The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth

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2.

Experimental work is the most tedious thing in the world (unless it be the reports of it in the Philosophical Transactions), and it seemed a long time to Mr. Bensington before his first dream of enormous possibilities was replaced by a crumb of realisation. He had taken the Experimental Farm in October, and it was May before the first inklings of success began. Herakleophorbia I. and II. and III. had to be tried, and failed; there was trouble with the rats of the Experimental Farm, and there was trouble with the Skinners. The only way to get Skinner to do anything he was told to do was to dismiss him. Then he would nib his unshaven chin— he was always unshaven most miraculously and yet never bearded— with a flattened hand, and look at Mr. Bensington with one eye, and over him with the other, and say, “Oo, of courthe, Thir— if you’re theriouth!”

But at last success dawned. And its herald was a letter in the long slender handwriting of Mr. Skinner.

“The new Brood are out,” wrote Mr. Skinner, “and don’t quite like the look of them. Growing very rank— quite unlike what the similar lot was before your last directions was given. The last, before the cat got them, was a very nice, stocky chick, but these are Growing like thistles. I never saw. They peck so hard, striking above boot top, that am unable to give exact Measures as requested. They are regular Giants, and eating as such. We shall want more com very soon, for you never saw such chicks to eat. Bigger than Bantams. Going on at this rate, they ought to be a bird for show, rank as they are. Plymouth Rocks won’t be in it. Had a scare last night thinking that cat was at them, and when I looked out at the window could have sworn I see her getting in under the wire. The chicks was all awake and pecking about hungry when I went out, but could not see anything of the cat. So gave them a peck of corn, and fastened up safe. Shall be glad to know if the Feeding to be continued as directed. Food you mixed is pretty near all gone, and do not like to mix any more myself on account of the accident with the pudding. With best wishes from us both, and soliciting continuance of esteemed favours,

“Respectfully yours,

“ALFRED NEWTON SKINNER.”

The allusion towards the end referred to a milk pudding with which some Herakleophorbia II. had got itself mixed with painful and very nearly fatal results to the Skinners.

But Mr. Bensington, reading between the lines saw in this rankness of growth the attainment of his long sought goal. The next morning he alighted at Urshot station, and in the bag in his hand he carried, sealed in three tins, a supply of the Food of the Gods sufficient for all the chicks in Kent.

It was a bright and beautiful morning late in May, and his corns were so much better that he resolved to walk through Hickleybrow to his farm. It was three miles and a half altogether, through the park and villages and then along the green glades of the Hickleybrow preserves. The trees were all dusted with the green spangles of high spring, the hedges were full of stitchwort and campion and the woods of blue hyacinths and purple orchid; and everywhere there was a great noise of birds—­thrushes, blackbirds, robins, finches, and many more— and in one warm corner of the park some bracken was unrolling, and there was a leaping and rushing of fallow deer.

These things brought back to Mr. Bensington his early and forgotten delight in life; before him the promise of his discovery grew bright and joyful, and it seemed to him that indeed he must have come upon the happiest day in his life. And when in the sunlit run by the sandy bank under the shadow of the pine trees he saw the chicks that had eaten the food he had mixed for them, gigantic and gawky, bigger already than many a hen that is married and settleds and still growing, still in their first soft yellow plumage (just faintly marked with brown along the back), he knew indeed that his happiest day had come.

At Mr. Skinner’s urgency he went into the runs but after he had been pecked through the cracks in his shoes once or twice he got out again, and watched these monsters through the wire netting. He peered close to the netting, and followed their movements as though he had never seen a chick before in his life.

“Whath they’ll be when they’re grown up ith impothible to think,” said Mr. Skinner.

“Big as a horse,” said Mr. Bensington.

“Pretty near,” said Mr. Skinner.

“Several people could dine off a wing!” said Mr. Bensington. “They’d cut up into joints like butcher’s meat.”

“They won’t go on growing at thith pathe though,” said Mr. Skinner.

“No?” said Mr. Bensington.

“No,” said Mr. Skinner. “I know thith thort. They begin rank, but they don’t go on, bleth you! No.”

There was a pause.

“Itth management,” said Mr. Skinner modestly.

Mr. Bensington turned his glasses on him suddenly.

“We got ’em almoth ath big at the other plathe,” said Mr. Skinner, with his better eye piously uplifted and letting himself go a little; “me and the mithith.”

Mr. Bensington made his usual general inspection of the premises, but he speedily returned to the new run. It was, you know, in truth ever so much more than he had dared to expect. The course of science is so tortuous and so slow; after the clear promises and before the practical realisation arrives there comes almost always year after year of intricate contrivance, and here— here was the Foods of the Gods arriving after less than a year of testing! It seemed too good— too good. That Hope Deferred which is the daily food of the scientific imagination was to be his no more! So at least it seemed to him then. He came back and stared at these stupendous chicks of his, time after time.

“Let me see,” he said. “They’re ten days old. And by the side of an ordinary chick I should fancy— about six or seven times as big… .”

“Itth about time we artht for a rithe in thkrew,” said Mr. Skinner to his wife. “He’th ath pleathed ath Punth about the way we got thothe chickth on in the further run— pleathed ath Punth he ith.”

He bent confidentially towards her. “Thinkth it’th that old food of hith,” he said behind his hands and made a noise of suppressed laughter in his pharyngeal cavity… .

Mr. Bensington was indeed a happy man that day. He was in no mood to find fault with details of management. The bright day certainly brought out the accumulating slovenliness of the Skinner couple more vividly than he had ever seen it before. But his comments were of the gentlest. The fencing of many of the runs was out of order, but he seemed to consider it quite satisfactory when Mr. Skinner explained that it was a “fokth or a dog or thomething” did it. He pointed out that the incubator had not been cleaned.

“That it asn’t, Sir,” said Mrs. Skinner with her arms folded, smiling coyly behind her nose. “We don’t seem to have had time to clean it not since we been ’ere… .”

He went upstairs to see some rat-holes that Skinner said would justify a trap— they certainly were enormous— and discovered that the room in which the Food of the Gods was mixed with meal and bran was in a quite disgraceful order. The Skinners were the sort of people who find a use for cracked saucers and old cans and pickle jars and mustard boxes, and the place was littered with these. In one corner a great pile of apples that Skinner had saved was decaying, and from a nail in the sloping part of the ceiling hung several rabbit skins, upon which he proposed to test his gift as a furrier. ("There ithn’t mutth about furth and thingth that I don’t know,” said Skinner.)

Mr. Bensington certainly sniffed critically at this disorder, but he made no unnecessary fuss, and even when he found a wasp regaling itself in a gallipot half full of Herakleophorbia IV, he simply remarked mildly that his substance was better sealed from the damp than exposed to the air in that manner.

And he turned from these things at once to remark— what had been for some time in his mind— “I think, Skinner— you know, I shall kill one of these chicks— as a specimen. I think we will kill it this afternoon, and I will take it back with me to London.”

He pretended to peer into another gallipot and then took off his spectacles to wipe them.

“I should like,” he said, “I should like very much, to have some relic— some memento— of this particular brood at this particular day.”

“By-the-bye,” he said, “you don’t give those little chicks meat?”

“Oh! no, Thir,” said Skinner, “I can athure you, Thir, we know far too much about the management of fowlth of all dethcriptionth to do anything of that thort.”

“Quite sure you don’t throw your dinner refuse— I thought I noticed the bones of a rabbit scattered about the far corner of the run— ”

But when they came to look at them they found they were the larger bones of a cat picked very clean and dry.

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