His Departure From Stoke-underhill
Part of: THE CHILDHOOD OF THE WONDER
From: The Wonder
The village of Stoke was no whit intimidated by the news that Mrs. Reade
sowed abroad. The women exclaimed and chattered, the men gaped and shook
their heads, the children hung about the ruinous gate that shut them out
from the twenty-yard strip of garden which led up to Stott's cottage.
Curiosity was the dominant emotion. Any excuse was good enough to make
friendly overtures, but the baby remained invisible to all save Mrs.
Reade; and the village community kept open ears while the lust of its
eyes remained, perforce, unsatisfied. If Stott's gate slammed in the
wind, every door that commanded a view of that gate was opened, and
heads appeared, and bare arms--the indications of women who nodded to
each other, shook their heads, pursed their lips and withdrew for the
time to attend the pressure of household duty. Later, even that gate
slamming would reinvigorate the gossip of backyards and front doorways.
The first stranger to force an entry was the rector. He was an Oxford
man who, in his youth, had been an ardent disciple of the school that
attempts the reconciliation of Religion and Science. He had been
ambitious, but nature had predetermined his career by giving him a head
of the wrong shape. At Oxford his limitations had not been clearly
defined, and on the strength of a certain speech at the Union, he crept
into a London west-end curacy. There he attempted to demonstrate the
principle of reconciliation from the pulpit, but his vicar and his
bishop soon recognised that excellent as were his intentions, he was
doing better service to agnosticism than to his own religion. As a
result of this clerical intrigue he was vilely marooned on the savage
island of Stoke-Underhill, where he might preach as much science as he
would to the natives, for there was no fear of their comprehending him.
Fifteen years of Stoke had brought about a reaction. Nature had made him
a feeble fanatic, and he was now as ardent an opponent of science as he
had once been a defender. In his little mind he believed that his early
reading had enabled him to understand all the weaknesses of the
scientific position. His name was Percy Crashaw.
Mrs. Stott could not deny her rector the right of entry, and he insisted
on seeing the infant, who was not yet baptised--a shameful neglect,
according to Crashaw, for the child was nearly six weeks old. Nor had
Mrs. Stott been "churched." Crashaw had good excuse for pressing his
Mrs. Stott refused to face the village. She knew that the place was all
agape, eager to stare at what they considered some "new kind of idiot."
Let them wait, was Ellen Mary's attitude. Her pride was a later
development. In those early weeks she feared criticism.
But she granted Crashaw's request to see the child, and after the
interview (the term is precise) the rector gave way on the question of a
private ceremony, though he had indignantly opposed the scheme when it
was first mooted. It may be that he conceived an image of himself with
that child in his arms, the cynosure of a packed congregation....
Crashaw was one of the influences that hastened the Stotts' departure
from Stoke. He was so indiscreet. After the christening he would talk.
His attitude is quite comprehensible. He, the lawgiver of Stoke, had
been thwarted. He had to find apology for the private baptism he had
denied to many a sickly infant. Moreover, the Stotts had broken another
of his ordinances, for father and mother had stood as godparents to
their own child, and Crashaw himself had been the second godfather
ordained as necessary by the rubric. He had given way on these important
points so weakly; he had to find excuse, and he talked himself into a
false belief with regard to the child he had baptised.
He began with his wife. "I would allow more latitude to medical men," he
said. "In such a case as this child of the Stotts, for instance; it
becomes a burden on the community, I might say a danger, yes, a positive
danger. I am not sure whether I was right in administering the holy
sacrament of baptism...."
"Oh! Percy! Surely ..." began Mrs. Crashaw.
"One moment, my dear," protested the rector, "I have not fully explained
the circumstances of the case." And as he warmed to his theme the image
of Victor Stott grew to a fearful grotesqueness. It loomed as a threat
over the community and the church. Crashaw quoted, inaccurately,
statistics of the growth of lunacy, and then went off at a tangent into
the theory of possession by evil spirits. Since his rejection of
science, he had lapsed into certain forms of mediaevalism, and he now
began to dally with the theory of a malign incarnation which he
elaborated until it became an article of his faith.
To his poorer parishioners he spoke in vague terms, but he changed their
attitude; he filled them with overawed terror. They were intensely
curious still, but, now, when the gate was slammed, one saw a face
pressed to the window, the door remained fast; and the children no
longer clustered round that gate, but dared each other to run past it;
which they did, the girls with a scream, the boys with a jeering
"Yah--ah!" a boast of intrepidity.
This change of temper was soon understood by the persons most concerned.
Stott grumbled and grew more morose. He had never been intimate with the
villagers, and now he avoided any intercourse with them. His wife kept
herself aloof, and her child sheltered from profane observation.
Naturally, this attitude of the Stotts fostered suspicion. Even the
hardiest sceptic in the taproom of the Challis Arms began to shake his
head, to concede that there "moight be soomething in it."
Yet the departure from Stoke might have been postponed indefinitely, if
it had not been for another intrusion. Both Stott and his wife were
ready to take up a new idea, but they were slow to conceive it.
The intruder was the local magnate, the landlord of Stoke, Wenderby,
Chilborough, a greater part of Ailesworth, two or three minor parishes,
and, incidentally, of Pym.
This magnate, Henry Challis, was a man of some scholarship, whose
ambition had been crushed by the weight of his possessions. He had a
remarkably fine library at Challis Court, but he made little use of it,
for he spent the greater part of his time in travel. In appearance he
was rather an ungainly man; his great head and the bulk of his big
shoulders were something too heavy for his legs.
Crashaw regarded his patron with mixed feelings. For Challis, the man of
property, the man of high connections, of intimate associations with the
world of science and letters, Crashaw had a feeling of awed respect; but
in private he inveighed against the wickedness of Challis, the agnostic,
When Victor Stott was nearly three months old, the rector met his patron
one day on the road between Chilborough and Stoke. It was three years
since their last meeting, and Crashaw noticed that in the interval
Challis's pointed beard had become streaked with grey.
"Hallo! How d'ye do, Crashaw?" was the squire's casual greeting. "How is
the Stoke microcosm?"
Crashaw smiled subserviently; he was never quite at his ease in
Challis's presence. "Rari nantes in gurgite vasto," was the tag he found
in answer to the question put. However great his contempt for Challis's
way of life, in his presence Crashaw was often oppressed with a feeling
of inferiority, a feeling which he fought against but could not subdue.
The Latin tag was an attempt to win appreciation, it represented a boast
Challis correctly evaluated the rector's attitude; it was with something
of pity in his mind that he turned and walked beside him.
There was but one item of news from Stoke, and it soon came to the
surface. Crashaw phrased his description of Victor Stott in terms other
than those he used in speaking to his wife or to his parishioners; but
the undercurrent of his virulent superstition did not escape Challis,
and the attitude of the villagers was made perfectly plain.
"Hm!" was Challis's comment, when the flow of words ceased, "nigroque
simillima cygno, eh?"
"Ah! of course, you sneer at our petty affairs," said Crashaw.
"By no means. I should like to see this black swan of Stoke," replied
Challis. "Anything so exceptional interests me."
"No doubt Mrs. Stott would be proud to exhibit the horror," said
Crashaw. He had a gleam of satisfaction in the thought that even the
great Henry Challis might be scared. That would, indeed, be a triumph.
"If Mrs. Stott has no objection, of course," said Challis. "Shall we go
The visit of Henry Challis marked the first advent of Ellen Mary's pride
in the exhibition of her wonder. After the King and the Royal
Family--superhuman beings, infinitely remote--the great landlord of the
neighbourhood stood as a symbol of temporal power to the whole district.
The budding socialist of the taproom might sneer, and make threat that
the time was coming when he, the boaster, and Challis, the landlord,
would have equal rights; but in public the socialist kow-towed to his
master with a submission no less obsequious than that of the humblest
conservative on the estate.
Mrs. Stott dropped a deep curtsy when, opening the door to the
autocratic summons of Crashaw's rat-a-tat, she saw the great man of the
district at her threshold. Challis raised his hat. Crashaw did not
imitate his example; he was all officiousness, he had the air of a chief
superintendent of police.
"Oh! Mrs. Stott, we should like to come in for a few minutes. Mr.
Challis would like to see your child."
"Damn the fool!" was Challis's thought, but he gave it less abrupt
expression. "That is, of course, if it is quite convenient to you, Mrs.
Stott. I can come at some other time...."
"Please walk in, sir," replied Mrs. Stott, and curtsied again as she
Superintendent Crashaw led the way....
Challis called again next day, by himself this time; and the day after
he dropped in at six o'clock while Mr. and Mrs. Stott were at tea. He
put them at their ease by some magic of his personality, and insisted
that they should continue their meal while he sat among the collapsed
springs of the horsehair armchair. He leaned forward, swinging his stick
as a pendulum between his knees, and shot out questions as to the
Stotts' relations with the neighbours. And always he had an attentive
eye on the cradle that stood near the fire.
"The neighbours are not highly intelligent, I suspect," said Challis.
"Even Mr. Crashaw, I fancy, does not appreciate the--peculiarities of
"He's worse than any," interpolated Stott. Ellen Mary sat in the shadow;
there was a new light in her eyes, a foretaste of glory.
"Ah! a little narrow, a little dogmatic, no doubt," replied Challis. "I
was going to propose that you might prefer to live at Pym."
"Much farther for me," muttered Stott. He had mixed with nobility on the
cricket field, and was not overawed.
"No doubt; but you have other interests to consider, interests of far
greater importance." Challis shifted his gaze from the cradle, and
looked Stott in the face. "I understand that Mrs. Stott does not care to
take her child out in the village. Isn't that so?"
"Yes, sir," replied Ellen, to whom this question was addressed. "I don't
care to make an exhibition of 'im."
"Quite right, quite right," went on Challis, "but it is very necessary
that the child should have air. I consider it very necessary, a matter
of the first importance that the child should have air," he repeated.
His gaze had shifted back to the cradle again. The child lay with open
eyes, staring up at the ceiling.
"Now, there is an excellent cottage at Pym which I will have put in
repair for you at once," continued Challis. "It is one of two together,
but next door there are only old Metcalfe and his wife and daughter, who
will give you no trouble. And really, Mrs. Stott," he tore his regard
from the cradle for a moment, "there is no reason in the world why you
should fear the attention of your neighbours. Here, in Stoke, I admit,
they have been under a complete misapprehension, but I fancy that there
were special reasons for that. In Pym you will have few neighbours, and
you need not, I'm sure, fear their criticism."
"They got one idiot there, already," Stott remarked somewhat sulkily.
"You surely do not regard your own child as likely to develop into an
idiot, Stott!" Challis's tone was one of rebuke.
Stott shifted in his chair and his eyes flickered uncertainly in the
direction of the cradle. "Dr. O'Connell says 'twill," he said.
"When did he see the child last?" asked Challis.
"Not since 'twere a week old, sir," replied Ellen.
"In that case his authority goes for nothing, and, then, by the way, I
suppose the child has not been vaccinated?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Better have that done. Get Walters. I'll make myself responsible. I'll
get him to come."
Before Challis left, it was decided that the Stotts should move to Pym
When the great landowner had gone, Mrs. Stott looked wistfully at her
"You ain't fair to the child, George," she said. "There's more than you
or any one sees, more than Mr. Challis, even."
Stott stared moodily into the fire.
"And it won't be so out of the way far for you, at Pym, with your bike,"
she continued; "and we can't stop 'ere."
"We might 'a took a place in Ailesworth," said Stott.
"But it'll be so much 'ealthier for 'im up at Pym," protested Ellen.
"It'll be fine air up there for 'im."
"Oh! 'im. Yes, all right for 'im," said Stott, and spat into the
fire. Then he took his cap and went out. He kept his eyes away from the
Harvey Walters lived in Wenderby, but his consulting-rooms were in
Harley Street, and he did not practise in his own neighbourhood;
nevertheless he vaccinated Victor Stott to oblige Challis.
"Well?" asked Challis a few days later, "what do you make of him,
Walters? No cliches, now, and no professional jargon."
"Candidly, I don't know," replied Walters, after a thoughtful interval.
"How many times have you seen him?"
"Good patient? Healthy flesh and that sort of thing?"
"Did he look you in the eyes?"
"Once, only once, the first time I visited the house."
Challis nodded. "My own experience, exactly. And did you return that
look of his?"
"Not willingly. It was, I confess, not altogether a pleasant
Challis was silent for a few moments, and it was Walters who took up the
"Have you, now, some feeling of, shall I say, distaste for the child? Do
you feel that you have no wish to see it again?"
"Is it that exactly?" parried Challis.
"If not, what is it?" asked Walters.
"In my own case," said Challis, "I can find an analogy only in my
attitude towards my 'head' at school. In his presence I was always
intimidated by my consciousness of his superior learning. I felt
unpleasantly ignorant, small, negligible. Curiously enough, I see
something of the same expression of feeling in the attitude of that
feeble Crashaw to myself. Well, one makes an attempt at self-assertion,
a kind of futile bragging; and one knows the futility of it--at the
time. But, afterwards, one finds excuse and seeks to belittle the
personality and attainment of the person one feared. At school we did
not love the 'head,' and, as schoolboys will, we were always trying to
run him down. 'Next time he rags me, I'll cheek him,' was our usual
boast--but we never did. Let's be honest, Walters, are not you and I
exhibiting much the same attitude towards this extraordinary child?
Didn't he produce the effect upon you that I've described? Didn't you
have a little of the 'fifth form' feeling,--a boy under examination?"
Walters smiled and screwed his mouth on one side. "The thing is so
absurd," he said.
"That is what we used to say at school," replied Challis.
The Stotts' move to Pym was not marked by any incident. Mrs. Stott and
her boy were not unduly stared upon as they left Stoke--the children
were in school--and their entry into the new cottage was uneventful.
They moved on a Thursday. On Sunday morning they had their first
He came mooning round the fence that guarded the Stotts' garden from the
little lane--it was hardly more than a footpath. He had a great
shapeless head that waggled heavily on his shoulders, his eyes were
lustreless, and his mouth hung open, frequently his tongue lagged out.
He made strange, inhuman noises. "A-ba-ba," was his nearest approach to
"Now, George," called Mrs. Stott, "look at that. It's Mrs. 'Arrison's
boy what Mrs. Reade's spoke about. Now, is 'e anythink like ..." she
paused, "anythink like 'im?" and she indicated the cradle in the
"What's 'e want, 'angin' round 'ere?" replied Stott, disregarding the
comparison. "'Ere, get off," he called, and he went into the garden and
picked up a stick.
The idiot shambled away.
Next: His Father's Desertion
Previous: The Manner Of His Birth