The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth

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2.

Amidst the complex and confused happenings, the impacts from the great outer world that constituted Mr. Bensington’s fame, a shining and active figure presently became conspicuous— became almost, as it were, a leader and marshal of these externalities in Mr. Bensington’s eyes. This was Dr. Winkles, that convincing young practitioner, who has already appeared in this story as the means whereby Redwood was able to convey the Food to his son. Even before the great outbreak, it was evident that the mysterious powders Redwood had given him had awakened this gentleman’s interest immensely, and so soon as the first wasps came he was putting two and two together.

He was the sort of doctor that is in manners, in morals, in methods and appearance, most succinctly and finally expressed by the word “rising.” He was large and fair, with a hard, alert, superficial, aluminium-coloured eye, and hair like chalk mud, even-featured and muscular about the clean-shaven mouth, erect in figure and energetic in movement, quick and spinning on the heel, and he wore long frock coats, black silk ties and plain gold studs and chains and his silk hats had a special shape and brim that made him look wiser and better than anybody. He looked as young or old as anybody grown up. And after that first wonderful outbreak he took to Bensington and Redwood and the Food of the Gods with such a convincing air of proprietorship, that at times, in spite of the testimony of the Press to the contrary, Bensington was disposed to regard him as the original inventor of the whole affair.

“These accidents,” said Winkles, when Bensington hinted at the dangers of further escapes, “are nothing. Nothing. The discovery is everything. Properly developed, suitably handled, sanely controlled, we have— we have something very portentous indeed in this food of ours… . We must keep our eye on it … We mustn’t let it out of control again, and— we mustn’t let it rest.”

He certainly did not mean to do that. He was at Bensington’s now almost every day. Bensington, glancing from the window, would see the faultless equipage come spanking up Sloane Street and after an incredibly brief interval Winkles would enter the room with a light, strong motion, and pervade it, and protrude some newspaper and supply information and make remarks.

“Well,” he would say, rubbing his hands, “how are we getting on?” and so pass to the current discussion about it.

“Do you see,” he would say, for example, “that Caterham has been talking about our stuff at the Church Association?”

“Dear me!” said Bensington, “that’s a cousin of the Prime Minister, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Winkles, “a very able young man— very able. Quite wrong-headed; you know, violently reactionary— but thoroughly able. And he’s evidently disposed to make capital out of this stuff of ours. Takes a very emphatic line. Talks of our proposal to use it in the elementary schools—– ”

“Our proposal to use it in the elementary schools!”

“I said something about that the other day— quite in passing— little affair at a Polytechnic. Trying to make it clear the stuff was really highly beneficial. Not in the slightest degree dangerous, in spite of those first little accidents. Which cannot possibly occur again… . You know it would be rather good stuff— But he’s taken it up.”

“What did you say?”

“Mere obvious nothings. But as you see—–! Takes it up with perfect gravity. Treats the thing as an attack. Says there is already a sufficient waste of public money in elementary schools without this. Tells the old stories about piano lessons again—you know. No one; he says, wishes to prevent the children of the lower classes obtaining an education suited to their condition, but to give them a food of this sort will be to destroy their sense of proportion utterly. Expands the topic. What Good will it do, he asks, to make poor people six-and-thirty feet high? He really believes, you know, that they will be thirty-six feet high.”

“So they would be,” said Bensington, “if you gave them our food at all regularly. But nobody said anything—– ”

“I said something.” “But, my dear Winkles—!”

“They’ll be Bigger, of course,” interrupted Winkles, with an air of knowing all about it, and discouraging the crude ideas of Bensington. “Bigger indisputably. But listen to what he says! Will it make them happier? That’s his point. Curious, isn’t it? Will it make them better? Will they be more respectful to properly constituted authority? Is it fair to the children themselves?? Curious how anxious his sort are for justice— so far as any future arrangements go. Even nowadays, he says, the cost, of feeding and clothing children is more than many of their parents can contrive, and if this sort of thing is to be permitted—! Eh?

“You see he makes my mere passing suggestion into a positive proposal. And then he calculates how much a pair of breeches for a growing lad of twenty feet high or so will cost. Just as though he really believed— Ten pounds, he reckons, for the merest decency. Curious this Caterham! So concrete! The honest, and struggling ratepayer will have to contribute to that, he says. He says we have to consider the Rights of the Parent. It’s all here. Two columns. Every Parent has a right to have, his children brought up in his own Size… .

“Then comes the question of school accommodation, cost of enlarged desks and forms for our already too greatly burthened National Schools. And to get what?— a proletariat of hungry giants. Winds up with a very serious passage, says even if this wild suggestion— mere passing fancy of mine, you know, and misinterpreted at that— this wild suggestion about the schools comes to nothing, that doesn’t end the matter. This is a strange food, so strange as to seem to him almost wicked. It has been scattered recklessly— so he says— and it may be scattered again. Once you’ve taken it, it’s poison unless you go on with it. ‘So it is,’ said Bensington. And in short he proposes the formation of a National Society for the Preservation of the Proper Proportions of Things. Odd? Eh? People are hanging on to the idea like anything.”

“But what do they propose to do?”

Winkles shrugged his shoulders and threw out his hands. “Form a Society,” he said, “and fuss. They want to make it illegal to manufacture this Herakleophorbia— or at any rate to circulate the knowledge of it. I’ve written about a bit to show that Caterham’s idea of the stuff is very much exaggerated— very much exaggerated indeed, but that doesn’t seem to check it. Curious how people are turning against it. And the National Temperance Association, by-the-bye, has founded a branch for Temperance in Growth.”

“Mm,” said Bensington and stroked his nose.

“After all that has happened there’s bound to be this uproar. On the face of it the thing’s—startling.”

Winkles walked about the room for a time, hesitated, and departed.

It became evident there was something at the back of his mind, some aspect of crucial importance to him, that he waited to display. One days when Redwood and Bensington were at the flat together he gave them a glimpse of this something in reserve.

“How’s it all going?” he said; rubbing his hands together.

“We’re getting together a sort of report.”

“For the Royal Society?”

“Yes.”

“Hm,” said. Winkles, very profoundly, and walked to the hearth-rug. “Hm. But— Here’s the point. Ought you?”

“Ought we— what?”

“Ought you to publish?”

“We’re not in the Middle Ages,” said Redwood.

“I know.”

“As Cossar says, swapping wisdom— that’s the true scientific method.”

“In most cases, certainly. But— This is exceptional.”

“We shall put the whole thing before the Royal Society in the proper way,” said Redwood.

Winkles returned to that on a later occasion.

“It’s in many ways an Exceptional discovery.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said Redwood.

“It’s the sort of knowledge that could easily be subject to grave abuse— grave dangers, as Caterham puts it.”

Redwood said nothing.

“Even carelessness, you know— ”

“If we were to form a committee of trustworthy people to control the manufacture of Boomfood— Herakleophorbia, I should say— we might— ”

He paused, and Redwood, with a certain private discomfort, pretended that he did not see any sort of interrogation… .

Outside the apartments of Redwood and Bensington, Winkle, in spite of the incompleteness of his instructions, became a leading authority upon Boomfood. He wrote letters defending its use; he made notes and articles explaining its possibilities; he jumped up irrelevantly at the meetings of the scientific and medical associations to talk about it; he identified himself with it. He published a pamphlet called “The Truth about Boomfood,” in which he minimised the whole of the Hickleybrow affair almost to nothing. He said that it was absurd to say Boomfood would make people thirty-seven feet high. That was “obviously exaggerated.” It would make them Bigger, of course, but that was all… .

Within that intimate circle of two it was chiefly evident that Winkles was extremely anxious to help in the making of Herakleophorbia, help in correcting any proofs there might be of any paper there might be in preparation upon the subject— do anything indeed that might lead up to his participation in the details of the making of Herakleophorbia. He was continually telling them both that he felt it was a Big Thing, that it had big possibilities. If only they were— “safeguarded in some way.” And at last one day he asked outright to be told just how it was made.

“I’ve been thinking over what you said,” said Redwood.

“Well?” said Winkles brightly.

“It’s the sort of knowledge that could easily be subject to grave abuse,” said Redwood.

“But I don’t see how that applies,” said Winkles.

“It does,” said Redwood.

Winkles thought it over for a day or so. Then he came to Redwood and said that he doubted if he ought to give powders about which he knew nothing to Redwood’s little boy; it seemed to him it was uncommonly like taking responsibility in the dark. That made Redwood thoughtful.

“You’ve seen that the Society for the Total Suppression of Boomfood claims to have several thousand members,” said Winkles, changing the subject. “They’ve drafted a Bill,” said Winkles. “They’ve got young Caterham to take it up— readily enough. They’re in earnest. They’re forming local committees to influence candidates. They want to make it penal to prepare and store Herakleophorbia without special license, and felony— matter of imprisonment without option— to administer Boomfood— that’s what they call it, you know— to any person under one-and-twenty. But there’s collateral societies, you know. All sorts of people. The Society for the Preservation of Ancient Statures is going to have Mr. Frederic Harrison on the council, they say. You know he’s written an essay about it; says it is vulgar, and entirely inharmonious with that Revelation of Humanity that is found in the teachings of Comte. It is the sort of thing the Eighteenth Century couldn’t have produced even in its worst moments. The idea of the Food never entered the head of Comte— which shows how wicked it really is. No one, he says, who really understood Comte… .”

“But you don’t mean to say— ” said Redwood, alarmed out of his disdain for Winkles.

“They’ll not do all that,” said Winkles. “But public opinion is public opinion, and votes are votes. Everybody can see you are up to a disturbing thing. And the human instinct is all against disturbance, you know. Nobody seems to believe Caterham’s idea of people thirty-seven feet high, who won’t be able to get inside a church, or a meeting-house, or any social or human institution. But for all that they’re not so easy in their minds about it. They see there’s something— something more than a common discovery— ”

“There is,” said Redwood, “in every discovery.”

“Anyhow, they’re getting— restive. Caterham keeps harping on what may happen if it gets loose again. I say over and over again, it won’t, and it can’t. But— there it is!”

And he bounced about the room for a little while as if he meant to reopen the topic of the secret, and then thought better of it and went.

The two scientific men looked at one another. For a space only their eyes spoke.

“If the worst comes to the worst,” said Redwood at last, in a strenuously calm voice, “I shall give the Food to my little Teddy with my own hands.”

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