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The Incipience Of My Subjection To The Wonder






Part of: MY ASSOCIATION WITH THE WONDER
From: The Wonder

I

Victor Stott was in his eighth year when I met him for the third time. I
must have stayed longer than I imagined by the pond on the Common, for
Mrs. Stott and her son had had tea, and the boy was preparing to go out.
He stopped when he saw me coming; an unprecedented mark of recognition,
so I have since learned.

As I saw him then, he made a remarkable, but not a repulsively abnormal
figure. His baldness struck one immediately, but it did not give him a
look of age. Then one noticed that his head was unmistakably out of
proportion to his body, yet the disproportion was not nearly so marked
as it had been in infancy. These two things were conspicuous; the less
salient peculiarities were observed later; the curious little beaky nose
that jutted out at an unusual angle from the face, the lips that were
too straight and determined for a child, the laxity of the limbs when
the body was in repose--lastly, the eyes.

When I met Victor Stott on this, third, occasion, there can be no doubt
that he had lost something of his original power. This may have been due
to his long sojourn in the world of books, a sojourn that had, perhaps,
altered the strange individuality of his thought; or it may have been
due, in part at least, to his recent recognition of the fact that the
power of his gaze exercised no influence over creatures such as the
Harrison idiot. Nevertheless, though something of the original force had
abated, he still had an extraordinary, and, so far as I can learn,
altogether unprecedented power of enforcing his will without word or
gesture; and I may say here that in those rare moments when Victor Stott
looked me in the face, I seemed to see a rare and wonderful personality
peering out through his eyes,--the personality which had, no doubt,
spoken to Challis and Lewes through that long afternoon in the library
of Challis Court. Normally one saw a curious, unattractive, rather
repulsive figure of a child; when he looked at one with that rare look
of intention, the man that lived within that unattractive body was
revealed, his insight, his profundity, his unexampled wisdom. If we mark
the difference between man and animals by a measure of intelligence,
then surely this child was a very god among men.


II

Victor Stott did not look at me when I entered his mother's cottage; I
saw only the unattractive exterior of him, and I blundered into an air
of patronage.

"Is this your boy?" I said, when I had greeted her. "I hear he is a
great scholar."

"Yes, sir," replied Ellen Mary quietly. She never boasted to strangers.

"You don't remember me, I suppose?" I went on, foolishly; trying,
however, to speak as to an equal. "You were in petticoats the last time
I saw you."

The Wonder was standing by the window, his arms hanging loosely at his
sides; he looked out aslant up the lane; his profile was turned towards
me. He made no answer to my question.

"Oh yes, sir, he remembers," replied Ellen Mary. "He never forgets
anything."

I paused, uncomfortably. I was slightly huffed by the boy's silence.

"I have come to spend the summer here," I said at last. "I hope he will
come to see me. I have brought a good many books with me; perhaps he
might care to read some of them."

I had to talk at the boy; there was no alternative. Inwardly I was
thinking that I had Kant's Critique and Hegel's Phenomenology among my
books. "He may put on airs of scholarship," I thought; "but I fancy that
he will find those two works rather above the level of his comprehension
as yet." I did not recognise the fact that it was I who was putting on
airs, not Victor Stott.

"'E's given up reading the past six weeks, sir," said Ellen Mary, "but I
daresay he will come and see your books."

She spoke demurely, and she did not look at her son; I received the
impression that her statements were laid before him to take up, reject,
or pass unnoticed as he pleased.

I was slightly exasperated. I turned to the Wonder. "Would you care to
come?" I asked.

He nodded without looking at me, and walked out of the cottage.

I hesitated.

"'E'll go with you now, sir," prompted Ellen Mary. "That's what 'e
means."

I followed the Wonder in a condition of suppressed irritation. "His
mother might be able to interpret his rudeness," I thought, "but I would
teach him to convey his intentions more clearly. The child had been
spoilt."


III

The Wonder chose the road over the Common. I should have gone by the
wood, but when we came to the entrance of the wood, he turned up on to
the Common. He did not ask me which way I preferred. Indeed, we neither
of us spoke during the half-mile walk that separated the Wood Farm from
the last cottage in Pym.

I was fuming inwardly. I had it in my mind at that time to put the
Wonder through some sort of an examination. I was making plans to
contribute towards his education, to send him to Oxford, later. I had
adumbrated a scheme to arouse interest in his case among certain
scholars and men of influence with whom I was slightly acquainted. I had
been very much engrossed with these plans as I had made my way to the
Stotts' cottage. I was still somewhat exalted in mind with my dreams of
a vicarious brilliance. I had pictured the Wonder's magnificent passage
through the University; I had acted, in thought, as the generous and
kindly benefactor.... It had been a grandiose dream, and the reality was
so humiliating. Could I make this mannerless child understand his
possibilities? Had he any ambition?

Thinking of these things, I had lagged behind as we crossed the Common,
and when I came to the gate of the farmyard, the Wonder was at the door
of the house. He did not wait for me, but walked straight into my
sitting-room. When I entered, I found him seated on the low window-sill,
turning over the top layer of books in the large case which had been
opened, but not unpacked. There was no place to put the books; in fact,
I was proposing to have some shelves put up, if Mrs. Berridge had no
objection.

I entered the room in a condition of warm indignation. "Cheek" was the
word that was in my mind. "Confounded cheek," I muttered. Nevertheless I
did not interrupt the boy; instead, I lit a cigarette, sat down and
watched him.

I was sceptical at first. I noted at once the sure touch with which the
boy handled my books, the practised hand that turned the pages, the
quick examination of title-page and the list of contents, the occasional
swift reference to the index, but I did not believe it possible that any
one could read so fast as he read when he did condescend for a few
moments to give his attention to a few consecutive pages. "Was it a
pose?" I thought, yet he was certainly an adept in handling the books. I
was puzzled, yet I was still sceptical--the habit of experience was
towards disbelief--a boy of seven and a half could not possibly have the
mental equipment to skim all that philosophy....

My books were being unpacked very quickly. Kant, Hegel, Schelling,
Fichte, Leibnitz, Nietzsche, Hume, Bradley, William James had all been
rejected and were piled on the floor, but he had hesitated longer over
Bergson's Creative Evolution. He really seemed to be giving that some
attention, though he read it--if he were reading it--so fast that the
hand which turned the pages hardly rested between each movement.

When Bergson was sent to join his predecessors, I determined that I
would get some word out of this strange child--I had never yet heard him
speak, not a single syllable. I determined to brave all rebuffs. I was
prepared for that.

"Well?" I said, when Bergson was laid down. "Well! What do you make of
that?"

He turned and looked out of the window.

I came and sat on the end of the table within a few feet of him. From
that position I, too, could see out of the window, and I saw the figure
of the Harrison idiot slouching over the farmyard gate.

A gust of impatience whirled over me. I caught up my stick and went out
quickly.

"Now then," I said, as I came within speaking distance of the idiot,
"get away from here. Out with you!"

The idiot probably understood no word of what I said, but like a dog he
was quick to interpret my tone and gesture. He made a revoltingly
inhuman sound as he shambled away, a kind of throaty yelp. I walked back
to the house. I could not avoid the feeling that I had been
unnecessarily brutal.

When I returned the Wonder was still staring out of the window; but
though I did not guess it then, the idiot had served my purpose better
than my determination. It was to the idiot that I owed my subsequent
knowledge of Victor Stott. The Wonder had found a use for me. He was
resigned to bear with my feeble mental development, because I was strong
enough to keep at bay that half-animal creature who appeared to believe
that Victor Stott was one of his own kind--the only one he had ever met.
The idiot in some unimaginable way had inferred a likeness between
himself and the Wonder--they both had enormous heads--and the idiot was
the only human being over whom the Wonder was never able to exercise the
least authority.


IV

I went in and sat down again on the end of the table. I was rather
heated. I lit another cigarette and stared at the Wonder, who was still
looking out of the window.

There was silence for a few seconds, and then he spoke of his own
initiative.

"Illustrates the weakness of argument from history and analogy," he said
in a clear, small voice, addressing no one in particular. "Hegel's
limitations are qualitatively those of Harrison, who argues that I and
he are similar in kind."

The proposition was so astounding that I could find no answer
immediately. If the statement had been made in boyish language I should
have laughed at it, but the phraseology impressed me.

"You've read Hegel, then?" I asked evasively.

"Subtract the endeavour to demonstrate a preconceived hypothesis from
any known philosophy," continued the Wonder, without heeding my
question, "and the remainder, the only valuable material, is found to be
distorted." He paused as if waiting for my reply.

How could one answer such propositions as these offhand? I tried,
however, to get at the gist of the sentence, and, as the silence
continued, I said with some hesitation: "But it is impossible, surely,
to approach the work of writing, say a philosophy, without some
apprehension of the end in view?"

"Illogical," replied the Wonder, "not philosophy; a system of trial and
error--to evaluate a complex variable function." He paused a moment, and
then glanced down at the pile of books on the floor. "More millions," he
said.

I think he meant that more millions of books might be written on this
system without arriving at an answer to the problem, but I admit that I
am at a loss, that I cannot interpret his remarks. I wrote them down an
hour or two after they were uttered, but I may have made mistakes. The
mathematical metaphor is beyond me. I have no acquaintance with the
higher mathematics.

The Wonder had a very expressionless face, but I thought at this moment
that he wore a look of sadness; and that look was one of the factors
which helped me to understand the unbridgeable gulf that lay between his
intellect and mine. I think it was at this moment that I first began to
change my opinion. I had been regarding him as an unbearable little
prig, but it flashed across me as I watched him now, that his mind and
my own might be so far differentiated that he was unable to convey his
thoughts to me. "Was it possible," I wondered, "that he had been trying
to talk down to my level?"

"I am afraid I don't quite follow you," I said. I had intended to
question him further, to urge him to explain, but it came to me that it
would be quite hopeless to go on. How can one answer the unreasoning
questions of a child? Here I was the child, though a child of slightly
advanced development. I could appreciate that it was useless to persist
in a futile "Why, why?" when the answer could only be given in terms
that I could not comprehend. Therefore I hesitated, sighed, and then
with that obstinacy of vanity which creates an image of self-protection
and refuses to relinquish it, I said:

"I wish you could explain yourself; not on this particular point of
philosophy, but your life----" I stopped, because I did not know how to
phrase my demand. What was it, after all, that I wanted to learn?

"That I can't explain," said the Wonder. "There are no data."

I saw that he had accepted my request for explanation in a much wider
sense than I had intended, and I took him up on this.

"But haven't you any hypothesis?"

"I cannot work on the system of trial and error," replied the Wonder.

Our conversation went no further this afternoon, for Mrs. Berridge came
in to lay the cloth. She looked askance, I thought, at the figure on the
window-sill, but she ventured no remark save to ask if I was ready for
my supper.

"Yes, oh! yes!" I said.

"Shall I lay for two, sir?" asked Mrs. Berridge.

"Will you stay and have supper?" I said to the Wonder, but he shook his
head, got up and walked out of the room. I watched him cross the
farmyard and make his way over the Common.

"Well!" I said to Mrs. Berridge, when the boy was out of sight, "that
child is what in America they call 'the limit,' Mrs. Berridge."

My landlady put her lips together, shook her head, and shivered
slightly. "He gives me the shudders," she said.


V

I neither read nor wrote that evening. I forgot to go out for a walk at
sunset. I sat and pondered until it was time for bed, and then I
pondered myself to sleep. No vision came to me, and I had no relevant
dreams.

The next morning at seven o'clock I saw Mrs. Stott come over the Common
to fetch her milk from the farm. I waited until her business was done,
and then I went out and walked back with her.

"I want to understand about your son," I said by way of making an
opening.

She looked at me quickly. "You know, 'e 'ardly ever speaks to me, sir,"
she said.

I was staggered for a moment. "But you understand him?" I said.

"In some ways, sir," was her answer.

I recognised the direction of the limitation. "Ah! we none of us
understand him in all ways," I said, with a touch of patronage.

"No, sir," replied Ellen Mary. She evidently agreed to that statement
without qualification.

"But what is he going to do?" I asked. "When he grows up, I mean?"

"I can't say, sir. We must leave that to 'im."

I accepted the rebuke more mildly than I should have done on the
previous day. "He never speaks of his future?" I said feebly.

"No, sir."

There seemed to be nothing more to say. We had only gone a couple of
hundred yards, but I paused in my walk. I thought I might as well go
back and get my breakfast. But Mrs. Stott looked at me as though she had
something more to say. We stood facing each other on the cart track.

"I suppose I can't be of any use?" I asked vaguely.

Ellen Mary became suddenly voluble.

"I 'ope I'm not askin' too much, sir," she said, "but there is a way you
could 'elp if you would. 'E 'ardly ever speaks to me, as I've said, but
I've been opset about that 'Arrison boy. 'E's a brute beast, sir, if you
know what I mean, and 'e" (she differentiated her pronouns only by
accent, and where there is any doubt I have used italics to indicate
that her son is referred to) "doesn't seem to 'ave the same 'old on 'im
as 'e does over others. It's truth, I am not easy in my mind about it,
sir, although 'e 'as never said a word to me, not being afraid of
anything like other children, but 'e seems to have took a sort of a
fancy to you, sir" (I think this was intended as the subtlest flattery),
"and if you was to go with 'im when 'e takes 'is walks--'e's much in the
air, sir, and a great one for walkin'--I think 'e'd be glad of your
cump'ny, though maybe 'e won't never say it in so many words. You
mustn't mind 'im being silent, sir; there's some things we can't
understand, and though, as I say, 'e 'asn't said anything to me, it's
not that I'm scheming be'ind 'is back, for I know 'is meaning without
words being necessary."

She might have said more, but I interrupted her at this point.
"Certainly, I will come and fetch him,"--I lapsed unconsciously into her
system of denomination--"this morning, if you are sure he would like to
come out with me."

"I'm quite sure, sir," she said.

"About nine o'clock?" I asked.

"That would do nicely, sir," she answered.

As I walked back to the farm I was thinking of the life of those two
occupants of the Stotts' cottage. The mother who watched her son in
silence, studying his every look and action in order to gather his
meaning; who never asked her son a question nor expected from him any
statement of opinion; and the son wrapped always in that profound
speculation which seemed to be his only mood. What a household!

It struck me while I was having breakfast that I seemed to have let
myself in for a duty that might prove anything but pleasant.


VI

There is nothing to say of that first walk of mine with the Wonder. I
spoke to him once or twice and he answered by nodding his head; even
this notice I now know to have been a special mark of favour, a
condescension to acknowledge his use for me as a guardian. He did not
speak at all on this occasion.

I did not call for him in the afternoon; I had made other plans. I
wanted to see the man Challis, whose library had been at the disposal of
this astonishing child. Challis might be able to give me further
information. The truth of the matter is that I was in two minds as to
whether I would stay at Pym through the summer, as I had originally
intended. I was not in love with the prospect which the sojourn now held
out for me. If I were to be constituted head nursemaid to Master Victor
Stott, there would remain insufficient time for the progress of my own
book on certain aspects of the growth of the philosophic method.

I see now, when I look back, that I was not convinced at that time, that
I still doubted the Wonder's learning. I may have classed it as a
freakish pedantry, the result of an unprecedented memory.

Mrs. Berridge had much information to impart on the subject of Henry
Challis. He was her husband's landlord, of course, and his was a
hallowed name, to be spoken with decency and respect. I am afraid I
shocked Mrs. Berridge at the outset by my casual "Who's this man
Challis?" She certainly atoned by her own manner for my irreverence; she
very obviously tried to impress me. I professed submission, but was not
intimidated, rather my curiosity was aroused.

Mrs. Berridge was not able to tell me the one thing I most desired to
know, whether the lord of Challis Court was in residence; but it was not
far to walk, and I set out about two o'clock.


VII

Challis was getting into his motor as I walked up the drive. I hurried
forward to catch him before the machine was started. He saw me coming
and paused on the doorstep.

"Did you want to see me?" he asked, as I came up.

"Mr. Challis?" I asked.

"Yes," he said.

"I won't keep you now," I said, "but perhaps you could let me know some
time when I could see you."

"Oh, yes," he said, with the air of a man who is constantly subjected to
annoyance by strangers. "But perhaps you wouldn't mind telling me what
it is you wish to see me about? I might be able to settle it now, at
once."

"I am staying at the Wood Farm," I began. "I am interested in a very
remarkable child----"

"Ah! take my advice, leave him alone," interrupted Challis quickly.

I suppose I looked my amazement, for Challis laughed. "Oh, well," he
said, "of course you won't take such spontaneous advice as that. I'm in
no hurry. Come in." He took off his heavy overcoat and threw it into the
tonneau. "Come round again in an hour," he said to the chauffeur.

"It's very good of you," I protested, "I could come quite well at any
other time."

"I'm in no hurry," he repeated. "You had better come to the scene of
Victor Stott's operations. He hasn't been here for six weeks, by the
way. Can you throw any light on his absence?"

I made a friend that afternoon. When the car came back at four o'clock,
Challis sent it away again. "I shall probably stay down here to-night,"
he said to the butler, and to me: "Can you stay to dinner? I must
convince you about this child."

"I have dined once to-day," I said. "At half-past twelve. I have no
other excuse."

"Oh! well," said Challis, "you needn't eat, but I must. Get us
something, Heathcote," he said to the butler, "and bring tea here."

Much of our conversation after dinner was not relevant to the subject of
the Wonder; we drifted into a long argument upon human origins which has
no place here. But by that time I had been very well informed as to all
the essential facts of the Wonder's childhood, of his entry into the
world of books, of his earlier methods, and of the significance of that
long speech in the library. But at that point Challis became reserved.
He would give me no details.

"You must forgive me; I can't go into that," he said.

"But it is so incomparably important," I protested.

"That may be, but you must not question me. The truth of the matter is
that I have a very confused memory of what the boy said, and the little
I might remember, I prefer to leave undisturbed."

He piqued my curiosity, but I did not press him. It was so evident that
he did not wish to speak on that head.

He walked up with me to the farm at ten o'clock and came into my room.

"We need not keep you out of bed, Mrs. Berridge," he said to my
flustered landlady. "I daresay we shall be up till all hours. We promise
to see that the house is locked up." Mr. Berridge stood a figure of
subservience in the background.

My books were still heaped on the floor. Challis sat down on the
window-sill and looked over some of them. "Many of these Master Stott
probably read in my library," he remarked, "in German. Language is no
bar to him. He learns a language as you or I would learn a page of
history."

Later on, I remember that we came down to essentials. "I must try and
understand something of this child's capacities," I said in answer to a
hint of Challis's that I should leave the Wonder alone. "It seems to me
that here we have something which is of the first importance, of greater
importance, indeed, than anything else in the history of the world."

"But you can't make him speak," said Challis.

"I shall try," I said. "I recognise that we cannot compel him, but I
have a certain hold over him. I see from what you have told me that he
has treated me with most unusual courtesy. I assure you that several
times when I spoke to him this morning he nodded his head."

"A good beginning," laughed Challis.

"I can't understand," I went on, "how it is that you are not more
interested. It seems to me that this child knows many things which we
have been patiently attempting to discover since the dawn of
civilisation."

"Quite," said Challis. "I admit that, but ... well, I don't think I want
to know."

"Surely," I said, "this key to all knowledge----"

"We are not ready for it," replied Challis. "You can't teach metaphysics
to children."

Nevertheless my ardour was increased, not abated, by my long talk with
Challis.

"I shall go on," I said, as I went out to the farm gate with him at
half-past two in the morning.

"Ah! well," he answered, "I shall come over and see you when I get
back." He had told me earlier that he was going abroad for some months.

We hesitated a moment by the gate, and instinctively we both looked up
at the vault of the sky and the glimmering dust of stars.

The same thought was probably in both our minds, the thought of the
insignificance of this little system that revolves round one of the
lesser lights of the Milky Way, but that thought was not to be expressed
save by some banality, and we did not speak.

"I shall certainly look you up when I come back," said Challis.

"Yes; I hope you will," I said lamely.

I watched the loom of his figure against the vague background till I
could distinguish it no longer.





Next: The Progress And Relaxation Of My Subjection

Previous: How I Went To Pym To Write A Book



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