Venus

Volume 1
Where We Begin
Eye and Ear
Industry
From Town and City
Travellers Tales
What Celia Sees
Daniel Defoe 1660-1731
William Camden 1551-1623
The Mysteries Of London
The Life of a Coster Girl
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Further Notes From The Midlands
Lichfield Miscellanies
Seven Strong Spires
Before Us Stands Yesterday
Albion Band 1998 - 1999
London Calling
Stuart Hibberd 1893 - 1983
John Logie Baird 1888 - 1946
Are You Sitting Comfortably?
Ghosts and Marvels
Casting the Runes
An Episode Of Cathedral History
The Tractate Middoth
More Ghosts and Marvels
Negotium Perambulans
Venus
Musicks
Dulce Et Decorum Est
War Requiem
Poems by Wilfred Owen
"They called it Passchendaele"
1914
Other Poets 1914 - 1918
C.S. Lewis: A Letter
C. S. Lewis 1898 - 1963
Joyce Grenfell 1919 - 1979
An Interview With Richard Thompson
BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2006
Horkstow Grange
The Radio Ballads
Two Songs Of England
A Band For England
Waterloo Sunset
Vashti Bunyan
Just Another Diamond Day
David Gilmour
On An Island
Live From An Island
Where We Start

By Maurice Baring

John Fletcher was an overworked minor official in a Government office.
He lived a lonely life, and had done so ever since he had been a boy.
At school he had mixed little with his fellow school-boys, and he took
no interest in the things that interested them, that is to say, games.
On the other hand, although he was what is called "good at work," and
did his lessons with facility and ease, he was not a literary boy, and
did not care for books. He was drawn towards machinery of all kinds,
and spent his spare time in dabbling in scientific experiments or in
watching trains go by on the Great Western line. Once he blew off his
eyebrows while making some experiment with explosive chemicals; his
hands were always smudged with dark, mysterious stains, and his room
was like that of a mediaeval alchemist, littered with retorts,
bottles, and test-glasses. Before leaving school he invented a flying
machine (heavier than air), and an unsuccessful attempt to start it on
the high road caused him to be the victim of much chaff and ridicule.

When he left school he went to Oxford. His life there was as lonely as
it had been at school. The dirty, untidy, ink-stained, and chemical-
stained little boy grew up into a tall, lank, slovenly-dressed man,
who kept entirely to himself, not because he cherished any dislike or
disdain for his fellow-creatures, but because he seemed to be entirely
absorbed in his own thoughts and isolated from the world by a barrier
of dreams.

He did well at Oxford, and when he went down he passed high into the
Civil Service and became a clerk in a Government office. There he kept
as much to himself as ever. He did his work rapidly and well, for this
man, who seemed so slovenly in his person, had an accurate mind, and
was what was called a good clerk, although his incurable absent-
mindedness once or twice caused him to forget certain matters of
importance.

His fellow clerks treated him as a crank and as a joke, but none of
them, try as they would, could get to know him or win his confidence.
They used to wonder what Fletcher did with his spare time, what were
his pursuits, what were his hobbies, if he had any. They suspected
that Fletcher had some hobby of an engrossing kind, since in everyday
life he conveyed the impression of a man who is walking in his sleep,
who acts mechanically and automatically. Somewhere else, they thought,
in some other circumstances, he must surely wake up and take a living
interest in somebody or in something.

Yet had they followed him home to his small room in Canterbury-
mansions they would have been astonished. For when he returned from
the office after a hard day's work he would do nothing more engrossing
than slowly to turn over the leaves of a book in which there were
elaborate drawings and diagrams of locomotives and other kinds of
engines. And on Sunday he would take a train to one of the large
junctions and spend the whole day in watching express trains go past,
and in the evening would return again to London.

One day after he had returned from the office somewhat earlier than
usual, he was telephoned for. He had no telephone in his own room, but
he could use a public telephone which was attached to the building. He
went into the small box, but found on reaching the telephone that he
had been cut off by the exchange. He imagined that he had been rung up
by the office, so he asked to be given their number. As he did so his
eye caught an advertisement which was hung just over the telephone. It
was an elaborate design in black and white, pointing out the merits of
a particular kind of soap called the Venus: a classical lady, holding
a looking-glass in one hand and a cake of this invaluable soap in the
other, was standing in a sphere surrounded by pointed rays, which was
no doubt intended to represent the most brilliant of the planets.

Fletcher sat down on the stool and took the receiver in his hand. As
he did so he had for one second the impression that the floor
underneath him gave way and that he was falling down a precipice. But
before he had time to realise what was happening the sensation of
falling left him; he shook himself as though he had been asleep, and
for one moment a faint recollection as though of the dreams of the
night twinkled in his mind, and vanished beyond all possibility of
recall. He said to himself that he had had a long and curious dream,
and he knew that it was too late to remember what it had been about.
Then he opened his eyes wide and looked round him.

He was standing on the slope of a hill. At his feet there was a kind
of green moss, very soft to tread on. It was sprinkled here and there
with light red, wax-like flowers such as he had never seen before. He
was standing in an open space; beneath him there was a plain covered
with what seemed to be gigantic mushrooms, much taller than a man.
Above him rose a mass of vegetation, and over all this was a dense,
heavy, streaming cloud faintly glimmering with a white, silvery light
which seemed to be beyond it.

He walked towards the vegetation, and soon found himself in the middle
of a wood, or rather of a jungle. Tangled plants grew on every side;
large hanging creepers with great blue flowers hung downwards. There
was a profound stillness in this wood; there were no birds singing and
he heard not the slightest rustle in the rich undergrowth. It was
oppressively hot and the air was full of a pungent, aromatic
sweetness. He felt as though he were in a hot-house full of gardenias
and stephanotis. At the same time the atmosphere of the place was
pleasant to him. It was neither strange nor disagreeable. He felt at
home in this green shimmering jungle and in this hot, aromatic
twilight, as though he had lived there all his life.

He walked mechanically onwards as if he were going to a definite spot
of which he knew. He walked fast, but in spite of the oppressive
atmosphere and the thickness of the growth he grew neither hot nor out
of breath; on the contrary, he took pleasure in the motion, and the
stifling, sweet air seemed to invigorate him. He walked steadily on
for over three hours, choosing his way nicely, avoiding certain places
and seeking others, following a definite path and making for a
definite goal. During all this time the stillness continued unbroken,
nor did he meet a single living thing, either bird or beast.

After he had been walking for what seemed to him several hours, the
vegetation grew thinner, the jungle less dense, and from a more or
less open space in it he seemed to discern what might have been a
mountain entirely submerged in a multitude of heavy grey clouds. He
sat down on the green stuff which was like grass and yet was not
grass, at the edge of the open space whence he got this view, and
quite naturally he picked from the boughs of an overhanging tree a
large red, juicy fruit, and ate it. Then he said to himself, he knew
not why, that he must not waste time, but must be moving on.

He took a path to the right of him and descended the sloping jungle
with big, buoyant strides, almost running; he knew the way as though
he had been down that path a thousand times. He knew that in a few
moments he would reach a whole hanging garden of red flowers, and he
knew that when he had reached this he must again turn to the right. It
was as he thought: the red flowers soon came to view. He turned
sharply, and then through the thinning greenery he caught sight of an
open plain where more mushrooms grew. But the plain was as yet a great
way off, and the mushrooms seemed quite small.

"I shall get there in time," he said to himself, and walked steadily
on, looking neither to the right nor to the left. It was evening by
the time he reached the edge of the plain: everything was growing
dark. The endless vapours and the high banks of cloud in which the
whole of this world was sunk grew dimmer and dimmer. In front of him
was an empty level space, and about two miles further on the huge
mushrooms stood out, tall and wide like the monuments of some
prehistoric age. And underneath them on the soft carpet there seemed
to move a myriad vague and shadowy forms.

"I shall get there in time," he thought. He walked on for another half
hour, and by this time the tall mushrooms were quite close to him, and
he could see moving underneath them, distinctly now, green, living
creatures like huge caterpillars, with glowing eyes. They moved slowly
and did not seem to interfere with each other in any way. Further off,
and beyond them, there was a broad and endless plain of high green
stalks like ears of green wheat or millet, only taller and thinner.

He ran on, and now at his very feet, right in front of him, the green
caterpillars were moving. They were as big as leopards. As he drew
nearer they seemed to make way for him, and to gather themselves into
groups under the thick stems of the mushrooms. He walked along the
pathway they made for him, under the shadow of the broad, sunshade-
like roofs of these gigantic growths. It was almost dark now, yet he
had no doubt or difficulty as to finding his way. He was making for
the green plain beyond. The ground was dense with caterpillars; they
were as plentiful as ants in an ant's nest, and yet they never seemed
to interfere with each other or with him; they instinctively made way
for him, nor did they appear to notice him in any way. He felt neither
surprise nor wonder at their presence.

It grew quite dark; the only lights which were in this world came from
the twinkling eyes of the moving figures, which shone like little
stars. The night was no whit cooler than the day. The atmosphere was
as steamy, as dense and as aromatic as before. He walked on and on,
feeling no trace of fatigue or hunger, and every now and then he said
to himself: "I shall be there in time." The plain was flat and level,
and covered the whole way with the mushrooms, whose roofs met and shut
out from him the sight of the dark sky.

At last he came to the end of the plain of mushrooms and reached the
high green stalks he had been making for. Beyond the dark clouds a
silver glimmer had begun once more to show itself. "I am just in
time," he said to himself, "the night is over, the sun is rising."

At that moment there was a great whirr in the air, and from out of the
green stalks rose a flight of millions and millions of enormous broad-
winged butterflies of every hue and description--silver, gold, purple,
brown and blue. Some with dark and velvety wings like the Purple
Emperor, or the Red Admiral, others diaphanous and iridescent as
dragon-flies. Others again like vast soft and silvery moths. They rose
from every part of that green plain of stalks, they filled the sky,
and then soared upwards and disappeared into the silvery cloudland.

Fletcher was about to leap forward when he heard a voice in his ear
saying--

"Are you 6493 Victoria? You are talking to the Home Office."

                  *       *       *       *       *

As soon as Fletcher heard the voice of the office messenger through
the telephone he instantly realised his surroundings, and the strange
experience he had just gone through, which had seemed so long and
which in reality had been so brief, left little more impression on him
than that which remains with a man who has been immersed in a brown
study or who has been staring at something, say a poster in the
street, and has not noticed the passage of time.

The next day he returned to his work at the office, and his fellow-
clerks, during the whole of the next week, noticed that he was more
zealous and more painstaking than ever. On the other hand, his
periodical fits of abstraction grew more frequent and more pronounced.
On one occasion he took a paper to the head of the department for
signature, and after it had been signed, instead of removing it from
the table, he remained staring in front of him, and it was not until
the head of the department had called him three times loudly by name
that he took any notice and regained possession of his faculties. As
these fits of absent-mindedness grew to be somewhat severely commented
on, he consulted a doctor, who told him that what he needed was change
of air, and advised him to spend his Sundays at Brighton or at some
other bracing and exhilarating spot. Fletcher did not take the
doctor's advice, but continued spending his spare time as he did
before, that is to say, in going to some big junction and watching the
express trains go by all day long.

One day while he was thus employed--it was Sunday, in August of 19--,
when the Egyptian Exhibition was attracting great crowds of visitors--
and sitting, as was his habit, on a bench on the centre platform of
Slough Station, he noticed an Indian pacing up and down the platform,
who every now and then stopped and regarded him with peculiar
interest, hesitating as though he wished to speak to him. Presently
the Indian came and sat down on the same bench, and after having sat
there in silence for some minutes he at last made a remark about the
heat.

"Yes," said Fletcher, "it is trying, especially for people like
myself, who have to remain in London during these months."

"You are in an office, no doubt," said the Indian.

"Yes," said Fletcher.

"And you are no doubt hard worked."

"Our hours are not long," Fletcher replied, "and I should not complain
of overwork if I did not happen to suffer from--well, I don't know
what it is, but I suppose they would call it nerves."

"Yes," said the Indian, "I could see that by your eyes."

"I am a prey to sudden fits of abstraction," said Fletcher, "they are
growing upon me. Sometimes in the office I forget where I am
altogether for a space of about two or three minutes; people are
beginning to notice it and to talk about it. I have been to a doctor,
and he said I needed change of air. I shall have my leave in about a
month's time, and then perhaps I shall get some change of air, but I
doubt if it will do me any good. But these fits are annoying, and once
something quite uncanny seemed to happen to me."

The Indian showed great interest and asked for further details
concerning this strange experience, and Fletcher told him all that he
could recall--for the memory of it was already dimmed--of what had
happened when he had telephoned that night.

The Indian was thoughtful for a while after hearing this tale. At last
he said: "I am not a doctor, I am not even what you call a quack
doctor--I am a mere conjurer, and I gain my living by conjuring tricks
and fortune-telling at the Exhibition which is going on in London. But
although I am a poor man and an ignorant man, I have an inkling, a few
sparks in me of ancient knowledge, and I know what is the matter with
you."

"What is it?" asked Fletcher.

"You have the power, or something has the power," said the Indian, "of
detaching you from your actual body, and your astral body has been
into another planet. By your description I think it must be the planet
Venus. It may happen to you again, and for a longer period--for a very
much longer period."

"Is there anything I can do to prevent it?" asked Fletcher.

"Nothing," said the Indian. "You can try change of air if you like,
but," he said with a smile, "I do not think it will do you much good."

At that moment a train came in, and the Indian said good-bye and
jumped into it.

On the next day, which was Monday, when Fletcher got to the office it
was necessary for him to use the telephone with regard to some
business. No sooner had he taken the receiver off the telephone than
he vividly recalled the minute details of the evening he had
telephoned, when the strange experience had come to him. The
advertisement of Venus Soap that had hung in the telephone box in his
house appeared distinctly before him, and as he thought of that he
once more experienced a falling sensation which lasted only a fraction
of a second, and rubbing his eyes he awoke to find himself in the
tepid atmosphere of a green and humid world.

This time he was not near the wood, but on the sea-shore. In front of
him was a grey sea, smooth as oil and clouded with steaming vapours,
and behind him the wide green plain stretched into a cloudy distance.
He could discern, faint on the far-off horizon, the shadowy forms of
the gigantic mushrooms which he knew, and on the level plain which
reached the sea beach, but not so far off as the mushrooms, he could
plainly see the huge green caterpillars moving slowly and lazily in an
endless herd. The sea was breaking on the sand with a faint moan. But
almost at once he became aware of another sound, which came he knew
not whence, and which was familiar to him. It was a low whistling
noise, and it seemed to come from the sky.

At that moment Fletcher was seized by an unaccountable panic. He was
afraid of something; he did not know what it was, but he knew, he felt
absolutely certain, that some danger, no vague calamity, no distant
misfortune, but some definite physical danger was hanging over him and
quite close to him--something from which it would be necessary to run
away, and to run fast in order to save his life. And yet there was no
sign of danger visible, for in front of him was the motionless oily
sea, and behind him was the empty and silent plain. It was then he
noticed that the caterpillars were fast disappearing, as if into the
earth: he was too far off to make out how.

He began to run along the coast. He ran as fast as he could, but he
dared not look round. He ran back from the coast to the plain, from
which a white mist was rising. By this time every single caterpillar
had disappeared. The whistling noise continued and grew louder.

At last he reached the wood and bounded on, trampling down long
trailing grasses and tangled weeds through the thick, muggy gloom of
those endless aisles of jungle. He came to a somewhat open space where
there was the trunk of a tree larger than the others; it stood by
itself and disappeared into the tangle of creepers above. He thought
he would climb the tree, but the trunk was too wide, and his efforts
failed. He stood by the tree trembling and panting with fear. He could
not hear a sound, but he felt that the danger, whatever it was, was at
hand.

It grew darker and darker. It was night in the forest. He stood
paralysed with terror; he felt as though bound hand and foot, but
there was nothing to be done except to wait until his invisible enemy
should choose to inflict his will on him and achieve his doom. And yet
the agony of this suspense was so terrible that he felt that if it
lasted much longer something must inevitably break inside him . . .
and just as he was thinking that eternity could not be so long as the
moments he was passing through, a blessed unconsciousness came over
him. He woke from this state to find himself face to face with one of
the office messengers, who said to him that he had been given his
number two or three times but had taken no notice of it.

Fletcher executed his commission and then went upstairs to his office.
His fellow-clerks at once asked what had happened to him, for he was
looking white. He said that he had a headache and was not feeling
quite himself, but made no further explanations.

This last experience changed the whole tenor of his life. When fits of
abstraction had occurred to him before he had not troubled about them,
and after his first strange experience he had felt only vaguely
interested; but now it was a different matter. He was consumed with
dread lest the thing should occur again. He did not want to get back
to that green world and that oily sea; he did not want to hear the
whistling noise, and to be pursued by an invisible enemy. So much did
the dread of this weigh on him that he refused to go to the telephone
lest the act of telephoning should set alight in his mind the train of
associations and bring his thoughts back to his dreadful experience.

Shortly after this he went for leave, and following the doctor's
advice he spent it by the sea. During all this time he was perfectly
well, and was not once troubled by his curious fits. He returned to
London in the autumn refreshed and well.

On the first day that he went to the office a friend of his telephoned
to him. When he was told that the line was being held for him he
hesitated, but at last he went down to the telephone office.

He remained away twenty minutes. Finally his prolonged absence was
noticed, and he was sent for. He was found in the telephone room stiff
and unconscious, having fallen forward on the telephone desk. His face
was quite white, and his eyes wide open and glazed with an expression
of piteous and harrowing terror. When they tried to revive him their
efforts were in vain. A doctor was sent for, and he said that Fletcher
had died of heart disease.

published as part of the collection
Orpheus in Mayfair and Other Stories and Sketches
first publication in 1909.

albion miscellanies volume 1
is 2005/2006/2007 sam-and-lizzie
all rights reserved