In those heady days before the Great War it seemed that hardly a week went by without science offering up yet another exciting advancement. It was a time of great innovations, when men like Edison and Bell were pointing the way towards our bright new future. My name is Vincent Hendry and in the summer of 1912 I was residing in Hampstead. I remember those days with great fondness, although life was never easy. My father had been eaten by an ocelot in Sutton Coldfield not two years previously, leaving my mother and I to fend for ourselves. We managed to stave off the more distressing consequences of poverty, but I dreamed of bettering myself, and lived for the day I would be able to prove myself in my chosen profession.
In this climate of greatness it was not unreasonable that I - like many lads of my tender years - should aspire to join the ranks of those great pioneers. I was lucky, for I could look to my own uncle for inspiration: the great Frederick Maitland, inventor of the steam driven commode and winner of the 1896 Royal Academy prize for Extreme Cleverness. It was therefore a great thrill for me when he invited me to join him at Cedarville his house in Essex where he was busy working on his latest project.
I was quite giddy with excitement as I waved goodbye to my mother at the station, clutching my suitcase and a packet of jelly sandwiches that she had so thoughtfully provided for the trip. It was my first time away from home and I was, not unnaturally, quite anxious. I whiled away the journey with thoughts of the life I was leaving behind, desperately trying to ignore the man who sat opposite me in the carriage as he repeatedly cracked his knuckles, leered at me in a most unsettling way and recited the word cheese over and over beneath his breath.
I felt awash with relief when eventually the train pulled into the tumble-down station at Lower Critchley. I disembarked most hastily as my strange companion struggled to extract a blow up doll from the luggage rack. I was met by Cripes, my uncles butler: a brawny, rugged sort of chap who always seemed ill at ease in his smart black uniform. I had only ever met him once before, one Christmas long ago when he amused us all by performing an extraordinary trick with a bicycle pump and an oven ready chicken. Nevertheless, I recognised his duelling scar and squinty little eyes immediately.
Clinging to him tightly, I rode pillion on the back of his motorcycle all the way up to my uncles house, and let out a whoop of joy as we popped an impressive wheelie all the way up the long gravel drive. I waited in the hall as Cripes dispensed with his crash helmet and leathers, looking around at the delicately carved cornices and the beautiful painted ceiling, which depicted Joseph of Aramathea alighting at Grimsby docks. Cedarville was a large, sprawling property, replete with fascinating little nooks, deceptively commodious crannies, and labyrinthine and barely navigable passageways which only seemed to bring you back to where you started. Cripes rejoined me but despite his familiarity with the house, he still managed to get us lost more than once.
Eventually we found ourselves on a narrow twisting staircase that took us up to a small attic room in the west wing. As we approached, I detected some curious noises coming from behind the door. The sounds were muffled, and difficult to determine at first. I listened harder, but only succeeded in becoming more and more baffled. I could hear a dog barking, although it clearly was not a real dog. It sounded like a gramophone record, all fuzzy and scratched. Then the barking stopped and was replaced by a human voice. It spoke slowly, deliberately, but I could not make out the words.
Cripes cleared his throat and rapped on the door with his knuckle. A moment later I heard my uncles voice bid us enter.
"Young master Hendry," Cripes announced as he stood aside to allow me into the room.
My uncle was sitting over a gramophone player, which was perched precariously on a rickety chair in front of him. He looked up at me and smiled. "Ah, Vincent, my dear boy!" he cried. "Come on in. Listen to this!"
My uncle dismissed Cripes, then began to tinker with his gramophone. Trying not to let my puzzlement become too apparent, I drew up a chair and waited patiently. My uncle gently lowered the needle onto the gramophone record, and then sat back, cocking his ear expectantly to the horn.
For a few seconds we heard nothing but the soft purr and crackle of the stylus over the disk, then suddenly I heard that dog barking again. Woof, woof, woof, it went. Then there was a pause before a gentle but authoritative male voice was heard to intone: Where is my bone?.
My uncle looked at me with a broad smile on his face, but for my own part I could only reply with a sort of quizzical frown. My vague sense of puzzlement had now given way to stark confusion.
The barking returned again. Woof, bark, woof, it crackled from the funnel, and again it was succeeded by the mans voice. My name is Spot, it said this time.
"Im learning to speak dog," Uncle Frederick explained.
Woof, growl, bark, said the record, followed by the translation: I want to go walkies.
"Woof, growl, bark," repeated my uncle. "I want to go walkies." He turned to me with a gleam in his eye. "See, Vincent!" he said. "Isnt it extraordinary?"
I nodded uncertainly as the gramophone issued another pearl of doggy wisdom. Growl, growl, woof, it said. Please stroke my back.
"Growl, growl, woof," Uncle Frederick chanted. "Please stroke my back." He clapped his hands together animatedly. "Just think of it, my dear boy. Think what we could learn if we could talk to the animals."
Bark, growl, whimper, said the gramophone. Please can I smell your bottom?
"Of course the problem with dogs," Uncle Frederick admitted with a shrug, "is that their conversation can be a trifle limited."
He leaned over the gramophone and lifted the needle, then gently removed the record. "Think about the possibilities, Vincent!" he said, and I must admit that his enthusiasm was contagious. "Communication is the key to everything, and if we could learn to converse with our animal cousins there would be no limit to what we could accomplish. Listen to this one."
He pulled a different record from its crinkled paper sleeve, placed it on the gramophone and set it going. Amongst all the scratching and crackling I could hear a sort of bubbling noise.
"What is it ?" I asked.
"Trout," replied my uncle.
I frowned. "It just sounds like a lot of bubbles to me."
"Yes, yes," Uncle Frederick said animatedly. "You have to listen very carefully. Its a very specialised dialect." He tilted his head to the speaker and suddenly laughed out loud.
I leaned forward in my seat, becoming quite concerned. "What is it?" I asked. "Whats wrong?"
My uncle fought to control his giggling as he pointed to the gramophone. "Thats actually very funny, if youre a fish."
I smiled and nodded. Uncle Frederick removed the record and carefully slipped it back into its sleeve. Then he searched through the extensive pile at his feet for another disk.
"I get these recordings from a mail order company in Belgium," he explained as he held one of the records up to the light and peered at the label. "They are sending me Sloth and Gazelle next month. I wanted to learn caterpillar, but apparently their conversation is too high pitched for human hearing."
He was obviously enthralled by this latest scheme, but I had certain doubts about the whole thing. "It's certainly remarkable," I told him. "But I'm not sure where it's leading. Even if you do learn to speak to certain animals, I can't see that you'll be able to learn very much from them."
As ever, my uncle had an answer. "Well, admittedly, you're not going to glean some new insight into the workings of the Universe and the nature of reality by talking to a hamster, for instance," he confessed. "You might find out where to find the yummiest sunflower seeds, or pick up a few tips on running around in a little wheel, but that's about it. But, on the other hand, they might be able to learn a great deal from us.
"How do you mean?"
My uncle leaned forward and tapped my knee. "Well, you used to have a dog didn't you?" he said.
"Yes," I replied, nodding, though I wasnt quite sure where his argument was leading. "I had a golden retriever called Samuel. He was sacrificed by devil worshippers on my eleventh birthday."
"And did you teach Samuel any tricks?" Uncle Frederick asked.
I recalled that Samuel had indeed learnt to respond to a few rudimentary instructions. "I taught him to roll over and play dead ," I said. It was quite ironic really.
"Exactly!" my uncle cried. "Dogs are taught basic, menial functions - play dead, fetch that stick, sit, stay. But if you could communicate with the animal in its own language, you could teach it to carry out more complex and ultimately more useful tasks."
At last I saw the point he was trying to make, but I was still doubtful. "You mean, you could train a dog to operate a lathe?" I said, and I slowly shook my head. "I hardly think so."
Uncle Frederick responded with a degree of indignation. "Why ever not?" he demanded. "Mark my words, one day animals will be a common sight in the workplace. Dogs will operate lathes, cats will man switchboards, pigs will deliver letters. Oh I'm not suggesting that it will be easy. There are certain limitations that it will be impossible to overcome - you are never going to be able to teach a goldfish to type, for instance, but it still might be able to take shorthand. You could wedge the pencil under its fin."
I swallowed my objections and simply offered a feeble shrug. "And is this the great scheme that I am to assist you with?"
"This?" Uncle Frederick seemed to be quite stunned at the suggestion. "Good gracious no," he said. "Learning the languages of the animal kingdom is a massive undertaking: one that won't be completed until well after I am dead and gone. No, I am merely dabbling. My great scheme as you put it, is far more spectacular. I am planning a trip to Venus!"
I was very nearly struck speechless by this announcement. I managed to squeeze out just one word of query. "Venus?"
Uncle Frederick nodded. "Yes, I thought you would be impressed."
"You mean, Venus?" I felt the need to ask once more. "The planet?"
"Indeed," my uncle replied. "The morning star!"
For a moment I forgot myself and blurted out a heartfelt protest. "But that's an insane idea!"
"Insane?" returned Uncle Frederick. "My dear young Vincent," he said, rather condescendingly, "we have just been discussing, in all sincerity, the possibility of talking to fish. I would have thought that a joyride to Venus would be quite mundane by comparison."
He was clearly quite serious about this, but I stuck to my guns. "But it's impossible!" I claimed. "Its the stuff of some silly scientific romance. Surely you're not serious?"
"Now, now Vincent," Uncle Frederick crooned, wagging his finger at me in warning. "History teaches us to keep an open mind. Revolutionary ideas have always been met with derision. But was Copernicus deterred by his critics when he described the motion of the planets, eh? And what about Faraday, didn't his ideas about magnetism turn out to be correct? And was the late lamented Flo Clementine so terribly wrong when she attempted to demonstrate that the Earth's core is made out of marzipan?"
"Yes," I pointed out.
"All right, that was a bad example," my uncle conceded. "But have a little faith in me, Vincent. You should know that I am not given over to dreams of the impossible. Come, the atmosphere is rather stifling in here. We will take a turn around the gardens, and I shall explain how I plan to achieve my ambition."