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Title: The Wild Asses of the Devil
Author: H. G. Wells
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0701281.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: March 2008
Date most recently updated: March 2008

This eBook was produced by: Jon Richfield

Production notes:

I cannot remember the precise source of this document. It was on a
couple of pages of badly yellowed paper, apparently from some magazine
or other, and I scanned them some years ago. I have never seen the
story mentioned anywhere else, but it seems to date from a few years
before WWI, when Wells did in fact live in the area described, under
circumstances vaguely similar to those described. It strikes me
personally as one of his most entertaining fantasies, well worth
conservation.

I would add just one thought. In spite of the lip-service to his fame
in F&SF, Wells is to my mind the most underrated author in that genre.
Depending on who does the mapping, and how, it took about fifty years
for almost anyone to break out of the territory Wells had defined, and
those who had any claim to have done so, had his map to go by. They also
had tremendous progress in technology on which to base their ideas.
Certainly Wells displayed creativity and knowledge stunning to anyone
who had much idea of the status of science and technology during the
times of his writing. In re-reading say, "The Food of the Gods", I
get the shivers contemplating how advanced his biological insights
were for his times. They are quite advanced enough to run rings
around most of his readers today, never mind his rivals!

And yet, Wells not only wrote excellent hard science fiction, but
excellent stories. There is not a single Wells story in which the
science is superfluous, tedious, or strained. Certainly there are
instances in which he predicts how things are to work, predicted
which drugs or materials are to play which roles, and he went wrong,
but for an author to avoid that sort of error, he needs a crystal
ball, not a pen, and if he had that, he would be better off betting
on the horses than writing.

There also is no fantasy by Wells in which he strains the suspension
of disbelief; his believability is not so much spectacular, as simply
natural.

In short, when Sturgeon formulated his law of 90% of science fiction
(and everything else) being crud, Wells' works were unconditionally
among the lonely. They still make excellent reading today,
thought-provoking, entertaining, and often frightening. And if we
read them in the context of his day, bearing in mind the circumstances
of his ideas, Wells is not just lonely, but in a class of his own.

* * *

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Title: The Wild Asses of the Devil
Author: H. G. Wells




There was once an Author who pursued fame and prosperity in a pleasant
villa on the south coast of England. He wrote stories of an acceptable
nature and rejoiced in a growing public esteem, carefully offending no
one and seeking only to please. He had married under circumstances of
qualified and tolerable romance a lady who wrote occasional but
otherwise regular verse, he was the father of a little daughter, whose
reported sayings added much to his popularity, and some of the
very best people in the land asked him to dinner. He was a
deputy-lieutenant and a friend of the Prime Minister, a literary
knighthood was no remote possibility for him and even the Nobel Prize,
given a sufficient longevity, was not altogether beyond his hopes. And
this amount of prosperity had not betrayed him into any un-English
pride. He remembered that manliness and simplicity which are expected
from authors. He smoked pipes and not the excellent cigars he could
have afforded. He kept his hair cut and never posed. He did not hold
himself aloof from people of the inferior and less successful classes.
He habitually travelled third class in order to study the characters
he put into his delightful novels; he went for long walks and sat in
inns, accosting people; he drew out his gardener. And though he worked
steadily, he did not give up the care of his body, which threatened a
certain plumpness and what is more to the point, a localised
plumpness, not generally spread over the system but exaggerating the
anterior equator. This expansion was his only care. He thought about
fitness and played tennis, and every day, wet or fine, he went for at
least an hour's walk...

Yet this man, so representative of Edwardian literature--for it is
in the reign of good King Edward the story begins--in spite of his
enviable achievements and prospects, was doomed to the most exhausting
and dubious adventures before his life came to its unhonoured end...

Because I have not told you everything about him. Sometimes--in the
morning sometimes--he would be irritable and have quarrels with his
shaving things, and there were extraordinary moods when it would seem
to him that living quite beautifully in a pleasant villa and being
well-off and famous, and writing books that were always good-humoured
and grammatical and a little distinguished in an inoffensive way, was
as boring and intolerable a life as any creature with a soul to be
damned could possibly pursue. Which shows only that God in putting him
together had not forgotten that viscus the liver which is usual on
such occasions...

The winter at the seaside is less agreeable and more bracing than the
summer, and there were days when this Author had almost to force
himself through the wholesome, necessary routines of his life, when
the south-west wind savaged his villa and roared in the chimneys and
slapped its windows with gustsful of rain and promised to wet that
Author thoroughly and exasperatingly down his neck and round his
wrists and ankles directly he put his nose outside his door. And the
grey waves he saw from his window came rolling inshore under the
hurrying grey rain-bursts, line after line, to smash along the
undercliff into vast feathering mountains of foam and sud and send a
salt-tasting spindrift into his eyes. But manfully he would put on his
puttees and his waterproof cape and his biggest brierwood pipe, and
out he would go into the whurry-balloo of it all, knowing that so he
would be all the brighter for his nice story-writing after tea.

On such a day he went out. He went out very resolutely along the
seaside gardens of gravel and tamarisk and privet, resolved to oblige
himself to go right past the harbour and up to the top of the east
cliff before ever he turned his face back to the comforts of fire and
wife and tea and buttered toast...

And somewhere, perhaps half a mile away from home, he became aware of
a queer character trying to keep abreast of him.

His impression was of a very miserable black man in the greasy,
blue-black garments of a stoker, a lascar probably from a steamship in
the harbour, and going with a sort of lame hobble.

As he passed this individual the Author had a transitory thought of
how much Authors don't know in the world, how much, for instance, this
shivering, cringing body might be hiding within itself, of inestimable
value as 'local colour' if only one could get hold of it for 'putting
into' one's large acceptable novels. Why doesn't one sometimes tap
these sources? Kipling, for example, used to do so, with most
successful results...And then the Author became aware that this
enigma was hurrying to overtake him. He slackened his pace...

The creature wasn't asking for a light; it was begging for a box of
matches. And what was odd, in quite good English.

The Author surveyed the beggar and slapped his pockets. Never had he
seen so miserable a face. It was by no means a prepossessing face,
with its aquiline nose, its sloping brows, its dark, deep, bloodshot
eyes much too close together, its V-shaped, dishonest mouth and
drenched chin-tuft. And yet it was attractively animal and pitiful.
The idea flashed suddenly into the Author's head.. 'Why not, instead
of going on, thinking emptily, through this beastly weather--why not
take this man back home now, to the warm, dry study, and give him a
hot drink and something to smoke, and _draw him out?_'

Get something technical and first-hand that would rather score off
Kipling.

'It's damnably cold!' he shouted, in a sort of hearty, forecastle
voice.

'It's worse than that,' said the strange stoker.

'It's a hell of a day!' said the Author, more forcible than ever.

'Don't remind me of hell,' said the stoker, in a voice of inappeasable
regret.

The Author slapped his pockets again. 'You've got an infernal cold.
Look here, my man--confound it! would you like a hot grog...?'

The scene shifts to the Author's study--a blazing coal fire, the
stoker sitting dripping and steaming before it, with his feet inside
the fender, while the Author fusses about the room, directing the
preparation of hot drinks. The Author is acutely aware not only of
the stoker but of himself. The stoker has probably never been in the
home of an Author before; he is probably awestricken at the array of
books, at the comfort, convenience, and efficiency of the home, at the
pleasant personality entertaining him...Meanwhile the Author does
not forget that the stoker is material, is 'copy,' is being watched,
_observed._ So he poses and watches, until presently he forgets to
pose in his astonishment at the thing he is observing. Because this
stoker is rummier than a stoker ought to be--

He does not simply accept a hot drink; he informs his host just how
hot the drink must be to satisfy him.

'Isn't there something you could put in it--something called red
pepper? I've tasted that once or twice. It's good. If you could put
in a bit of red pepper.'

'If you can stand that sort of thing?'

'And if there isn't much water, can't you set light to the stuff? Or
let me drink it boiling, out of a pannikin or something? Pepper and
all.'

Wonderful fellows, these stokers! The Author went to the bell and
asked for red pepper. And then as he came back to the fire he saw
something that he instantly dismissed as an optical illusion, as a
mirage effect of the clouds of steam his guest was disengaging. The
stoker was sitting, all crouched up, as close over the fire as he
could contrive; and he was holding his black hands, not to the fire
but in the fire, holding them pressed flat against two red, glowing
masses of coal...He glanced over his shoulder at the Author with a
guilty start, and then instantly the Author perceived that the hands
were five or six inches away from the coal.

Then came smoking. The Author produced one of his big cigars--for
although a conscientious pipe-smoker himself he gave people cigars;
and then, again struck by something odd, he went off into a corner of
the room where a little oval mirror gave him a means of watching the
stoker undetected. And this is what he saw.

He saw the stoker, after a furtive glance at him, deliberately turn
the cigar round, place the lighted end in his mouth, inhale strongly,
and blow a torrent of sparks and smoke out of his nose. His firelit
face as he did this expressed a diabolical relief. Then very hastily
he reversed the cigar again, and turned round to look at the Author.
The Author turned slowly towards him.

'You like that cigar?' he asked, after one of those mutual pauses that
break down a pretence.

'It's admirable.'

'Why do you smoke it the other way round?'

The stoker perceived he was caught. 'It's a stokehole trick,' he said.
'Do you mind if I do it? I didn't think you saw.'

'Pray smoke just as you like,' said the Author, and advanced to watch
the operation.

It was exactly like the fire-eater at the village fair. The man stuck
the burning cigar into his mouth and blew sparks out of his nostrils.
'Ah!' he said, with a note of genuine satisfaction. And then, with the
cigar still burning in the corner of his mouth, he turned to the fire
and _began to rearrange the burning coals with his hands_ so as to
pile up a great glowing mass. He picked up flaming and white-hot lumps
as one might pick up lumps of sugar. The Author watched him,
dumbfounded.

'I say!' he cried. 'You stokers get a bit tough.' The stoker dropped
the glowing piece of coal in his hand. 'I forgot,' he said, and sat
back a little.

'Isn't that a _bit--extra?_' asked the Author, regarding him. 'Isn't
that some sort of trick?'

'We get so tough down there,' said the stoker, and paused discreetly
as the servant came in with the red pepper.

'Now you can drink,' said the Author, and set himself to mix a drink
of a pungency that he would have considered murderous ten minutes
before. When he had done, the stoker reached over and added more red
pepper.

'I don't quite see how it is your hand doesn't burn,' said the Author
as the stoker drank. The stoker shook his head over the uptilted
glass.

'Incombustible,' he said, putting it down. 'Could I have just a tiny
drop more? Just brandy and pepper, if you _don't_ mind. Set alight. I
don't care for water except when it's superheated steam.'

And as the Author poured out another stiff glass of this incandescent
brew, the stoker put up his hand and scratched the matted black hair
over his temple. Then instantly he desisted and sat looking wickedly
at the Author, while the Author stared at him aghast. For at the
corner of his square, high, narrow forehead, revealed for an instant
by the thrusting back of the hair, a curious stumpy excrescence had
been visible, and the top of his ear--he had a pointed top to his ear!

'A-a-a-a-h!' said the Author, with dilated eyes.

'A-a-a-a-h!' said the stoker, in hopeless distress.

'But you aren't--!'

'I know--I know I'm not. I know...I'm a devil. A poor, lost,
homeless devil.'

And suddenly, with a gesture of indescribable despair, the apparent
stoker buried his face in his hands and burst into tears. 'Only man
who's ever been decently kind to me,' he sobbed. 'And now--you'll
chuck me out again into the beastly wet and cold...Beautiful fire
...Nice drink...Almost homelike...Just to torment me...
Boo-ooh!'

And let it be recorded to the credit of our little Author, that he did
overcome his momentary horror, that he did go quickly round the table,
and that he patted that dirty stoker's shoulder.

'There!' he said. 'There! Don't mind my rudeness. Have another nice
drink. Have a hell of a drink. I won't turn you out if you're unhappy
--on a day like this. Just have a mouthful of pepper, man, and pull
yourself together.'

And suddenly the poor devil caught hold of his arm. 'Nobody good to
me,' he sobbed. 'Nobody good to me.' And his tears ran down over the
Author's plump little hand--scalding tears.

All really wonderful things happen rather suddenly and without any
great emphasis upon their wonderfulness, and this was no exception to
the general rule. This Author went on comforting his devil as though
this was nothing more than a chance encounter with an unhappy child,
and the devil let his grief and discomfort have vent in a manner that
seemed at the time as natural as anything could be. He was clearly a
devil of feeble character and uncertain purpose, much broken down by
harshness and cruelty, and it throws a curious light upon the general
state of misconception with regard to matters diabolical that it came
as a quite pitiful discovery to our Author that a devil could he
unhappy and heart-broken. For a long time his most earnest and
persistent questioning could gather nothing except that his guest was
an exile from a land of great warmth and considerable entertainment,
and it was only after considerable further applications of brandy and
pepper that the sobbing confidences of the poor creature grew into the
form of a coherent and understandable narrative.

And then it became apparent that this person was one of the very
lowest types of infernal denizen, and that his rle in the dark realms
of Dis had been that of watcher and minder of a herd of sinister
beings hitherto unknown to our Author, the Devil's Wild Asses, which
pastured in a stretch of meadows near the Styx. They were, he
gathered, unruly, dangerous, and enterprising beasts, amenable only to
a certain formula of expletives, which instantly reduced them to
obedience. These expletives the stoker-devil would not repeat; to do
so except when actually addressing one of the Wild Asses would, he
explained, involve torments of the most terrible description. The bare
thought of them gave him a shivering fit. But he gave the Author to
understand that to crack these curses as one drove the Wild Asses to
and from their grazing on the Elysian fields was a by no means
disagreeable amusement. The ass-herds would try who could crack the
loudest until the welkin rang.

And speaking of these things, the poor creature gave a picture of
diabolical life that impressed the Author as by no means unpleasant
for anyone with a suitable constitution. It was like the Idylls of
Theocritus done in fire; the devils drove their charges along burning
lanes and sat gossiping in hedges of flames, rejoicing in the warm dry
breezes (which it seems are rendered peculiarly bracing by the faint
flavour of brimstone in the air), and watching the harpies and furies
and witches circling in the perpetual afterglow of that inferior sky.
And ever and again there would be holidays, and one would take one's
lunch and wander over the sulphur craters picking flowers of sulphur
or fishing for the souls of usurers and publishers and house-agents
and land-agents in the lakes of boiling pitch. It was good sport, for
the usurers and publishers and house-agents and land-agents were
always eager to be caught; they crowded round the hooks and fought
violently for the bait, and protested vehemently and entertainingly
against the Rules and Regulations that compelled their instant return
to the lake of fire.

And sometimes when he was on holiday this particular devil would go
through the saltpetre dunes, where the witches' brooms grow and the
blasted heath is in flower, to the landing-place of the ferry whence
the Great Road runs through the shops and banks of the Via Dolorosa to
the New Judgement Hall, and watch the crowds of damned arriving by the
steam ferry-boats of the Consolidated Charon Company. This
steam-boat-gazing seems about as popular down there as it is at
Folkestone. Almost every day notable people arrive, and, as the
devils are very well informed about terrestrial affairs--for of
course all the earthly newspapers go straight to hell--whatever else
could one expect?--they get ovations of an almost undergraduate
intensity. At times you can bear their cheering or booing, as the
case may be, right away on the pastures where the Wild Asses feed. And
that had been this particular devil's undoing.

He had always been interested in the career of the Rt. Hon. W. E.
Gladstone...

He was minding the Wild Asses. He knew the risks. He knew the
penalties. But when he heard the vast uproar, when he heard the eager
voices in the lane of fire saying, 'It's Gladstone at last!' when he
saw how quietly and unsuspiciously the Wild Asses cropped their
pasture, the temptation was too much. He slipped away. He saw the
great Englishman landed after a slight struggle. He joined in the
outcry of 'Speech! Speech!' He heard the first delicious promise of a
Home Rule movement which should break the last feeble links of
Celestial Control...

And meanwhile the Wild Asses escaped--according to the rules and the
prophecies...

The little Author sat and listened to this tale of a wonder that never
for a moment struck him as incredible. And outside his rain-lashed
window the strung-out fishing smacks pitched and rolled on their way
home to Folkestone harbour...

The Wild Asses escaped.

They got away to the world. And his superior officers took the poor
herdsman and tried him and bullied him and passed this judgement upon
him: that he must go to the earth and find the Wild Asses, and say to
them that certain string of oaths that otherwise must never be
repeated, and so control them and bring them back to hell. That--or
else one pinch of salt on their tails. It did not matter which. One
by one he must bring them back, driving them by spell and curse to the
cattle-boat of the ferry. And until he had caught and brought them
all back he might never return again to the warmth and comfort of his
accustomed life. That was his sentence and punishment. And they put
him into a shrapnel shell and fired him out among the stars, and when
he had a little recovered he pulled himself together and made his way
to the world.

But he never found his Wild Asses and after a little time he gave up
trying.

He gave up trying because the Wild Asses, once they had got out of
control, developed the most amazing gifts. They could, for instance,
disguise themselves with any sort of human shape, and the only way in
which they differed then from a normal human being was--according to
the printed paper of instructions that had been given to their
custodian when he was fired out--that 'their general conduct remains
that of a Wild Ass of the Devil.'

'And what interpretation can we put upon _that?_' he asked the
listening Author.

And there was one night in the year--Walpurgis Night--when the
Wild Asses became visibly great black wild asses and kicked up their
hind legs and brayed. They had to. 'But then, of course,' said the
devil, 'they would take care to shut themselves up somewhere when they
felt that coming on.'

Like most weak characters, the stoker-devil was intensely egotistical.
He was anxious to dwell upon his own miseries and discomforts and
difficulties and the general injustice of his treatment, and he was
careless and casually indicative about the peculiarities of the Wild
Asses, the matter which most excited and interested the Author. He
bored on with his doleful story, and the Author had to interrupt with
questions again and again in order to get any clear idea of the
situation.

The devil's main excuse for his nervelessness was his profound
ignorance of human nature. 'So far as I can see,' he said, 'they might
all be Wild Asses. I tried it once--'

'Tried what?'

'The formula. You know.'

'Yes?'

'On a man named Sir Edward Carson.'

'Well?'

_'Ugh!'_ said the devil.
'Punishment?'

'Don't speak of it. He was just a professional lawyer-politician who
had lost his sense of values...How was _I_ to know...? But our
people certainly know how to hurt...'

After that it would seem this poor devil desisted absolutely from any
attempt to recover his lost charges. He just tried to live for the
moment and make his earthly existence as tolerable as possible. It was
clear he hated the world. He found it cold, wet, draughty . . . 'I
can't understand why everybody insists upon living outside of it,' he
said. 'If you went inside--'

He sought warmth and dryness. For a time he found a kind of
contentment in charge of the upcast furnace of a mine, and then he was
superseded by an electric-fan. While in this position he read a vivid
account of the intense heat in the Red Sea, and he was struck by the
idea that if he could get a job as stoker upon an Indian liner he
might snatch some days of real happiness during that portion of the
voyage. For some time his natural ineptitude prevented his realising
this project, but at last, after some bitter experiences of
homelessness during a London December, he had been able to ship on an
Indiaward boat--only to get stranded in Folkestone in consequence of
a propeller breakdown. And so here he was!

He paused. 'But about these Wild Asses?' said the Author.

The mournful, dark eyes looked at him hopelessly.

'Mightn't they do a lot of mischief?' asked the Author.

'They'll do no end of mischief,' said the despondent devil.

'Ultimately you'll catch it for that?'

'Ugh!' said the stoker, trying not to think of it.
Now the spirit of romantic adventure slumbers in the most unexpected
places, and I have already told you of our plump Author's discontents.
He had been like a smouldering bomb for some years. Now, he burst out.
He suddenly became excited, energetic, stimulating, uplifting.

He stood over the drooping devil.

'But my dear chap!' he said. 'You must pull yourself together. You
must do better than this. These confounded brutes may be doing all
sorts of mischief. While you--shirk. . .

And so on. Real ginger.

'If I had someone to go with me. Someone who knew his way about.'

The Author took whisky in the excitement of the moment. He began to
move very rapidly about his room and make short, sharp gestures. You
know how this sort of emotion wells up at times. 'We must work from
some central place,' said the Author. 'To begin with, London perhaps.'

It was not two hours later that they started, this Author and this
devil he had taken to himself, upon a mission. They went out in
overcoats and warm underclothing--The Author gave the devil a thorough
outfit, a double lot of Jaeger's extra thick--and they were resolved
to find the Wild Asses of the Devil and send them back to hell, or at
least the Author was, in the shortest possible time. In the picture
you will see him with a field-glass slung under his arm, the better to
watch suspected cases; in his pocket, wrapped in oiled paper, is a lot
of salt to use if by chance he finds a Wild Ass when the devil and his
string of oaths is not at hand. So he started. And when he had caught
and done for the Wild Asses, then the Author supposed that he would
come back to his nice little villa and his nice little wife, and to
his little daughter who said the amusing things, and to his
popularity, his large gilt-edged popularity, and--except for an
added prestige--be just exactly the man he had always been. Little
knowing that whosoever takes unto himself a devil and goes out upon a
quest, goes out upon a quest from which there is no returning--

Nevermore.



THE END




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