Signs & Wonders

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Signs & Wonders
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J. D. Beresford

Signs & Wonders

Published by Good Press, 2022

EAN 4057664632982

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When the curtain rises, two men and a woman are discovered talking before an illimitable background.

FIRST MAN [shaking hands with the man and the woman] Well! Who’d have thought of meeting you here!

WOMAN. Or you, as far as that goes. We thought you were living in Putney.

FIRST MAN. So I am. It just happened that I’d run over this morning.

[Enter R. a nebula, spinning slowly. It passes majestically across the background as the scene proceeds.]

SECOND MAN. The world’s a very small place.

FIRST MAN. Ah! You’re right, it is.

WOMAN. And how’s the family?

FIRST MAN. Capital, thanks. Yours well, too, I hope?

WOMAN. All except Johnnie.

[Enter R. a group of prehistoric animals; a few brontosauri, titanotheres, mammoths, sabre-toothed tigers, and so on.]

FIRST MAN. What’s wrong with him?

WOMAN. He was bit by a dog. Nasty place he’s got.

FIRST MAN. Did you have it cauterised? They’re nasty things, dog-bites.

WOMAN. Oh, yes, we had it cauterised, you may be sure.

SECOND MAN [reflectively] Dangerous things, dogs.

FIRST MAN. If they’re not properly looked after, they are. Now I’ve got a little dog....

[At this point the speaker’s voice becomes inaudible owing to the passing of the brontosauri, which gradually move off L.]

WOMAN [becoming audible and apparently interrupting in the middle of an anecdote] Though I tell Johnnie it’s his own fault. He shouldn’t have teased him.

[Enter R. a few thousand savages with flat weapons.]

SECOND MAN. Boys will be boys.

WOMAN. Which is no reason, I say, that they shouldn’t learn to behave themselves.

FIRST MAN. Can’t begin too soon, in my opinion.

[Exeunt savages: enter the population of India.]

WOMAN. He might have been killed if a man hadn’t come up and pulled the dog off him. A black man, he was, too.

FIRST MAN. What? A nigger?

WOMAN. Or a Turk, or something. I can’t never see the difference. [With a shiver.] Ugh! I hate black men, somehow. The look of ’em gives me the shudders.

SECOND MAN [on a note of faint expostulation] My dear!

FIRST MAN. I’ve heard others say the same thing.

WOMAN. A pretty penny, Johnnie’ll cost us, with the Doctor and all.

[Enter two armies engaged in a Civil War.]

FIRST MAN [shaking his head, wisely] Ah! I daresay it will.

SECOND MAN. I don’t know what we’re coming to, what with wages and prices and Lord knows what all?

FIRST MAN. No more do I. Why, only yesterday....

[The rest of his sentence is drowned by the firing of a battery of heavy guns.]

WOMAN. Oh! well, I suppose it’ll all come right in time.

[The Civil War moves off L. Signs of the approaching end of the world become manifest.]

FIRST MAN. We’ll hope for the best, I’m sure.

[The Hosts of Heaven appear in the sky.]

SECOND MAN [reflectively] On the whole, I should say that things looked a bit better than they did.

[The Sea gives up its Dead.]

WOMAN. We shall take Johnnie to Ramsgate, as soon as his arm’s well.

FIRST MAN. We always go to Scarborough.

SECOND MAN. We have to consider the expense of the journey, especially now there’s no cheap trains.

[The universe bursts into flame. For a moment all is confusion; and then the Spirit of the First Man is heard speaking.]

SPIRIT OF FIRST MAN. Well, I suppose I ought to be getting along.

SPIRIT OF SECOND MAN. Glad to have met you, anyway.

SPIRIT OF WOMAN. Funny our running up against you like this. As you said, the world’s a very small place. Remember me to the family. [They go out.]

The nebula, still spinning slowly, passes of the stage L.




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I DREAMED this in the dullness of a February day in London.

I had been pondering the elements that go to the making of the human entity, and more particularly that new aspect of the theory of the etheric body which presents it as a visible, ponderable, tangible, highly organised, but almost incredibly tenuous, form of matter. From that I slid to the consideration of the possibility of some essence still more remote from our conception of the gross material of our objective experience; and then for a moment I held the idea of the imperceptible transition from this ultimately dispersing matter to thought or impulse—from the various bodies, etheric, astral, mental, causal, or Buddhistic, to the free and absolute Soul.

I suppose that at this point I fell asleep. I was not aware of any change of consciousness, but I cannot otherwise explain the fact that in an instant I was transported from an open place in the North of London, and from all this familiar earth of ours, to some planet without the knowledge of the dwellers in the solar system.

This amazing change was accomplished without the least shock. It was, indeed, imperceptible. The new world upon which I opened my eyes appeared at first sight to differ in no particular from that I had so recently left. I saw below me a perfect replica of the Hampstead Garden Suburb. The wind blew from the east with no loss of its characteristic quality. The occasional people who passed had the same air of tired foreboding and intense preoccupation with the miserable importance of their instant lives, that has seemed to me to mark the air of the middle-classes for the past few weeks. Also it was, I thought, beginning to rain.

I shivered and decided that I might as well go home. I felt that it was not worth while to travel a distance unrecordable in any measure of earthly miles, only to renew my terrestrial experiences. And then, by an accident, possibly to verify my theory that it was certainly going to rain, I looked up and realised at once the unspeakable difference between that world and our own.

For on this little earth of ours the sky makes no claim on our attention. It has its effects of cloud and light occasionally, and these effects no doubt may engage at times the interest of the poet or the artist. But to us, ordinary people, the sky is always pretty much the same, and we only look at it when we are expecting rain. Even then we often shut our eyes.

In that other world which revolves round a sun so distant that the light of it has not yet reached the earth the sky is quite different. Things happen in it. As I looked up, for instance, I saw a great door open, and out of it there marched an immense procession that trailed its glorious length across the whole width of heaven. I heard no sound. The eternal host moved in silent dignity from zenith to horizon. And after the procession had passed the whole visible arch of the sky was parted like a curtain and there looked out from the opening the semblance of a vast, intent eye.


But what immediately followed the gaze of that overwhelming watcher I do not know, for someone touched my arm, and a voice close at my shoulder said in the very tones of an earthly cockney:

“What yer starin’ at, guv’nor? Airyplanes? I can’t see none.”

I looked at him and found that he was just such a loafer as one may see any day in London.

“Aeroplanes,” I repeated. “Great Heaven, can’t you see what’s up there? The procession and that eye?”

He stared up then, and I with him, and the eye had gone; but between the still parted heavens I could see into the profundity of a space so rich with beauty and, as it seemed, with promise, that I held my breath in sheer wonder.

“No! I can’t see nothin’, guv’nor,” my companion said.

And I presume that as he spoke I must have waked from my dream, for the glory vanished and I found myself dispensing a small alms to a shabby man who was representing himself as most unworthily suffering through no fault of his own.

As I walked home through the rain I reflected that the people of that incredibly distant world, walking, as they always do, with their gaze bent upon the ground, are probably unable to see the signs and wonders that blaze across the sky. They, like ourselves, are so preoccupied with the miserable importance of their instant lives.


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I WAS not asleep. I have watched passengers who kept their eyes shut between the stations, but as yet I have not seen an indisputable case of anyone sound asleep on the Hampstead and Charing Cross Tube. Of the other passages that make up London’s greater intestine I have less experience, and it may be that some tubes are more conducive to slumber than the one most familiar to me. I have no ambition to make a dogmatic generalisation concerning either the stimulative or soporific action of the Underground. I merely wish it to be understood that I was not asleep, and that it was hardly possible that I could have been, with a small portmanteau permanently on one foot, and the owner of it—a little man who must have wished that the straps were rather longer—intermittently on the other. Against this, however, I have to put the fact that I could not say at which station the little man removed from me the burden of himself and his portmanteau. Nor could I give particulars of the appearance of such of my innumerable fellow-passengers as were most nearly presented to me, although I do know that most of them were reading—even the strap-hangers. It was, indeed, this observation that started my vision or train of thought or preoccupation—call it anything you like except a dream.

The eyes in his otherwise repulsive face held a wistfulness, a hint of vague speculation that attracted me. He sat, hunched on the summit of the steeply rising ground overlooking the sea, the place where the forest comes so abruptly to an end that from a little distance it looks as if it had been gigantically planed to a hard edge.

He was alone and ruminatively quiescent after food. He had fed well and carelessly. Some of the bones that lay near him had been very indifferently picked. He leaned forward clasping his hairy legs with his equally hairy arms, and stared out with that hint of speculation and wistfulness in his eyes over the placid magnificence of the Western Sea—just disturbed enough to reflect a gorgeous road of fire that laid a vanishing track across the waters up to the open goal of the low sun. A faint breeze blew up the hill, and it seemed as if he leant his face forward to drink the first refreshment of that sweet, cool air.

I approached him more nearly, trying to read his thought, rejoicing in the knowledge that he could neither see nor apprehend me. For though a man may know something of the past, the future is hidden from him, and I represented to him a future that could only be reckoned in a vast procession of centuries. Yet as I came nearer, so near that I could rest my hands on his knees and gaze up closely into his eyes, he shrank a little and leaned slightly away from me, as if he were uncertainly aware of an unfamiliar, distasteful presence. I fancied that the mat of hair on his chest just perceptibly bristled.

I could read his thought, now, and I was thrilled to discover that the expression of his eyes had not misled me. He had attained to a form of consciousness. He, alone, of all the beasts had received the gift of constructive imagination. He could look forward, make plans to meet a possible emergency. He knew already something of tomorrow. Even then he was deep in speculation. That day he had hunted a slow but cunning little beast which found a refuge among the great boulders that lay piled in gigantic profusion along the foreshore. And he had failed. Another quarry had been his, but that particular little beast had outwitted him. And now, longing for it, he ruminated clumsy lethargic plans for its capture.

It may have been that the unusual effort tired him, for presently he slept, still hunched into the same compact heap, crouching with an effect of swift alertness as if he were ready at the least alarm to leap up and vanish into the cover of the forest.

Then, a plan came to me, also. I would bring a vision to this primitive ancestor of mankind. I would merge myself with his being and he should dream a dream of the immensely distant future. Blessed and privileged above all the human race, he should know for an instant to what inconceivable developments, to what towering heights of intellectual and manipulative glory his descendants should one day be heir. I had no definite idea of the precise illustration I should choose to set forth the magnificence of man’s latest attainment. Nor did I pause to consider what I myself might suffer in the process of this infamous liaison between the ages. I acted on an impulse that I found irresistible. I have myself longed so often to read the distant future of mankind, that I felt as a god bestowing an inestimable gift. But I should have known that in the mystical union it is the god and not the man who suffers.

I was wrapped in an awful darkness as we fell stupendously through time, but presently I knew that we were rising again, weighted with the burden of primitive flesh. Then in an instant came a strange yellow unnatural light, the roaring of a terrible sound—and the fearful vision. The horror of it was unendurable; the shock of it so great that spirit and flesh were rent asunder. I remained. He fell back to the sweetness of the cool air blowing up from the tranquil sea.

Did he rush frantically into the forest or sit with dripping mouth and wide alarmed eyes, rigidly staring at the scarlet rim of the setting sun? Yet what could he have understood of the future in that moment of detestable revelation? Could he have recognised men and women in their strange disguise of modern dress, as being even of the same species as himself? And if he had, what could he have known of them, seeing them packed so closely together, immoveably wedged into the terror of that rocking roaring cage of unknown material; seeing them occupied in staring so intently and incomprehensibly at those amazing little black-dotted white sheets? Impossible for him to guess that those speckled sheets held a magic that transported his descendants from the misery of their cage into imaginations so extensive and so various that some of them might, however dimly and allusively, include himself, hunched and ruminant, regarding the vast tranquillity of the sea.

The tunnel suddenly broke, the roaring gave place to a rattle that by contrast was gentle and soothing. I opened my eyes. We were under the sky again, slipping, with intermittent flashes of light, into the harbour of Golder’s Green Station.

For a moment, I seemed to see the clumsy and violent shape of a beast that strove in panic to escape; and then I came back to my own world of the patient readers, with their white, controlled faces, forming now in solemn procession down the aisle of the carriage.

But it was his dream, not mine. And I have been wondering whether, if I dreamed also, the distant future might not seem equally unendurable to me?


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WHEN he heard the first signal, warning the people of London to take cover, his spirit revolted.

He began to picture with a sick disgust the scene of his coming confinement in the dirty basement. Mrs. Gibson, his landlady, would welcome him with the air of forced cheerfulness he knew so well. She would make the same remarks about the noise of the guns. She would say again: “Well, there’s one thing, it drowns the noise of the bombs—if they’ve really got here this time.” Then Maunders from the first floor would say that you could always pick out the sound of the aerial torpedoes; and explain, elaborately, why. Mrs. Graham from the second floor would say that she’d rather enjoy it, if it weren’t for the children. And her eldest little prig of a boy would say, “I’m not afraid, mumma,” and expect everyone to praise his courage. Mrs. Gibson would praise him, of course. She would say: “There, now, I declare he’s the bravest of anyone.” She was obliged to do it. She would never be able to get new lodgers this winter. And when that preliminary talk was done with, they would all begin again on the endlessly tedious topic of reprisals; and keep it up until a pause in the barrage set them on to spasmodic ejaculations of wonder whether “they” had been driven off, or gone, or been shot down, or....

No; definitely, he would not stand it. He could better endure the simultaneous explosion of every gun in London than three hours of that conversation. Moreover, he could not face the horrible drip, drip, from the scullery sink. On the night of the last raid he had been very near the sink. And the thought of that steady plop ... plop ... of water into the galley-pot Mrs. Gibson kept under the tap for some idiotic reason, was as the thought of an inferno such as could not have been conceived by Dante, nor organised by the Higher German Command.

Nerves? He shrugged his shoulders. In a sense, no doubt. Suspense, dread, a long exasperation of waiting had filled every commonplace experience—more particularly that dreadful dripping of the cold water tap—with all kinds of horrible associations. But if it was “nerves,” it was not nervousness, not fear of being killed, nothing in the least like panic. He was quite willing to face the possible danger of the open streets. But he could not and would not face Mrs. Gibson and the scullery sink.

No; he must escape—a fugitive from protection. Men had fled from strange things, but had they ever fled from a stranger thing than refuge? He must go secretly. If Mrs. Gibson heard him she would stop him, begin an immense, unendurable argument. She could not afford to risk the loss of a lodger this winter. She would bring Maunders and Mrs. Graham to join her in persuasion and protest. Freedom was hard to win in London, in such times as these.

He crept down the long three flights of stairs like some wary criminal feeling his cautious way to liberty. But once he had, with infinite deliberation, slipped back the ailing latch of the front door, he lifted his head and squared his shoulders with a great gasp of relief. He could have wept tears of exultation. He was filled with a deep thankfulness for this boon of his enlargement....

There was no sound of guns as yet; nor any sweep of searchlights tormenting the wide gloom of the sky. It was a wonderful, calm night; a little misty on the ground; but, above, the moon was serene and bright as a new guinea.

He had no hesitation as to his direction. He desired the greatest possible expansion of outlook; and turned his face at once towards the river. On the Embankment he would be able to see a wide arc of the sky. He had a sense of setting about a prohibited adventure, full of the most daring and delicious excitements. His one dread was that he might be interfered with, stopped, sent home.

The cycling policemen looked at him, he thought, with peculiar suspicion. They gruffly shouted at him to take cover, with a curt note of warning, as if he were breaking the law by indulging himself in this escapade. He tried to avoid notice by slinking into the shadows. That cold, inimical moonlight made everything so conspicuous....


Except for the policemen, the streets were vividly empty. He could feel the spirit of London crouched in expectancy. Behind every darkened window men, women, and children waited and longed for the relief of the first gun. And while they waited they chattered and smiled. And all their laughter and conversation was like these streets, vividly empty; their spirits had taken cover.

He alone was free, exempt, rejoicing in his liberty....

The ground mist was thicker on the Embankment; and for a moment he was confused by the loom of a strange obelisk that had a curiously remote, exotic air in the midst of this familiar London. Then he recognised the outline as that of Cleopatra’s Needle, and went close up to the alien monument of another age and stared up at it in the proclamatory moonlight. He wondered if any magic lingered in those cryptic inscriptions? If they might not have endowed the very granite with curious, occult powers. He was still staring at the solemn portent of the obelisk when the barrage opened with unusual suddenness....

For a time he was crushed and overwhelmed by the pressure of that intimidating fury of sound. He cowered and winced like a naked soul exposed to the intimate vengeance of God. He was as beaten and battered by the personal threat of those cumulative explosions as if every gun sought him and him alone as the objective of its awful wrath.

But, by degrees, he began to grow accustomed even to that world-rocking pandemonium. He became aware of the undertones that laced the dominant roar and thunder of artillery. He could trace, he believed, beside the shriek of shell, the humming whirr of an aeroplane he could not see. And once something whizzed past him with a high singing hiss that ended abruptly with a sharp clip. He guessed that a fragment of shrapnel had buried itself in one of the plane-trees.

Yet the real danger of that warning did not terrify him as had the enormous onslaught of noise from the barrage. At the next intermission of the deafening bombardment he stood up, rested his hand on the plinth of the obelisk, and stared, wondering and unafraid, into the great arc of the sky. He could see no aeroplanes.... The stillness was so profound that he could hear with a grateful distinctness the soft clucking ripple of the rising flood.

Presently he dropped his regard for the heavens to the plain objective of deserted London. The mist had almost dispersed in some places, had thickened in others—churned and driven, perhaps, by the vast pressure of the sound waves. Across the road he could see the impending cliff of great buildings, pale and tall in the moonlight. At his feet the plane-trees threw trembling, skeleton shadows. All the town waited in suspense to know whether or not the bombardment would presently be renewed.

He had a presentiment that it was all over. He felt the quick exaltation and vigour of one who has suffered and escaped danger. But when he looked up the Embankment and saw what he took to be the silhouettes of three towering trams emerging with furtive silence from the mist, he was aware of a faint sense of disappointment. Nothing was left to him but to return to the common dreariness of life.

He took a step towards the trams that were advancing with such a stately, such a hushed and ponderous deliberation....


He held his breath, staring and gaping, and then backed nervously against the pedestal of the great Egyptian monument.

Had the shock of that awful bombardment broken his nerve? Was he mad? Bewitched by some ancient magic? Or was it, perhaps, that in one swift inappreciable moment he had been instantly killed by a fragment of shrapnel, and that, now, his emerging spirit could, even as it watched these familiar surroundings, peer back deep into the hidden mysteries of time?

He pressed himself, shivering and fascinated, against the hard, insistent reality of cold granite; but still in single file these three colossal shapes advanced, solemn and majestic, rocking magnificently with a slow and powerful gravity.

They were almost abreast of him now, sombre and stolid—three vast, prehistoric, unattended Elephants, imperturbably exploring the silences of this dead and lonely city.

They passed, and left him weak and trembling, but indescribably happy.

Two minutes later, a blind and insensible policeman, following the very path of those magical evocations of the thought of ancient Egypt, rode carelessly by, bearing the banal message that all was clear.

But the adventurer walked home in a dream of ecstasy. Whatever the future might hold for him, he had pierced the veil of the commonplace. He had seen and heard on the Thames Embankment that sacred, mystical procession of the Elephants.

He looked at Mrs. Gibson with something of contempt when she brought him his breakfast next morning. He could not respond to her chatter concerning the foolish detail of last night’s raid. She, poor woman, was afraid that she might, in some unknown way, have offended him. Her last effort was meant as an amiable diversion. One never knew whether people weren’t more scared than they chose to admit.

“There’s one amusin’ bit,” she said, laying his morning paper on the table, “as I just glanced at while I was waitin’ for the water to boil. It’s in Hincidents of the Raid. It seems as three performin’ elephunts goin’ ’ome from the ’Ippodrome or somewhere got loose—their keeper done a bolt, I suppose, when the guns began—and got walkin’ off by theirselves all down the Embankment. They must ’a been a comic sight, poor things. Terrified they was, no doubt....”

Now, why should God explain his miracles through the mouth of a Mrs. Gibson?