The Chronic Argonauts

The Chronic Argo

H.G. Wells

DR. NEBOGIPFEL paused, looked in sudden doubt at the clergyman’s perplexed face. “You think that sounds mad,” he said, “to travel through time?”

“It certainly jars with accepted opinions,” said the clergyman, allowing the faintest suggestion of controversy to appear in his intonation, and speaking apparently to the Chronic Argo. Even a clergyman of the Church of England you see can have a suspicion of illusions at times.

“It certainly does jar with accepted opinions,” agreed the philosopher cordially. “It does more than that—it defies accepted opinions to mortal combat. Opinions of all sorts, Mr. Cook—Scientific Theories, Laws, Articles of Belief, or, to come to elements, Logical Premises, Ideas, or whatever you like to call them—all are, from the infinite nature of things, so many diagrammatic caricatures of the ineffable—caricatures altogether to be avoided save where they are necessary in the shaping of results—as chalk outlines are necessary to the painter and plans and sections to the engineer. Men, from the exigencies of their being, find this hard to believe.”

The Rev. Elijah Ulysses Cook nodded his head with the quiet smile of one whose opponent has unwittingly given a point.

“It is as easy to come to regard ideas as complete reproductions of entities as it is to roll off a log. Hence it is that almost all civilised men believe in the reality of the Greek geometrical conceptions.”

“Oh! pardon me, sir,” interrupted Cook. “Most men know that a geometrical point has no existence in matter, and the same with a geometrical line. I think you underrate . . . ”

“Yes, yes, those things are recognised,” said Nebogipfel calmly; “but now . . . a cube. Does that exist in the material universe?”


“An instantaneous cube?”

“I don’t know what you intend by that expression.”

“Without any other sort of extension; a body having length, breadth, and thickness, exists?”

“What other sort of extension can there be?” asked Cook, with raised eyebrows.

“Has it never occurred to you that no form can exist in the material universe that has no extension in time? . . . Has it never glimmered upon your consciousness that nothing stood between men and a geometry of four dimensions—length, breadth, thickness, and duration—but the inertia of opinion, the impulse from the Levantine philosophers of the bronze age?”

“Putting it that way,” said the clergyman, “it does look as though there was a flaw somewhere in the notion of tridimensional being; but”  . . . He became silent, leaving that sufficiently eloquent “but” to convey all the prejudice and distrust that filled his mind.

“When we take up this new light of a fourth dimension and reexamine our physical science in its illumination,” continued Nebogipfel, after a pause, “we find ourselves no longer limited by hopeless restriction to a certain beat of time—to our own generation. Locomotion along lines of duration—chronic navigation comes within the range, first, of geometrical theory, and then of practical mechanics. There was a time when men could only move horizontally and in their appointed country. The clouds floated above them, unattainable things, mysterious chariots of those fearful gods who dwelt among the mountain summits. Speaking practically, men in those days were restricted to motion in two dimensions; and even there circumambient ocean and hypoborean fear bound him in. But those times were to pass away. First, the keel of Jason cut its way between the Symplegades, and then in the fulness of time, Columbus dropped anchor in a bay of Atlantis. Then man burst his bidimensional limits, and invaded the third dimension, soaring with Montgolfier into the clouds, and sinking with a diving bell into the purple treasure-caves of the waters. And now another step, and the hidden past and unknown future are before us. We stand upon a mountain summit with the plains of the ages spread below.”

Nebogipfel paused and looked down at his hearer.

The Reverend Elijah Cook was sitting with an expression of strong distrust on his face. Preaching much had brought home certain truths to him very vividly, and he always suspected rhetoric. “Are those things figures of speech,” he asked; “or am I to take them as precise statements? Do you speak of travelling through time in the same way as one might speak of Omnipotence making His pathway on the storm, or do you—a—mean what you say?”

Dr. Nebogipfel smiled quietly. “Come and look at these diagrams,” he said, and then with elaborate simplicity he commenced to explain again to the clergyman the new quadridimensional geometry. Insensibly Cook’s aversion passed away, and seeming impossibility grew possible, now that such tangible things as diagrams and models could be brought forward in evidence. Presently he found himself asking questions, and his interest grew deeper and deeper as Nebogipfel slowly and with precise clearness unfolded the beautiful order of his strange invention. The moments slipped away unchecked, as the Doctor passed on to the narrative of his research, and it was with a start of surprise that the clergyman noticed the deep blue of the dying twilight through the open doorway.

“The voyage,” said Nebogipfel concluding his history, “will be full of undreamt-of dangers—already in one brief essay I have stood in the very jaws of death—but it is also full of the divines’ promise of undreamt-of joy. Will you come? Will you walk among the people of the Golden Years? . . . ”

But the mention of death by the philosopher had brought flooding back to the mind of Cook, all the horrible sensations of that first apparition.

“Dr. Nebogipfel . . . one question?” He hesitated. “On your hands . . . Was it blood?”

Nebogipfel’s countenance fell. He spoke slowly.

“When I had stopped my machine, I found myself in this room as it used to be. Hark!”

“It is the wind in the trees towards Rwstog.”

“It sounded like the voices of a multitude of people singing . . .  when I had stopped I found myself in this room as it used to be. An old man, a young man, and a lad were sitting at a table—reading some book together. I stood behind them unsuspected. ‘Evil spirits assailed him,’ read the old man; ‘but it is written, to him that overcometh shall be given life eternal’. They came as entreating friends, but he endured through all their snares. They came as principalities and powers, but he defied them in the name of the King of Kings. Once even it is told that in his study, while he was translating the New Testament into German, the Evil One himself appeared before him . . . ’ Just then the lad glanced timorously round, and with a fearful wail fainted away . . . ”

“The others sprang at me . . . It was a fearful grapple . . . The old man clung to my throat, screaming ‘Man or Devil, I defy thee . . . ’

“I could not help it. We rolled together on the floor . . . the knife his trembling son had dropped came to my hand . . . Hark!”

He paused and listened, but Cook remained staring at him in the same horror-stricken attitude he had assumed when the memory of the blood-stained hands had rushed back over his mind.

“Do you hear what they are crying? Hark!”

Burn the warlock! Burn the murderer!

“Do you hear? There is no time to be lost.”

Slay the murderer of cripples. Kill the devil’s claw!

“Come! Come!”

Cook, with a convulsive effort, made a gesture of repugnance and strode to the doorway. A crowd of black figures roaring towards him in the red torchlight made him recoil. He shut the door and faced Nebogipfel.

The thin lips of the Doctor curled with a contemptuous sneer. “They will kill you if you stay,” he said; and seizing his unresisting vistor by the wrist, he forced him towards the glittering machine. Cook sat down and covered his face with his hands.

In another moment the door was flung open, and old Pritchard stood blinking on the threshold.

A pause. A hoarse shout changing suddenly into a sharp shrill shriek.

A thunderous roar like the bursting forth of a great fountain of water.

The voyage of the Chronic Argonauts had begun.


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