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His First Visit To Challis Court






Part of: THE WONDER AMONG BOOKS
From: The Wonder

I

"Shall you be able to help me in collating your notes of the Tikopia
observations to-day, sir?" Lewes asked next morning. He rose from the
breakfast-table and lit a cigarette. There was no ceremony between
Challis and his secretary.

"You forget our engagement for ten o'clock," said Challis.

"Need that distract us?"

"It need not, but doesn't it seem to you that it may furnish us with
valuable material?"

"Hardly pertinent, sir, is it?"

"What line do you think of taking up, Lewes?" asked Challis with
apparent irrelevance.

"With regard to this--this phenomenon?"

"No, no. I was speaking of your own ambitions." Challis had sauntered
over to the window; he stood, with his back to Lewes, looking out at the
blue and white of the April sky.

Lewes frowned. He did not understand the gist of the question. "I
suppose there is a year's work on this book before me yet," he said.

"Quite, quite," replied Challis, watching a cloud shadow swarm up the
slope of Deane Hill. "Yes, certainly a year's work. I was thinking of
the future."

"I have thought of laboratory work in connection with psychology," said
Lewes, still puzzled.

"I thought I remembered your saying something of the kind," murmured
Challis absently. "We are going to have more rain. It will be a late
spring this year."

"Had the question any bearing on our engagement of this morning?" Lewes
was a little anxious, uncertain whether this inquiry as to his future
had not some particular significance; a hint, perhaps, that his services
would not be required much longer.

"Yes; I think it had," said Challis. "I saw the governess cart go up the
road a few minutes since."

"I suppose the boy will be here in a quarter of an hour?" said Lewes by
way of keeping up the conversation. He was puzzled; he did not know
Challis in this mood. He did not conceive it possible that Challis could
be nervous about the arrival of so insignificant a person as this Stott
child.

"It's all very ridiculous," broke out Challis suddenly; and he turned
away from the window, and joined Lewes by the fire. "Don't you think
so?"

"I'm afraid I don't follow you, sir."

Challis laughed. "I'm not surprised," he said; "I was a trifle
inconsecutive. But I wish you were more interested in this child, Lewes.
The thought of him engrosses me, and yet I don't want to meet him. I
should be relieved to hear that he wasn't coming. Surely you, as a
student of psychology ..." he broke off with a lift of his heavy
shoulders.

"Oh! Yes! I am interested, certainly, as you say, as a student of
psychology. We ought to take some measurements. The configuration of the
skull is not abnormal otherwise than in its relation to the development
of the rest of his body, but ..." Lewes meandered off into somewhat
abstruse speculation with regard to the significance of craniology.

Challis nodded his head and murmured: "Quite, quite," occasionally. He
seemed glad that Lewes should continue to talk.

The lecture was interrupted by the appearance of the governess cart.

"By Jove, he has come," ejaculated Challis in the middle of one of
Lewes's periods. "You'll have to see me through this, my boy. I'm damned
if I know how to take the child."

Lewes flushed, annoyed at the interruption of his lecture. He had
believed that he had been interesting. "Curse the kid," was the thought
in his mind as he followed Challis to the window.


II

Jessop, the groom deputed to fetch the Wonder from Pym, looked a little
uneasy, perhaps a little scared. When he drew up at the porch, the child
pointed to the door of the cart and indicated that it was to be opened
for him. He was evidently used to being waited upon. When this command
had been obeyed, he descended deliberately and then pointed to the front
door.

"Open!" he said clearly, as Jessop hesitated. The Wonder knew nothing of
bells or ceremony.

Jessop came down from the cart and rang.

The butler opened the door. He was an old servant and accustomed to his
master's eccentricities, but he was not prepared for the vision of that
strange little figure, with a large head in a parti-coloured
cricket-cap, an apparition that immediately walked straight by him into
the hall, and pointed to the first door he came to.

"Oh, dear! Well, to be sure," gasped Heathcote. "Why, whatever----"

"Open!" commanded the Wonder, and Heathcote obeyed, weak-kneed.

The door chanced to be the right one, the door of the breakfast-room,
and the Wonder walked in, still wearing his cap.

Challis came forward to meet him with a conventional greeting. "I'm
glad you were able to come ..." he began, but the child took no notice;
he looked rapidly round the room, and not finding what he wanted,
signified his desire by a single word.

"Books," he said, and looked at Challis.

Heathcote stood at the door, hesitating between amazement and
disapproval. "I've never seen the like," was how he phrased his
astonishment later, in the servants' hall, "never in all my born days.
To see that melon-'eaded himp in a cricket-cap hordering the master
about. Well, there----"

"Jessop says he fair got the creeps drivin' 'im over," said the cook.
"'E says the child's not right in 'is 'ead."

Much embroidery followed in the servants' hall.




INTERLUDE


This brief history of the Hampdenshire Wonder is marked by a stereotyped
division into three parts, an arbitrary arrangement dependent on the
experience of the writer. The true division becomes manifest at this
point. The life of Victor Stott was cut into two distinct sections,
between which there is no correlation. The first part should tell the
story of his mind during the life of experience, the time occupied in
observation of the phenomena of life presented to him in fact, without
any specific teaching on the theories of existence and progress, or on
the speculation as to ultimate destiny. The second part should deal with
his entry into the world of books; into that account of a long series of
collated experiments and partly verified hypotheses we call science;
into the imperfectly developed system of inductive and deductive logic
which determines mathematics and philosophy; into the long, inaccurate
and largely unverifiable account of human blindness and error known as
history; and into the realm of idealism, symbol, and pitiful pride we
find in the story of poetry, letters, and religion.

I will confess that I once contemplated the writing of such a history.
It was Challis who, in his courtly, gentle way, pointed out to me that
no man living had the intellectual capacity to undertake so profound a
work.

For some three months before I had this conversation with Challis, I had
been wrapped in solitude, dreaming, speculating. I had been uplifted in
thought, I had come to believe myself inspired as a result of my
separation from the world of men, and of the deep introspection and
meditation in which I had been plunged. I had arrived at a point,
perhaps not far removed from madness, at which I thought myself capable
of setting out the true history of Victor Stott.

Challis broke the spell. He cleared away the false glamour which was
blinding and intoxicating me and brought me back to a condition of
open-eyed sanity. To Challis I owe a great debt.

Yet at the moment I was sunk in depression. All the glory of my vision
had faded; the afterglow was quenched in the blackness of a night that
drew out of the east and fell from the zenith as a curtain of utter
darkness.

Again Challis came to my rescue. He brought me a great sheaf of notes.

"Look here," he said, "if you can't write a true history of that strange
child, I see no reason why you should not write his story as it is
known to you, as it impinges on your own life. After all, you, in many
ways, know more of him than any one. You came nearest to receiving his
confidence."

"But only during the last few months," I said.

"Does that matter?" said Challis with an upheaval of his
shoulders--"shrug" is far too insignificant a word for that mountainous
humping. "Is any biography founded on better material than you have at
command?"

He unfolded his bundle of notes. "See here," he said, "here is some
magnificent material for you--first-hand observations made at the time.
Can't you construct a story from that?"

Even then I began to cast my story in a slightly biographical form. I
wrote half a dozen chapters, and read them to Challis.

"Magnificent, my dear fellow," was his comment, "magnificent; but no one
will believe it."

I had been carried away by my own prose, and with the natural vanity of
the author, I resented intensely his criticism.

For some weeks I did not see Challis again, and I persisted in my futile
endeavour, but always as I wrote that killing suggestion insinuated
itself: "No one will believe you." At times I felt as a man may feel who
has spent many years in a lunatic asylum; and after his release is for
ever engaged in a struggle to allay the doubts of a leering suspicion.

I gave up the hopeless task at last, and sought out Challis again.

"Write it as a story," he suggested, "and give up the attempt to carry
conviction."

And in that spirit, adopting the form of a story, I did begin, and in
that form I hope to finish.

But here as I reach the great division, the determining factor of Victor

Stott's life, I am constrained to pause and apologise. I have become
uncomfortably conscious of my own limitations, and the feeble, ephemeral
methods I am using. I am trifling with a wonderful story, embroidering
my facts with the tawdry detail of my own imagining.

I saw--I see--no other way.

This is, indeed, a preface, yet I prefer to put it in this place, since
it was at this time I wrote it.

* * * * *

On the Common a faint green is coming again like a mist among the
ash-trees, while the oak is still dead and bare. Last year the oak came
first.

They say we shall have a wet summer.





Next: His Passage Through The Prison Of Knowledge

Previous: His Debt To Henry Challis



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