable
things. He blundered, he fell short of himself, he had - as you will
be told - some astonishing rebuffs, but they never turned him aside for
long. He went by nature for this preposterous idea of nobility as a
linnet hatched in a cage will try to fly.

And when he discovered - and in this he was assisted not a little by his
friend at his elbow - when he discovered that Nobility was not the simple
thing he had at first supposed it to be, he set himself in a mood only
slightly disconcerted to the discovery of Nobility. When it dawned upon
him, as it did, that one cannot be noble, so to speak, IN VACUO, he set
himself to discover a Noble Society. He began with simple beliefs and
fine attitudes and ended in a conscious research. If he could not get
through by a stride, then it followed that he must get through by a
climb. He spent the greater part of his life studying and experimenting
in the noble possibilities of man. He never lost his absurd faith in
that conceivable splendour. At first it was always just round the corner
or just through the wood; to the last it seemed still but a little way
beyond the distant mountains.

For this reason this story has been called THE RESEARCH MAGNIFICENT. It
was a real research, it was documented. In the rooms in Westhaven Street
that at last were as much as one could call his home, he had accumulated
material for - one hesitates to call it a book - let us say it was an
analysis of, a guide to the noble life. There after his tragic death
came his old friend White, the journalist and novelist, under a promise,
and found these papers; he found them to the extent of a crammed
bureau, half a score of patent files quite distended and a writing-table
drawer-full, and he was greatly exercised to find them. They were,
White declares, they are still after much experienced handling, an
indigestible aggregation. On this point White is very assured. When
Benham thought he was gathering together a book he was dreaming, White
says. There is no book in it....

Perhaps too, one might hazard, Benham was dreaming when he thought the
noble life a human possibility. Perhaps man, like the ape and the hyaena
and the tapeworm and many other of God's necessary but less attractive
creatures, is not for such exalted ends. That doubt never seems to have
got a lodgment in Benham's skull; though at times one might suppose it
the basis of White's thought. You will find in all Benham's story,
if only it can be properly told, now subdued, now loud and amazed and
distressed, but always traceable, this startled, protesting question,
"BUT WHY THE DEVIL AREN'T WE?" As though necessarily we ought to be.
He never faltered in his persuasion that behind the dingy face of this
world, the earthy stubbornness, the baseness and dulness of himself
and all of us, lurked the living jewels of heaven, the light of glory,
things unspeakable. At first it seemed to him that one had only just to
hammer and will, and at the end, after a life of willing and hammering,
he was still convinced there was something, something in the nature of
an Open Sesame, perhaps a little more intricate than one had supposed
at first, a little more difficult to secure, but still in that nature,
which would suddenly roll open for mankind the magic cave of the
universe, that precious cave at the heart of all things, in which one
must believe.

And then life - life would be the wonder it so perplexingly just


Benham did not go about the world telling people of this consuming
research. He was not the prophet or preacher of his idea. It was too
living and intricate and uncertain a part of him to speak freely about.
It was his secret self; to expose it casually would have shamed him. He
drew all sorts of reserves about him, he wore his manifest imperfections
turned up about him like an overcoat in bitter wind. He was content
to be inexplicable. His thoughts led him to the conviction that this
magnificent research could not be, any more than any other research
can be, a solitary enterprise, but he delayed expression; in a mighty
writing and stowing away of these papers he found a relief from the
unpleasant urgency to confess and explain himself prematurely. So that
White, though he knew Benham with the intimacy of an old schoolfellow
who had renewed his friendship, and had shared his last days and been a
witness of his death, read the sheets of manuscript often with surprise
and with a sense of added elucidation.

And, being also a trained maker of books, White as he read was more
and more distressed that an accumulation so interesting should be so
entirely unshaped for publication. "But this will never make a book,"
said White with a note of personal grievance. His hasty promise in their
last moments together had bound him, it seemed, to a task he now found
impossible. He would have to work upon it tremendously; and even then he
did not see how it could be done.

This collection of papers was not a story, not an essay, not a
confession, not a diary. It was - nothing definable. It went into no
conceivable covers. It was just, White decided, a proliferation. A vast
proliferation. It wanted even a title. There were signs that Benham had
intended to call it THE ARISTOCRATIC LIFE, and that he had tried at some
other time the title of AN ESSAY ON ARISTOCRACY. Moreover, it would
seem that towards the end he had been disposed to drop the word
"aristocratic" altogether, and adopt some such phrase as THE LARGER
LIFE. Once it was LIFE SET FREE. He had fallen away more and more from
nearly everything that one associates with aristocracy - at the end only
its ideals of fearlessness and generosity remained.

Of all these titles THE ARISTOCRATIC LIFE seemed at first most like
a clue to White. Benham's erratic movements, his sudden impulses, his
angers, his unaccountable patiences, his journeys to strange places, and
his lapses into what had seemed to be pure adventurousness, could all be
put into system with that. Before White had turned over three pages of
the great fascicle of manuscript that was called Book Two, he had found
the word "Bushido" written with a particularly flourishing capital
letter and twice repeated. "That was inevitable," said White with the
comforting regret one feels for a friend's banalities. "And it dates...
[unreadable] this was early...."

"Modern aristocracy, the new aristocracy," he read presently, "has still
to be discovered and understood. This is the necessary next step for
mankind. As far as possible I will discover and understand it, and as
far as I know it I will be it. This is the essential disposition of my
mind. God knows I have appetites and sloths and habits and blindnesses,
but so far as it is in my power to release myself I will escape to


White sat far into the night and for several nights turning over papers
and rummaging in untidy drawers. Memories came back to him of his dead
friend and pieced themselves together with other memories and joined
on to scraps in this writing. Bold yet convincing guesses began to leap
across the gaps. A story shaped itself....

The story began with the schoolfellow he had known at Minchinghampton

Benham had come up from his father's preparatory school at Seagate. He
had been a boy reserved rather than florid in his acts and manners, a
boy with a pale face, incorrigible hair and brown eyes that went dark
and deep with excitement. Several times White had seen him excited, and
when he was excited Benham was capable of tensely daring things. On one
occasion he had insisted upon walking across a field in which was an
aggressive bull. It had been put there to prevent the boys taking
a short cut to the swimming place. It had bellowed tremendously and
finally charged him. He had dodged it and got away; at the time it had
seemed an immense feat to White and the others who were safely up
the field. He had walked to the fence, risking a second charge by his
deliberation. Then he had sat on the fence and declared his intention
of always crossing the field so long as the bull remained there. He had
said this with white intensity, he had stopped abruptly in mid-sentence,
and then suddenly he had dropped to the ground, clutched the fence,
struggled with heaving shoulders, and been sick.

The combination of apparently stout heart and manifestly weak stomach
had exercised the Minchinghampton intelligence profoundly.

On one or two other occasions Benham had shown courage of the same
rather screwed-up sort. He showed it not only in physical but in mental
things. A boy named Prothero set a fashion of religious discussion
in the school, and Benham, after some self-examination, professed an
atheistical republicanism rather in the manner of Shelley. This brought
him into open conflict with Roddles, the History Master. Roddles had
discovered these theological controversies in some mysterious way, and
he took upon himself to talk at Benham and Prothero. He treated them to
the common misapplication of that fool who "hath said in his heart there
is no God." He did not perceive there was any difference between the
fool who says a thing in his heart and one who says it in the dormitory.
He revived that delectable anecdote of the Eton boy who professed
disbelief and was at once "soundly flogged" by his head master. "Years
afterwards that boy came back to thank - - "

"Gurr," said Prothero softly. "STEW - ard!"

"Your turn next, Benham," whispered an orthodox controversialist.

"Good Lord! I'd like to see him," said Benham with a forced loudness
that could scarcely be ignored.

The subsequent controversy led to an interview with the head. From
it Benham emerged more whitely strung up than ever. "He said he would
certainly swish me if I deserved it, and I said I would certainly kill
him if he did."

"And then?"

"He told me to go away and think it over. Said he would preach about
it next Sunday.... Well, a swishing isn't a likely thing anyhow. But
I would.... There isn't a master here I'd stand a thrashing from - not
one.... And because I choose to say what I think!... I'd run amuck."

For a week or so the school was exhilarated by a vain and ill-concealed
hope that the head might try it just to see if Benham would. It was
tantalizingly within the bounds of possibility....

These incidents came back to White's mind as he turned over the
newspapers in the upper drawer of the bureau. The drawer was labelled
"Fear - the First Limitation," and the material in it was evidently
designed for the opening volume of the great unfinished book. Indeed, a
portion of it was already arranged and written up.

As White read through this manuscript he was reminded of a score of
schoolboy discussions Benham and he and Prothero had had together. Here
was the same old toughness of mind, a kind of intellectual hardihood,
that had sometimes shocked his schoolfellows. Benham had been one of
those boys who do not originate ideas very freely, but who go out to
them with a fierce sincerity. He believed and disbelieved with emphasis.
Prothero had first set him doubting, but it was Benham's own temperament
took him on to denial. His youthful atheism had been a matter for secret
consternation in White. White did not believe very much in God even
then, but this positive disbelieving frightened him. It was going
too far. There had been a terrible moment in the dormitory, during a
thunderstorm, a thunderstorm so vehement that it had awakened them
all, when Latham, the humourist and a quietly devout boy, had suddenly
challenged Benham to deny his Maker.

"NOW say you don't believe in God?"

Benham sat up in bed and repeated his negative faith, while little
Hopkins, the Bishop's son, being less certain about the accuracy of
Providence than His aim, edged as far as he could away from Benham's
cubicle and rolled his head in his bedclothes.

"And anyhow," said Benham, when it was clear that he was not to be
struck dead forthwith, "you show a poor idea of your God to think he'd
kill a schoolboy for honest doubt. Even old Roddles - "

"I can't listen to you," cried Latham the humourist, "I can't listen to
you. It's - HORRIBLE."

"Well, who began it?" asked Benham.

A flash of lightning lit the dormitory and showed him to White
white-faced and ablaze with excitement, sitting up with the bed-clothes
about him. "Oh WOW!" wailed the muffled voice of little Hopkins as the
thunder burst like a giant pistol overhead, and he buried his head still
deeper in the bedclothes and gave way to unappeasable grief.

Latham's voice came out of the darkness. "This ATHEISM that you and
Billy Prothero have brought into the school - "

He started violently at another vivid flash, and every one remained
silent, waiting for the thunder....

But White remembered no more of the controversy because he had made a
frightful discovery that filled and blocked his mind. Every time the
lightning flashed, there was a red light in Benham's eyes....

It was only three days after when Prothero discovered exactly the same
phenomenon in the School House boothole and talked of cats and cattle,
that White's confidence in their friend was partially restored....


"Fear, the First Limitation" - his title indicated the spirit of Benham's
opening book very clearly. His struggle with fear was the very beginning
of his soul's history. It continued to the end. He had hardly decided to
lead the noble life before he came bump against the fact that he was
a physical coward. He felt fear acutely. "Fear," he wrote, "is the
foremost and most persistent of the shepherding powers that keep us
in the safe fold, that drive us back to the beaten track and comfort
and - futility. The beginning of all aristocracy is the subjugation of

At first the struggle was so great that he hated fear without any
qualification; he wanted to abolish it altogether.

"When I was a boy," he writes, "I thought I would conquer fear for good
and all, and never more be troubled by it. But it is not to be done in
that way. One might as well dream of having dinner for the rest of one's
life. Each time and always I have found that it has to be conquered
afresh. To this day I fear, little things as well as big things. I have
to grapple with some little dread every day - urge myself.... Just as
I have to wash and shave myself every day.... I believe it is so with
every one, but it is difficult to be sure; few men who go into dangers
care very much to talk about fear...."

Later Benham found some excuses for fear, came even to dealings with
fear. He never, however, admits that this universal instinct is any
better than a kindly but unintelligent nurse from whose fostering
restraints it is man's duty to escape. Discretion, he declared, must
remain; a sense of proportion, an "adequacy of enterprise," but the
discretion of an aristocrat is in his head, a tactical detail, it has
nothing to do with this visceral sinking, this ebb in the nerves. "From
top to bottom, the whole spectrum of fear is bad, from panic fear at
one extremity down to that mere disinclination for enterprise, that
reluctance and indolence which is its lowest phase. These are things of
the beast, these are for creatures that have a settled environment, a
life history, that spin in a cage of instincts. But man is a beast of
that kind no longer, he has left his habitat, he goes out to limitless

This idea of man going out into new things, leaving securities, habits,
customs, leaving his normal life altogether behind him, underlay all
Benham's aristocratic conceptions. And it was natural that he
should consider fear as entirely inconvenient, treat it indeed with
ingratitude, and dwell upon the immense liberations that lie beyond for
those who will force themselves through its remonstrances....

Benham confessed his liability to fear quite freely in these notes. His
fear of animals was ineradicable. He had had an overwhelming dread of
bears until he was twelve or thirteen, the child's irrational dread
of impossible bears, bears lurking under the bed and in the evening
shadows. He confesses that even up to manhood he could not cross a
field containing cattle without keeping a wary eye upon them - his bull
adventure rather increased than diminished that disposition - he hated a
strange dog at his heels and would manoeuvre himself as soon as possible
out of reach of the teeth or heels of a horse. But the peculiar dread of
his childhood was tigers. Some gaping nursemaid confronted him suddenly
with a tiger in a cage in the menagerie annexe of a circus. "My small
mind was overwhelmed."

"I had never thought," White read, "that a tiger was much larger than
a St. Bernard dog.... This great creature!... I could not believe any
hunter would attack such a monster except by stealth and with weapons of
enormous power....

"He jerked himself to and fro across his cramped, rickety cage and
looked over my head with yellow eyes - at some phantom far away. Every
now and then he snarled. The contempt of his detestable indifference
sank deeper and deeper into my soul. I knew that were the cage to vanish
I should stand there motionless, his helpless prey. I knew that were he
at large in the same building with me I should be too terror-stricken
to escape him. At the foot of a ladder leading clear to escape I should
have awaited him paralyzed. At last I gripped my nurse's hand. 'Take me
away,' I whispered.

"In my dreams that night he stalked me. I made my frozen flight from
him, I slammed a door on him, and he thrust his paw through a panel
as though it had been paper and clawed for me. The paw got longer and

"I screamed so loudly that my father came up from his study.

"I remember that he took me in his arms.

"'It's only a big sort of pussy, Poff,' he said. 'FELIS TIGRIS. FELIS,
you know, means cat.'

"But I knew better. I was in no mood then for my father's insatiable

"'And my little son mustn't be a coward.'...

"After that I understood I must keep silence and bear my tigers alone.

"For years the thought of that tiger's immensity haunted my mind. In
my dreams I cowered before it a thousand times; in the dusk it rarely
failed me. On the landing on my way to bed there was a patch of darkness
beyond a chest that became a lurking horror for me, and sometimes the
door of my father's bedroom would stand open and there was a long buff
and crimson-striped shape, by day indeed an ottoman, but by night - .
Could an ottoman crouch and stir in the flicker of a passing candle?
Could an ottoman come after you noiselessly, and so close that you could
not even turn round upon it? No!"


When Benham was already seventeen and, as he supposed, hardened against
his fear of beasts, his friend Prothero gave him an account of the
killing of an old labouring man by a stallion which had escaped out of
its stable. The beast had careered across a field, leapt a hedge and
come upon its victim suddenly. He had run a few paces and stopped,
trying to defend his head with the horse rearing over him. It beat him
down with two swift blows of its fore hoofs, one, two, lifted him up in
its long yellow teeth and worried him as a terrier does a rat - the poor
old wretch was still able to make a bleating sound at that - dropped him,
trampled and kicked him as he tried to crawl away, and went on trampling
and battering him until he was no more than a bloody inhuman bundle of
clothes and mire. For more than half an hour this continued, and then
its animal rage was exhausted and it desisted, and went and grazed at
a little distance from this misshapen, hoof-marked, torn, and muddy
remnant of a man. No one it seems but a horror-stricken child knew what
was happening....

This picture of human indignity tortured Benham's imagination much more
than it tortured the teller of the tale. It filled him with shame and
horror. For three or four years every detail of that circumstantial
narrative seemed unforgettable. A little lapse from perfect health and
the obsession returned. He could not endure the neighing of horses: when
he saw horses galloping in a field with him his heart stood still. And
all his life thereafter he hated horses.

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