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A Slip Under the Microscope

By H. G. Wells

OUTSIDE the laboratory windows was a watery-grey fog, and
within a close warmth and the yellow light of the green-
shaded gas lamps that stood two to each table down its narrow
length. On each table stood a couple of glass jars containing the
mangled vestiges of the crayfish, mussels, frogs, and guinea-pigs,
upon which the students had been working, and down the side of
the room, facing the windows, were shelves bearing bleached dis-
sections in spirits, surmounted by a row of beautifully executed
anatomical drawings in whitewood frames and overhanging a row
of cubical lockers. All the doors of the laboratory were panelled
with blackboard, and on these were the half-erased diagrams of
the previous day s work. The laboratory was empty, save for the
demonstrator, who sat near the preparation-room door, and silent,
save for a low, continuous murmur, and the clicking of the rocker
microtome at which he was working. But scattered about the
room were traces of numerous students : hand-bags, polished boxes
of instruments, in one place a large drawing covered by a news-
paper, and in another a prettily bound copy of News from Nowhere
a book oddly at variance with its surroundings. These things
had been put down hastily as the students had arrived and hurried
at once to secure their seats in the adjacent lecture theatre.


                        230 A Slip under the Microscope

Deadened by the closed door, the measured accents of the professor
sounded as a featureless muttering.

Presently, faint through the closed windows came the sound
of the Oratory clock striking the hour of eleven. The clicking of
the microtome ceased, and the demonstrator looked at his watch,
rose, thrust his hands into his pockets, and walked slowly down
the laboratory towards the lecture theatre door. He stood listen-
ing for a moment, and then his eye fell on the little volume by
William Morris. He picked it up, glanced at the title, smiled,
opened it, looked at the name on the fly-leaf, ran the leaves
through with his hand, and put it down. Almost immediately
the even murmur of the lecturer ceased, there was a sudden burst
of pencils rattling on the desks in the lecture theatre, a stirring, a
scraping of feet, and a number of voices speaking together. Then
a firm footfall approached the door, which began to open, and
stood ajar, as some indistinctly heard question arrested the new

The demonstrator turned, walked slowly back past the micro-
tome, and left the laboratory by the preparation-room door. As
he did so, first one, and then several students carrying notebooks,
entered the laboratory from the lecture theatre and distributed them-
selves among the little tables, or stood in a group about the door-
way. They were an exceptionally heterogeneous assembly, for while
Oxford and Cambridge still recoil from the blushing prospect of
mixed classes, the College of Science anticipated America in the
matter years ago—mixed socially, too, for the prestige of the
College is high and its scholarships, free of any age limit, dredge
deeper even than do those of the Scotch universities. The class
numbered one-and-twenty, but some remained in the theatre
questioning the professor, copying the blackboard diagrams before
they were washed off, or examining the special specimens he had


                        By H. G. Wells 231

produced to illustrate the day’s teaching. Of the nine who had
come into the laboratory three were girls, one of whom, a little
fair woman, wearing spectacles and dressed in greyish-green, was
peering out of the window at the fog, while the other two, both
wholesome-looking, plain-faced schoolgirls, unrolled and put on
the brown holland aprons they wore while dissecting. Of the
men, two went down the laboratory and sat down in their places,
one, a pallid, dark-bearded man, who had once been a tailor ; the
other a pleasant-featured, ruddy young man of twenty, dressed in
a well-fitting brown suit ; young Wedderburn, the son of
Wedderburn the eye specialist. The others formed a little knot
near the theatre door. One of these, a dwarfed, spectacled figure,
with a hunch back, sat on a bent wood stool ; two others, one a
short, dark youngster, and the other a flaxen-haired, reddish-
complexioned young man, stood leaning side by side against the
slate sink, while the fourth stood facing them, and maintained the
larger share of the conversation.

This last person was named Hill. He was a sturdily built
young fellow, of the same age as Wedderburn ; he had a white
face, dark grey eyes, hair of an indeterminate colour, and pro-
minent, irregular features. He talked rather louder than was
needful, and thrust his hands deeply into his pockets. His collar
was frayed and blue with the starch of a careless laundress, his
clothes were evidently ready-made, and there was a patch on the
side of his boot near the toe. And as he talked or listened to the
others, he glanced now and again towards the lecture theatre door.
They were discussing the depressing peroration of the lecture
they had just heard, the last lecture it was in the introductory
course in zoology. ” From ovum to ovum is the goal of the
higher vertebrata,” the lecturer had said in his melancholy tones,
and so had neatly rounded off the sketch of comparative anatomy


                        232 A Slip under the Microscope

he had been developing. The spectacled hunchback had repeated
it, with noisy appreciation, had tossed it towards the fair-haired
student with an evident provocation, and had started one of
those vague, rambling discussions on generalities, so unaccountably
dear to the student mind all the world over.

” That is our goal, perhaps—I admit it—as far as science goes,”
said the fair-haired student, rising to the challenge. ” But there
are things above science.”

“Science,” said Hill, confidently, “is systematic knowledge.
Ideas that don’t come into the system—must anyhow—be loose
ideas.” He was not quite sure whether that was a clever saying
or a fatuity until his hearers took it seriously.

The thing I cannot understand,” said the hunchback, at large,
” is whether Hill is a materialist or not.”

” There is one thing above matter,” said Hill, promptly, feeling
he had a better thing this time, aware, too, of someone in the
doorway behind him, and raising his voice a trifle for her benefit,
” and that is, the delusion that there is something above matter.”

” So we have your gospel at last,” said the fair student. ” It’s
all a delusion, is it ? All our aspirations to lead something more
than dogs’ lives, all our work for anything beyond ourselves. But
see how inconsistent you are. Your socialism, for instance. Why
do you trouble about the interests of the race ? Why do you
concern yourself about the beggar in the gutter ? Why are you
bothering yourself to lend that book”—he indicated William Morris
by a movement of the head—” to everyone in the lab. ? ”

” Girl,” said the hunchback, indistinctly, and glanced guiltily
over his shoulder.

The girl in brown, with the brown eyes, had come into the
laboratory, and stood on the other side of the table behind him,
with her rolled-up apron in one hand, looking over her shoulder,


                        By H. G. Wells 233

listening to the discussion. She did not notice the hunchback,
because she was glancing from Hill to his interlocutor. Hill’s
consciousness of her presence betrayed itself to her only in his
studious ignorance of the fact ; but she understood that, and it
pleased her. ” I see no reason,” said he, ” why a man should live
like a brute because he knows of nothing beyond matter, and does
not expect to exist a hundred years hence.”

” Why shouldn’t he ? ” said the fair-haired student.

” Why should he ? ” said Hill.

” What inducement has he ? ”

” That’s the way with all you religious people. It’s all a
business of inducements. Cannot a man seek after righteousness
for righteousness’ sake ? ”

There was a pause. The fair man answered with a kind of
vocal padding, ” But—you see—inducement—when I said induce-
ment,” to gain time. And then the hunchback came to his
rescue and inserted a question. He was a terrible person in the
debating society with his questions, and they invariably took one
form—a demand for a definition. ” What’s your definition of
righteousness ? ” said the hunchback at this stage.

Hill experienced a sudden loss of complacency at this question,
but even as it was asked relief came in the person of Brooks, the
laboratory attendant, who entered by the preparation-room door,
carrying a number of freshly killed guinea-pigs by their hind legs,
” This is the last batch of material this session,” said the youngster,
who had not previously spoken. Brooks advanced up the laboratory,
smacking down a couple of guinea-pigs at each table. The rest
of the class, scenting the prey from afar, came crowding in by the
lecture theatre door, and the discussion perished abruptly as the
students who were not already in their places hurried to them to
secure the choice of a specimen. There was a noise of keys rattling


                        234 A Slip under the Microscope

on split rings as lockers were opened and dissecting instruments
taken out. Hill was already standing by his table, and his box of
scalpels was sticking out of his pocket. The girl in brown came
a step towards him, and, leaning over his table, said softly : ” Did
you see that I returned your book, Mr. Hill ? ”

During the whole scene she and the book had been vividly
present in his consciousness ; but he made a clumsy pretence of
looking at the book and seeing it for the first time. ” Oh, yes,”
he said, taking it up. ” I see. Did you like it ? ”

” I want to ask you some questions about it—sometime.”

“Certainly,” said Hill. “I shall be glad.” He stopped
awkwardly. ” You liked it ? ” he said.

” It’s a wonderful book. Only some things I don’t under-

Then suddenly the laboratory was hushed by a curious braying
noise. It was the demonstrator. He was at the blackboard ready
to begin the day’s instruction, and it was his custom to demand
silence by a sound midway between the ” Er ” of common inter-
course and the blast of a trumpet. The girl in brown slipped
back to her place ; it was immediately in front of Hill’s, and Hill,
forgetting her forthwith, took a note-book out of the drawer of
his table, turned over its leaves hastily, drew a stumpy pencil from
his pocket, and prepared to make a copious note of the coming
demonstration. For demonstrations and lectures are the sacred text
of the college students. Books, saving only the Professor’s own,
you may—it is even expedient to—ignore.

Hill was the son of a Landport cobbler, and had been hooked
by a chance blue paper the authorities had thrown out to the
Landport Technical Colege. He kept himself in London on his
allowance of a guinea a week, and found that, with proper care,


                        By H. G. Wells 235

this also covered his clothing allowance, an occasional water-
proof collar, that is ; and ink and needles and cotton, and such-
like necessaries for a man about town. This was his first year
and his first session, but the brown old man in Landport had
already got himself detested in many public-houses by boasting of
his son, ” the professor.” Hill was a vigorous youngster, with a
serene contempt for the clergy of all denominations, and a fine
ambition to reconstruct the world. He regarded his scholarship
as a brilliant opportunity. He had begun to read at seven, and
had read steadily whatever came in his way, good or bad, since
then. His worldly experience had been limited to the Island of
Portsea, and acquired chiefly in the wholesale boot factory in
which he had worked by day, after passing the seventh standard
of the Board school. He had a considerable gift of speech, as the
College Debating Society, which met amidst the crushing
machines and mine models in the metallurgical theatre down-
stairs, already recognised, recognised by a violent battering of
desks whenever he rose. And he was just at that fine emotional
age when life opens at the end of a narrow pass like a broad valley
at one’s feet, full of the promise of wonderful discoveries and
tremendous achievements. And his own limitations, save that he
knew that he knew neither Latin nor French, were all unknown
to him.

At first his interest had been divided pretty equally between his
biological work at the College and social and theological theoris-
ing, an employment which he took in deadly earnest. Of a night,
when the big museum, library was not open, he would sit on the
bed of his room in Chelsea with his coat and a muffler on, and
write out the lecture notes and revise his dissection memoranda,
until Thorpe called him out by a whistle—the landlady objected
to open the door to attic visitors—and then the two would go


                        236 A Slip under the Microscope

prowling about the shadowy, shiny, gas-lit streets, talking, very
much in the fashion of the sample just given, of the God Idea,
and Righteousness, and Carlyle, and the Reorganisation of Society.
And, in the midst of it all, Hill, arguing not only for Thorpe,
but for the casual passer-by, would lose the thread of his argument
glancing at some pretty painted face that looked meaningly at
him as he passed. Science and Righteousness ! But once or
twice lately there had been signs that a third interest was creep-
ing into his life, and he had found his attention wandering from
the fate of the mesoblastic somites or the probable meaning of the
blastopore, to the thought of the girl with the brown eyes who
sat at the table before him.

She was a paying student ; she descended inconceivable social
altitudes to speak to him. At the thought of the education she
must have had, and the accomplishments she must possess, the
soul of Hill became abject within him. She had spoken to him
first over a difficulty about the alisphenoid of a rabbit’s skull, and
he had found that, in biology at least, he had no reason for self-
abasement. And from that, after the manner of young people
starting from any starting-point, they got to generalities, and
while Hill attacked her upon the question of socialism—some
instinct told him to spare her a direct assault upon her religion—
she was gathering resolution to undertake what she told herself
was his aesthetic education. She was a year or two older than he,
though the thought never occurred to him. The loan of News
from Nowhere
was the beginning of a series of cross loans. Upon
some absurd first principle of his, Hill had never ” wasted time ”
upon poetry, and it seemed an appalling deficiency to her. One
day in the lunch hour, when she chanced upon him alone in the
little museum where the skeletons were arranged, shamefully eat-
ing the bun that constituted his midday meal, she retreated, and


                        By H. G. Wells 237

returned to lend him, with a slightly furtive air, a volume of
Browning. He stood sideways towards her and took the book
rather clumsily, because he was holding the bun in the other
hand. And in the retrospect his voice lacked the cheerful clear-
ness he could have wished.

That occurred after the examination in comparative anatomy,
on the day before the College turned out its students, and was
carefully locked up by the officials, for the Christmas holidays.
The excitement of cramming for the first trial of strength had
for a little while dominated Hill, to the exclusion of his other
interests. In the forecasts of the result in which everyone in-
dulged, he was surprised to find that no one regarded him as a
possible competitor for the Harvey Commemoration Medal, of
which this and the two subsequent examinations disposed. It
was about this time that Wedderburn, who so far had lived in-
conspicuously on the uttermost margin of Hill’s perceptions,
began to take on the appearance of an obstacle. By a mutual
agreement, the nocturnal prowlings with Thorpe ceased for the
three weeks before the examination, and his landlady pointed out
that she really could not supply so much lamp oil at the price.
He walked to and fro from the College with little slips of mnemonics
in his hand, lists of crayfish appendages, rabbits’ skull-bones, and
vertebrate nerves, for example, and became a positive nuisance to
foot-passengers in the opposite direction.

But, by a natural reaction, Poetry and the girl with the brown
eyes ruled the Christmas holiday. The pending results of the
examination became such a secondary consideration that Hill
marvelled at his father’s excitement. Even had he wished it,
there was no comparative anatomy to read in Landport, and he
was too poor to buy books, but the stock of poets in the library
was extensive, and Hill s attack was magnificently sustained. He


                        238 A Slip under the Microscope

saturated himself with the fluent numbers of Longfellow and
Tennyson, and fortified himself with Shakespeare ; found a
kindred soul in Pope, and a master in Shelley, and heard and
fled the siren voices of Eliza Cook and Mrs. Hemans. But he
read no more Browning, because he hoped for the loan of other
volumes from Miss Haysman when he returned to London.

He walked from his lodgings to the College with that volume
of Browning in his shiny black bag, and his mind teeming with
the finest general propositions about poetry. Indeed, he framed
first this little speech and then that with which to grace the re-
turn. The morning was an exceptionally pleasant one for
London ; there was a clear, hard frost and undeniable blue in the
sky, a thin haze softened every outline, and warm shafts of sun-
light struck between the house-blocks and turned the sunny side
of the street to amber and gold. In the hall of the College he
pulled off his glove and signed his name with fingers so stiff with
cold that the characteristic dash under the signature he cultivated
became a quivering line. He imagined Miss Haysman about him
everywhere. He turned at the staircase, and there, below, he
saw a crowd struggling at the foot of the notice-board. This,
possibly, was the biology list. He forgot Browning and Miss
Haysman for the moment, and joined the scrimmage. And at last,
with his cheek flattened against the sleeve of the man on the step
above him, he read the list.


    H. J. Somers Wedderburn
William Hill

and thereafter followed a second class that is outside our present
sympathies. It was characteristic that he did not trouble to look
for Thorpe on the Physics list, but backed out of the struggle at


                        By H. G. Wells 239

once, and in a curious emotional state between pride over common
second-class humanity and acute disappointment at Wedderburn’s
success, went on his way upstairs. At the top, as he was hanging
up his coat in the passage, the zoological demonstrator, a young
man from Oxford who secretly regarded him as a blatant
“mugger “of the very worst type, offered his heartiest congratula-

At the laboratory door Hill stopped for a second to get his breath,
and then entered. He looked straight up the laboratory and saw all
five girl students grouped in their places, and Wedderburn, the once
retiring Wedderburn, leaning rather gracefully against the window,
playing with the blind tassel and talking, apparently to the five of
them. Now Hill could talk bravely enough and even overbearingly
to one girl, and he could have made a speech to a roomful of girls, but
this business of standing at ease and appreciating, fencing, and return
ing quick remarks round a group was, he knew, altogether beyond
him. Coming up the staircase his feelings for Wedderburn had
been generous, a certain admiration perhaps, a willingness to
shake his hand conspicuously and heartily as one who had fought
but the first round. But before Christmas Wedderburn had
never gone up to that end of the room to talk. In a flash Hill’s
mist of vague excitement condensed abruptly to a vivid dislike of
Wedderburn. Possibly his expression changed. As he came up
to his place Wedderburn nodded carelessly to him, and the others
glanced round. Miss Haysman looked at him and away again, the
faintest touch of her eyes. ” I can’t agree with you, Mr. Wedder-
burn,” she said.

” I must congratulate you on your first class, Mr. Hill,” said
the spectacled girl in green, turning round and beaming at him.

” It’s nothing,” said Hill, staring at Wedderburn and Miss
Haysman talking together, and eager to hear what they talked about.

The Yellow Book—Vol. VIII. O

                                                ” We

                        240 A Slip under the Microscope

” We poor folks in the second class don’t think so,” said the girl
in spectacles.

What was it Wedderburn was saying ? Something about
William Morris ! Hill did not answer the girl in spectacles, and
the smile died out of his face. He could not hear and failed to
see how he could ” cut in.” Confound Wedderburn ! He sat
down, opened his bag, hesitated whether to return the volume of
Browning forthwith, in the sight of all, and instead drew out his
new notebooks for the short course in elementary botany that
was now beginning, and which would terminate in February.
As he did so a fat, heavy man, with a white face and pale grey
eyes, Bindon, the professor of botany, who came up from Kew for
January and February, came in by the lecture theatre door, and
passed, rubbing his hands together and smiling, in silent affability
down the laboratory.

In the subsequent six weeks Hill experienced some very rapid
and curiously complex emotional developments. For the most
part he had Wedderburn in focus—a fact that Miss Haysman
never suspected. She told Hill (for in the comparative privacy of
the museum she talked a good deal to him of socialism and
Browning and general propositions), that she had met Wedder-
burn at the house of some people she knew, and ” he’s inherited
his cleverness ; for his father, you know, is the great eye specialist.”
My father is a cobbler,” said Hill, quite irrelevantly, and
perceived the want of dignity even as he said it. But the gleam
of jealousy did not offend her. She conceived herself the funda-
mental source of it. He suffered bitterly from a sense of Wed-
derburn’s unfairness, and a realisation of his own handicap. Here
was this Wedderburn had picked up a prominent man for a father,
and instead of his losing so many marks on the score of that


                        By H. G. Wells 241

advantage, it was counted to him for righteousness ! And while
Hill had to introduce himself and talk to Miss Haysman clumsily
over mangled guinea-pigs in the laboratory, this Wedderburn, in
some backstairs way, had access to her social altitudes and could
converse in a polished argot that Hill understood perhaps but felt
incapable of speaking. Not of course that he wanted to. Then
it seemed to Hill that for Wedderburn to come there day after
day with cuffs unfrayed, neatly tailored, precisely barbered, quietly
perfect, was in itself an ill-bred, sneering sort of proceeding.
Moreover, it was a stealthy thing for Wedderburn to behave
insignificantly for a space, to mock modesty, to lead Hill to fancy
that he himself was beyond dispute the man of the year, and
then suddenly to dart in front of him, and incontinently to swell
up in this fashion. In addition to these things Wedderburn
displayed an increasing disposition to join in any conversational
grouping that included Miss Haysman, and would venture and
indeed seek occasion to pass opinions derogatory to Socialism and
Atheism. He goaded Hill to incivilities by neat, shallow, and
exceedingly effective personalities about the socialist leaders, until
Hill hated Bernard Shaw s graceful egotisms, William Morris’s
limited editions and luxurious wall-papers, and Walter Crane’s
charmingly absurd ideal working men, about as much as he hated
Wedderburn. The dissertations in the laboratory that had been his
glory in the previous term, became a danger, degenerated into
inglorious tussles with Wedderburn, and Hill kept to them only
out of an obscure perception that his honour was involved. In the
debating society Hill knew quite clearly that, to a thunderous
accompaniment of banged desks, he could have pulverised Wedder-
burn. Only Wedderburn never attended the debating society
to be pulverised, because—nauseous affectation ! he ” dined late.”
You must not imagine that these things presented themselves in


                        242 A Slip under the Microscope

quite such a crude form to Hill’s perception. Hill was a born
generaliser. Wedderburn to him was not so much an individual
obstacle as a type, the salient angle of a class. The economic
theories that, after infinite ferment, had shaped themselves in Hill’s
mind, became abruptly concrete at the contact. The world
became full of easy-mannered, graceful, gracefully dressed, con-
versationally dexterous, finally shallow Wedderburns, Bishops
Wedderburn, Wedderburn M.P.s, Professors Wedderburn, Wed-
derburn landlords, all with finger-bowl shibboleths and epigram-
matic cities of refuge from a sturdy debater. And every one ill-
clothed or ill-dressed, from the cobbler to the cab-runner, was a
man and a brother, a fellow-sufferer, to Hill’s imagination. So
that he became, as it were, a champion of the fallen and oppressed,
albeit to outward seeming only a self-assertive, ill-mannered young
man, and an unsuccessful champion at that. Again and again a
skirmish over the afternoon tea that the girl students had inaugu-
rated, left Hill with flushed cheeks and a tattered temper, and the
debating society noticed a new quality of sarcastic bitterness in
his speeches.

You will understand now how it came about that, in the
interests of humanity, Hill should demolish Wedderburn in the
forthcoming examination and outshine him in the eyes of Miss
Haysman, and you will perceive, too, how Miss Haysman fell into
some common feminine misconceptions. The Hill-Wedderburn
quarrel, for in his unostentatious way Wedderburn reciprocated
Hill’s ill-veiled rivalry, became a tribute to her indefinable charm ;
she was the Queen of Beauty in a tournament of scalpels and
stumpy pencils. To her confidential friend’s secret annoyance, it
even troubled her conscience, for she was a good girl and painfully
aware, from Ruskin and contemporary fiction, how entirely men’s
activities are determined by women s attitudes. And if Hill never


                        By H. G. Wells 243

by any chance mentioned the topic of love to her, she only
credited him with the finer modesty for that omission.

So the time came on for the second examination, and Hill’s
increasing pallor confirmed the general rumour that he was working
hard. In the aërated bread shop near South Kensington Station
you would see him, breaking his bun and sipping his milk, with
his eyes intent upon a paper of closely written notes. In his bed-
room there were propositions about buds and stems round his
looking-glass, a diagram to catch his eye, if soap should chance to
spare it, above his washing basin. He missed several meetings of
the debating society, but he found the chance encounters with
Miss Haysman in the spacious ways of the adjacent art museum,
or in the little museum at the top of the College, or in the College
corridors, more frequent and very restful. In particular, they used
to meet in a little gallery full of wrought-iron chests and gates,
near the art library, and there Hill used to talk under the gentle
stimulus of her flattering attention, of Browning and his personal
ambitions. A characteristic she found remarkable in him was his
freedom from avarice. He contemplated quite calmly the prospect
of living all his life on an income below a hundred pounds a year.
But he was determined to be famous, to make, recognisably in his
own proper person, the world a better place to live in. He took
Bradlaugh and John Burns for his leaders and models, poor, even
impecunious, great men. But Miss Haysman thought that such
lives were deficient on the aesthetic side, by which, though she
did not know it, she meant good wall paper and upholstery, pretty
books, tasteful clothes, concerts, and meals nicely cooked and
respectfully served.

At last came the day of the second examination, and the pro-
fessor of botany, a fussy, conscientious man, rearranged all the
tables in a long narrow laboratory to prevent copying, and put his


                        244 A Slip under the Microscope

demonstrator on a chair on a table (where he felt, he said, like a
Hindoo god) to see all the cheating, and stuck a notice outside the
door, ” Door closed,” for no earthly reason that any human being
could discover. And all the morning from ten till one the quill
of Wedderburn shrieked defiance at Hill’s, and the quills of the
others chased their leaders in a tireless pack, and so also it was in
the afternoon. Wedderburn was a little quieter than usual, and
Hill’s face was hot all day, and his overcoat bulged with text-books
and note-books against the last moment’s revision. And the next
day, in the morning and in the afternoon, was the practical exami-
nation when sections had to be cut and slides identified. In the
morning Hill was depressed because he knew he had cut a thick
section, and in the afternoon came the mysterious slip.

It was just the kind of thing that the botanical professor was
always doing. Like the income tax, it offered a premium to the
cheat. It was a preparation under the microscope, a little glass
slip, held in its place on the stage of the instrument by light steel
clips, and the inscription set forth that the slip was not to be
moved. Each student was to go in turn to it, sketch it, write in
his book of answers what he considered it to be, and return to his
place. Now, to move such a slip is a thing one can do by a
chance movement of the finger, and in a fraction of a second.
The professor’s reason for decreeing that the slip should not be
moved depended on the fact that the object he wanted identified
was characteristic of a certain tree stem. In the position in
which it was placed it was a difficult thing to recognise, but once
the slip was moved so as to bring other parts of the preparation
into view, its nature was obvious enough.

Hill came to this, flushed from a contest with staining re-agents,
sat down on the little stool before the microscope, turned the
mirror to get the best light, and then, out of sheer habit, shifted


                        By H. G. Wells 245

the slip. At once he remembered the prohibition, and, with an
almost continuous motion of his hands, moved it back, and sat
paralysed with astonishment at his action.

Then, slowly, he turned his head. The professor was out of
the room ; the demonstrator sat aloft on his impromptu rostrum,
reading the Q. Jour. Mi. Sci. , the rest of the examinees were
busy, and with their backs to him. Should he own up to the
accident now ? He knew quite clearly what the thing was. It
was a lenticel, a characteristic preparation from the elder-tree.
His eyes roved over his intent fellow-students, and Wedderburn
suddenly glanced over his shoulder at him with a queer expression
in his eyes. The mental excitement that had kept Hill at an
abnormal pitch of vigour these two days gave way to a curious
nervous tension. His book of answers was beside him. He did
not write down what the thing was, but with one eye at the
microscope he began making a hasty sketch of it. His mind was
full of this grotesque puzzle in ethics that had suddenly been
sprung upon him. Should he identify it f or should he leave this
question unanswered f In that case Wedderburn would probably
come out first in the second result. How could he tell now
whether he might not have identified the thing without shifting
it ? It was possible that Wedderburn had failed to recognise it,
of course. Suppose Wedderburn, too, had shifted the slide ? He
looked up at the clock. There were fifteen minutes in which to
make up his mind. He gathered up his book of answers, and the
coloured pencils he used in illustrating his replies, and walked back
to his seat.

He read through his manuscript, and then sat thinking and
gnawing his knuckle. It would look queer now if he owned up.
He must beat Wedderburn. He forgot the examples of those
starry gentlemen, John Burns and Bradlaugh. Besides, he re-


                        246 A Slip under the Microscope

flected, the glimpse of the rest of the slip he had had was, after all,
quite accidental, forced upon him by chance, a kind of providential
revelation rather than an unfair advantage. It was not nearly so
dishonest to avail himself of that as it was of Broome, who
believed in the efficacy of prayer, to pray daily for a first-class.
” Five minutes more,” said the demonstrator, folding up his paper
and becoming observant. Hill watched the clock hands until two
minutes remained ; then he opened the book of answers, and, with
hot ears and an affectation of ease, gave his drawing of the lenticel
its name.

When the second pass list appeared, the previous positions of
Wedderburn and Hill were reversed, and the spectacled girl in
green, who knew the demonstrator in private life (where he was
practically human), said that in the result of the two examinations
taken together Hill had the advantage of a mark—167 to 166 out
of a possible 200. Every one admired Hill in a way, though the
suspicion of ” mugging ” clung to him. But Hill was to find
congratulations and Miss Haysman’s enhanced opinion of him, and
even the decided decline in the crest of Wedderburn tainted by an
unhappy memory. He felt a remarkable access of energy at first,
and the note of a democracy marching to triumph returned to his
debating society speeches ; he worked at his comparative anatomy
with tremendous zeal and effect, and he went on with his aesthetic
education. But through it all, a vivid little picture was continually
coming before his mind’s eye—of a sneakish person manipulating a

No human being had witnessed the act, and he was cocksure
that no higher power existed to see it ; but for all that it worried
him. Memories are not dead things, but alive ; they dwindle in
disuse, but they harden and develop in all sorts of queer ways if


                        By H. G. Wells 247

they are being continually fretted. Curiously enough, though at
the time he perceived clearly that the shifting was accidental, as
the days wore on his memory became confused about it, until at
last he was not sure—although he assured himself that he was sure
—whether the movement had been absolutely involuntary. Then
it is possible that Hill’s dietary was conducive to morbid con-
scientiousness ; a breakfast frequently eaten in a hurry, a midday
bun, and, at such hours after five as chanced to be convenient, such
meat as his means determined, usually in a chop-house, in a back
street off the Brompton Road. Occasionally he treated himself
to threepenny or ninepenny classics, and they usually represented
a suppression of potatoes or chops. It is indisputable that out-
breaks of self-abasement and emotional revival have a distinct
relation to periods of scarcity. But apart from this influence on
the feelings, there was in Hill a distinct aversion to falsity that
the blasphemous Landport cobbler had inculcated by strap and
tongue from his earliest years. Of one fact about professed
Atheists I am convinced ; they may be—they usually are—fools,
void of subtlety, revilers of holy institutions, brutal speakers, and
mischievous knaves, but they lie with difficulty. If it were not
so, if they had the faintest grasp of the idea of compromise, they
would simply be liberal Churchmen. And, moreover, this memory
poisoned his regard for Miss Haysman. For she now so evidently
preferred him to Wedderburn that he felt sure he cared for her,
and began reciprocating her attentions by timid marks of personal
regard ; at one time he even bought a bunch of violets, carried it
about in his pocket, and produced it, with a stumbling explanation,
withered and dead, in the gallery of old iron. It poisoned, too,
the denunciation of capitalist dishonesty that had been one of his
life’s pleasures. And lastly, it poisoned his triumph in Wedderburn.
Previously he had been Wedderburn’s superior in his own eyes,


                        248 A Slip under the Microscope

and had raged simply at a want of recognition. Now he began
to fret at the darker suspicion of positive inferiority. He fancied
he found justifications for his position in Browning, but they
vanished on analysis. At last—moved, curiously enough, by
exactly the same motive forces that had resulted in his dishonesty
—he went to Professor Bindon, and made a clean breast of the
whole affair. As Hill was a paid student Professor Bindon did not
ask him to sit down, and he stood before the Professor’s desk as he
made his confession.

” It’s a curious story,” said Professor Bindon, slowly realising
how the thing reflected on himself, and then letting his anger
rise : ” A most remarkable story. I can’t understand your doing
it, and I can’t understand this avowal. You’re a type of student
—Cambridge men would never dream—I suppose I ought to
have thought—Why did you cheat ? ”

” I didn’t—cheat,” said Hill.

” But you have just been telling me you did.”

” I thought I explained—

” Either you cheated or you did not cheat.”

” I said my motion was involuntary.”

” I am not a metaphysician, I am a servant of science—of fact.
You were told not to move the slip. You did move the slip. If
that is not cheating—”

” If I was a cheat,” said Hill, with the note of hysterics in his
voice, ” should I come here and tell you ? ”

” Your repentance of course does you credit,” said Professor
Bindon, ” but it does not alter the original facts.”

” No, sir,” said Hill, giving in in utter self-abasement.

” Even now you cause an enormous amount of trouble. The
examination list will have to be revised.”

” I suppose so, sir.”


                        By H. G. Wells 249

” Suppose so ! Of course it must be revised. And I don’t see
how I can conscientiously pass you.”

” Not pass me ! ” said Hill. ” Fail me ! ”

” It’s the rule in all examinations. Or where should we be ?
What else did you expect ? You don’t want to shirk the conse-
quences of your own acts ? :

“I thought, perhaps,” said Hill. And then, “Fail me! I
thought as I told you, you would simply deduct the marks given
for that slip——”

” Impossible ! ” said Bindon. ” Besides, it would still leave
you above Wedderburn. Deduct only the marks—Preposterous !
The Departmental Regulations distinctly say——”

” But it’s my own admission, sir.”

” The Regulations say nothing whatever of the manner in
which the matter comes to light. They simply provide——”

” It will ruin me. If I fail this examination, they won’t renew
my scholarship.”

” You should have thought of that before.”

” But, sir, consider all my circumstances——”

” I cannot consider anything. Professors in this college are
machines. The Regulations will not even let us recommend our
students for appointments. I am a machine, and you have worked
me. I have to do——”

” It’s very hard, sir.”

” Possibly it is.”

” If I am to be failed this examination I might as well go home
at once.”

” That is as you think proper.” Bindon’s voice softened a little ;
he perceived he had been unjust, and, provided he did not contra-
dict himself, he was disposed to amelioration. “As a private
person,” he said, ” I think this confession of yours goes far to


                        250 A Slip under the Microscope

mitigate your offence. But you have set the machinery in motion
and now it must take its course. I—I am really sorry you gave

A wave of emotion prevented Hill from answering. Suddenly
very vividly he saw the heavily lined face of the old Landport
cobbler, his father. ” Good God ! What a fool I have been ! ”
he said hotly and abruptly.

” I hope,” said Bindon, ” that it will be a lesson to you.”

But curiously enough they were not thinking of quite the same

There was a pause.

” I would like a day to think, sir, and then I will let you know
—about going home, I mean,” said Hill, moving towards the

The next day Hill’s place was vacant. The spectacled girl in
green was, as usual, first with the news. Wedderburn and Miss
Haysman were talking of a performance of the Meistersingers
when she came up to them.

” Have you heard ? ” she said.

” Heard what ? “

” There was cheating in the examination.”

” Cheating ! ” said Wedderburn, with his face suddenly hot.
” How ? ”

” That slide——”

” Moved ? Never ! “

” It was. That slide that we weren’t to move——”

” Nonsense ! ” said Wedderburn. ” Why ! How could they
find out ? Who do they say——? ”

” It was Mr. Hill.”

Hill !

                                                ” Mr.

                        By H. G. Wells 251

” Mr. Hill ! ”

” Not—surely not the immaculate Hill ? ” said Wedderburn,

” I don’t believe it,” said Miss Haysman. ” How do you
know ? ”

” I didn’t,” said the girl in spectacles. ” But I know it now
for a fact. Mr. Hill went and confessed to Professor Bindon

” By Jove ! ” said Wedderburn. ” Hill of all people. But I
am always inclined to distrust these philanthropists-on-prin-

” Are you quite sure ? ” said Miss Haysman, with a catch in
her breath.

” Quite. It’s dreadful, isn’t it ? But you know, what can
you expect ? His father is a cobbler.”

Then Miss Haysman astonished the girl in spectacles.

” I don’t care. I will not believe it,” she said, flushing darkly
under her warm tinted skin. ” I will not believe it until he has
told me so himself—face to face. I would scarcely believe it
then,” and abruptly she turned her back on the girl in spectacles,
and walked to her own place.

” It’s true, all the same,” said the girl in spectacles, peering and
smiling at Wedderburn.

But Wedderburn did not answer her. She was indeed one of
those people who are destined to make unanswered remarks.

MLA citation:

Wells, H. G. “A Slip under the Microscope.” The Yellow Book, vol. 8, January 1896, pp. 229-85. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.