The Manner Of His Birth
Part of: THE CHILDHOOD OF THE WONDER
From: The Wonder
Stoke-Underhill lies in the flat of the valley that separates the
Hampden from the Quainton Hills. The main road from London to Ailesworth
does not pass through Stoke, but from the highway you can see the ascent
of the bridge over the railway, down the vista of a straight mile of
side road; and, beyond, a glimpse of scattered cottages. That is all,
and as a matter of fact, no one who is not keeping a sharp look-out
would ever notice the village, for the eye is drawn to admire the bluff
of Deane Hill, the highest point of the Hampdens, which lowers over the
little hamlet of Stoke and gives it a second name; and to the church
tower of Chilborough Beacon, away to the right, another landmark.
The attraction which Stoke-Underhill held for Stott, lay not in its
seclusion or its picturesqueness but in its nearness to the County
Ground. Stott could ride the two flat miles which separated him from the
scene of his work in ten minutes, and Ailesworth station is only a mile
beyond. So when he found that there was a suitable cottage to let in
Stoke, he looked no farther for a home; he was completely satisfied.
Stott's absorption in any matter that was occupying his mind made him
exceedingly careless about the detail of his affairs. He took the first
cottage that offered when he looked for a home, he took the first woman
who offered when he looked for a wife.
Stott was not an attractive man to women. He was short and plain, and he
had an appearance of being slightly deformed, a "monkeyish" look, due to
his build and his long arms. Still, he was famous, and might, doubtless,
have been accepted by a dozen comely young women for that reason, even
after his accident. But if Stott was unattractive to women, women were
even more unattractive to Stott. "No opinion of women?" he used to say.
"Ever seen a gel try to throw a cricket ball? You 'ave? Well, ain't that
enough to put you off women?" That was Stott's intellectual standard;
physically, he had never felt drawn to women.
Ellen Mary Jakes exhibited no superiority over her sisters in the matter
of throwing a cricket ball. She was a friend of Ginger's mother, and
she was a woman of forty-two, who had long since been relegated to some
remote shelf of the matrimonial exchange. But her physical disadvantages
were outbalanced by her mental qualities. Ellen Mary was not a
book-worm, she read nothing but the evening and Sunday papers, but she
had a reasoning and intelligent mind.
She had often contemplated the state of matrimony, and had made more
than one tentative essay in that direction. She had walked out with
three or four sprigs of the Ailesworth bourgeoisie in her time, and the
shadow of middle-age had crept upon her before she realised that however
pliant her disposition, her lack of physical charm put her at the mercy
of the first bright-eyed rival. At thirty-five Ellen had decided, with
admirable philosophy, that marriage was not for her, and had assumed,
with apparent complacency, the outward evidences of a dignified
spinsterhood. She had discarded gay hats and ribbons, imitation
jewellery, unreliable cheap shoes, and chill diaphanous stockings, and
had found some solace for her singleness in more comfortable and
When Ellen, a declared spinster of seven years' standing, was first
taken into the confidence of Ginger Stott's mother, the scheme which she
afterwards elaborated immediately presented itself to her mind. This
fact is a curious instance of Ellen Mary's mobility of intellect, and
the student of heredity may here find matter for careful thought.
The confidence in question was Ginger's declared intention of becoming
the father of the world's greatest bowler. Mrs. Stott was a dark,
garrulous, rather deaf little woman, with a keen eye for the main
chance; she might have become a successful woman of business if she had
not been by nature both stingy and a cheat. When her son presented his
determination, her first thought was to find some woman who would not
dissipate her son's substance, and in her opinion--not expressed to
Ginger--the advertised purpose of the contemplated marriage evidenced a
Mrs. Stott did not think of Ellen Mary as a possible daughter-in-law,
but she did hold forth for an hour and three-quarters on the
contemptible qualities of the young maidens, first of Ailesworth, and
then with a wider swoop that was not justified by her limited
experience, of the girls of England, Scotland, and Ireland at large.
It required the flexible reasoning powers of Ellen Mary to find a
solution of the problem. Any ordinary, average woman of forty-two, a
declared spinster of seven years' standing, who had lived all her life
in a provincial town, would have been mentally unable to realise the
possibilities of the situation. Such a representative of the decaying
sexual instinct would have needed the stimulus of courtship, at the
least of some hint of preference displayed by the suitor. Ruled by the
conventions which hold her sex in bondage, she would have deemed it
unwomanly to make advances by any means other than innuendo, the subtle
suggestions which are the instruments of her sex, but which are often
too delicate to pierce the understanding of the obtuse and slow-witted
Ellen Mary stood outside the ruck that determines the destinies of all
such typical representatives. She considered the idea presented to her
by Mrs. Stott with an open and mobile intelligence. She weighed the
character of Ginger, the possibilities of rejection, and the influence
of Mrs. Stott; and she gave no thought to the conventions, nor to the
criticisms of Ailesworth society. When she had decided that such chances
as she could calculate were in her favour, Ellen made up her mind,
walked out to the County Ground one windy October forenoon, and
discovered Ginger experimenting with grass seed in a shed off the
In this shed she offered herself, while Ginger worked on, attentive but
unresponsive. Perhaps she did not make an offer so much as state a case.
A masterly case, without question; for who can doubt that Stott, however
procrastinating and unwilling to make a definite overture, must already
have had some type of womanhood in his mind; some conception, the seed
of an ideal.
I find a quality of romance in this courageous and unusual wooing of
Ellen Mary's; but more, I find evidences of the remarkable quality of
her intelligence. In other circumstances the name of Ellen Mary Jakes
might have stood for individual achievement; instead of that, she is
remembered as a common woman who happened to be the mother of Victor
Stott. But when the facts are examined, can we say that chance entered?
If ever the birth of a child was deliberately designed by both parents,
it was in the case under consideration. And in what a strange setting
was the inception first displayed.
Ellen Mary, a gaunt, tall, somewhat untidy woman, stood at the narrow
door of the little shed off the Ailesworth pavilion; with one hand,
shoulder-high, she steadied herself against the door frame, with the
other she continually pushed forward the rusty bonnet which had been
loosened during her walk by the equinoctial gale that now tore at the
door of the shed, and necessitated the employment of a wary foot to keep
the door from slamming. With all these distractions she still made good
her case, though she had to raise her voice above the multitudinous
sounds of the wind, and though she had to address the unresponsive
shoulders of a man who bent over shallow trays of earth set on a trestle
table under the small and dirty window. It is heroic, but she had her
reward in full measure. Presently her voice ceased, and she waited in
silence for the answer that should decide her destiny. There was an
interval broken only by the tireless passion of the wind, and then
Ginger Stott, the best-known man in England, looked up and stared
through the incrusted pane of glass before him at the dim vision of
stooping grass and swaying hedge. Unconsciously his hand strayed to his
pockets, and then he said in a low, thoughtful voice: "Well! I dunno why
Dr. O'Connell's face was white and drawn, and the redness of his eyelids
more pronounced than ever as he faced Stott in the pale October dawn. He
clutched at his beard with a nervous, combing movement, as he shook his
head decidedly in answer to the question put to him.
"If it's not dead, now, 'twill be in very few hours," he said.
Stott was shaken by the feeble passion of a man who has spent many weary
hours of suspense. His anger thrilled out in a feeble stream of
O'Connell looked down on him with contempt. At sunrise, after a
sleepless night, a man is a creature of unrealised emotions.
"Damn it, control yourself, man!" growled O'Connell, himself
uncontrolled, "your wife'll pull through with care, though she'll never
have another child." O'Connell did not understand; he was an Irishman,
and no cricketer; he had been called in because he had a reputation for
his skill in obstetrics.
Stott stared at him fiercely. The two men seemed as if about to grapple
desperately for life in the windy, grey twilight.
O'Connell recovered his self-control first, and began again to claw
nervously at his beard. "Don't be a fool," he said, "it's only what you
could expect. Her first child, and her a woman of near fifty." He
returned to the upstairs room; Stott seized his cap and went out into
the chill world of sunrise.
"She'll do, if there are no complications," said O'Connell to the
nurse, as he bent over the still, exhausted figure of Mrs. Stott. "She's
a wonderful woman to have delivered such a child alive."
The nurse shivered, and avoiding any glance at the huddle that lay on an
improvised sofa-bed, she said: "It can't live, can it?"
O'Connell, still intent on his first patient, shook his head. "Never
cried after delivery," he muttered--"the worst sign." He was silent for
a moment and then he added: "But, to be sure, it's a freak of some
kind." His scientific curiosity led him to make a further investigation.
He left the bed and began to examine the huddle on the sofa-couch.
Victor Stott owed his life, in the first instance, to this scientific
curiosity of O'Connell's.
The nurse, a capable, but sentimental woman, turned to the window and
looked out at the watery trickle of feeble sunlight that now illumined
the wilderness of Stott's garden.
"Nurse!" The imperative call startled her; she turned nervously.
"Yes, doctor?" she said, making no movement towards him.
"Come here!" O'Connell was kneeling by the sofa. "There seems to be
complete paralysis of all the motor centres," he went on; "but the
child's not dead. We'll try artificial respiration."
The nurse overcame her repugnance by a visible effort. "Is it ... is it
worth while?" she asked, regarding the flaccid, tumbled, wax-like thing,
with its bloated, white globe of a skull. Every muscle of it was relaxed
and limp, its eyes shut, its tiny jaw hanging. "Wouldn't it be better to
let it die...?"
O'Connell did not seem to hear her. He waved an impatient hand for her
assistance. "Outside my experience," he muttered, "no heart-beat
discernible, no breath ... yet it is indubitably alive." He depressed
the soft, plastic ribs and gave the feeble heart a gentle squeeze.
"It's beating," he ejaculated, after a pause, with an ear close to the
little chest, "but still no breath! Come!"
The diminutive lungs were as readily open to suggestion as the wee
heart: a few movements of the twigs they called arms, and the breath
came. O'Connell closed the mouth and it remained closed, adjusted the
limbs, and they stayed in the positions in which they were placed. At
last he gently lifted the lids of the eyes.
The nurse shivered and drew back. Even O'Connell was startled, for the
eyes that stared into his own seemed to be heavy with a brooding
Stott came back at ten o'clock, after a morose trudge through the misty
rain. He found the nurse in the sitting-room.
"Doctor gone?" he asked.
The nurse nodded.
"Dead, I suppose?" Stott gave an upward twist of his head towards the
The nurse shook her head.
"Can't live though?" There was a note of faint hope in his voice.
The nurse drew herself together and sighed deeply. "Yes! we believe
it'll live, Mr. Stott," she said. "But ... it's a very remarkable baby."
How that phrase always recurred!
There were no complications, but Mrs. Stott's recovery was not rapid. It
was considered advisable that she should not see the child. She thought
that they were lying to her, that the child was dead and, so, resigned
herself. But her husband saw it.
He had never seen so young an infant before, and, just for one moment,
he believed that it was a normal child.
"What an 'ead!" was his first ejaculation, and then he realised the
significance of that sign. Fear came into his eyes, and his mouth fell
open. "'Ere, I say, nurse, it's ... it's a wrong 'un, ain't it?" he
"I'm sure I can't tell you, Mr. Stott," broke out the nurse
hysterically. She had been tending that curious baby for three hours,
and she was on the verge of a break-down. There was no wet-nurse to be
had, but a woman from the village had been sent for. She was expected
"More like a tadpole than anything," mused the unhappy father.
"Oh! Mr. Stott, for goodness' sake, don't," cried the nurse. "If you
"Knew what?" questioned Stott, still staring at the motionless figure of
his son, who lay with closed eyes, apparently unconscious.
"There's something--I don't know," began the nurse, and then after a
pause, during which she seemed to struggle for some means of expression,
she continued with a sigh of utter weariness, "You'll know when it opens
its eyes. Oh! Why doesn't that woman come, the woman you sent for?"
"She'll be 'ere directly," replied Stott. "What d'you mean about there
bein' something ... something what?"
"Uncanny," said the nurse without conviction. "I do wish that woman
would come. I've been up the best part of the night, and now ..."
"Uncanny? As how?" persisted Stott.
"Not normal," explained the nurse. "I can't tell you more than that."
"But 'ow? What way?"
He did not receive an answer then, for the long expected relief came at
last, a great hulk of a woman, who became voluble when she saw the child
she had come to nurse.
"Oh! dear, oh! dear," the stream began. "How unforchnit, and 'er first,
too. It'll be a idjit, I'm afraid. Mrs. 'Arrison's third was the very
spit of it...."
The stream ran on, but Stott heard no more. An idiot! He had fathered an
idiot! That was the end of his dreams and ambitions! He had had an
hour's sleep on the sitting-room sofa. He went out to his work at the
County Ground with a heart full of blasphemy.
When he returned at four o'clock he met the stout woman on the doorstep.
She put up a hand to her rolling breast, closed her eyes tightly, and
gasped as though completely overcome by this trifling rencounter.
"'Ow is it?" questioned the obsessed Stott.
"Oh dear! Oh dear!" panted the stout woman, "the leas' thing upsets me
this afternoon...." She wandered away into irrelevant fluency, but Stott
was autocratic; his insistent questions overcame the inertia of even
Mrs. Reade at last. The substance of her information, freed from
extraneous matter, was as follows:
"Oh! 'ealthy? It'll live, I've no doubt, if that's what you mean; but
'elpless...! There, 'elpless is no word.... Learn 'im to open his mouth,
learn 'im to close 'is 'ands, learn 'im to go to sleep, learn 'im
everythink. I've never seen nothink like it, never in all my days, and
I've 'elped to bring a few into the world.... I can't begin to tell you
about it, Mr. Stott, and that's the solemn truth. When 'e first looked
at me, I near 'ad a faint. A old-fashioned, wise sort of look as 'e
might 'a been a 'undred. 'Lord 'elp us, nurse,' I says, 'Lord 'elp us.'
I was that opset, I didn't rightly know what I was a-saying...."
Stott pushed past the agitated Mrs. Reade, and went into the
sitting-room. He had had neither breakfast nor lunch; there was no sign
of any preparation for his tea, and the fireplace was grey with the
cinders of last night's fire. For some minutes he sat in deep
despondency, a hero faced with the uncompromising detail of domestic
neglect. Then he rose and called to the nurse.
She appeared at the head of the steep, narrow staircase. "Sh!" she
warned, with a finger to her lips.
"I'm goin' out again," said Stott in a slightly modulated voice.
"Mrs. Reade's coming back presently," replied the nurse, and looked over
"Want me to wait?" asked Stott.
The nurse came down a few steps. "It's only in case any one was wanted,"
she began, "I've got two of 'em on my hands, you see. They're both doing
well as far as that goes. Only ..." She broke off and drifted into small
talk. Ever and again she stopped and listened intently, and looked back
towards the half-open door of the upstairs room.
Stott fidgeted, and then, as the flow of conversation gave no sign of
running dry, he dammed it abruptly. "Look 'ere, miss," he said, "I've
'ad nothing to eat since last night."
"Oh! dear!" ejaculated the nurse. "If--perhaps, if you'd just stay here
and listen, I could get you something." She seemed relieved to have some
excuse for coming down.
While she bustled about the kitchen, Stott, half-way upstairs, stayed
and listened. The house was very silent, the only sound was the hushed
clatter made by the nurse in the kitchen. There was an atmosphere of
wariness about the place that affected even so callous a person as
Stott. He listened with strained attention, his eyes fixed on the
half-open door. He was not an imaginative man, but he was beset with
apprehension as to what lay behind that door. He looked for something
inhuman that might come crawling through the aperture, something
grotesque, preternaturally wise and threatening--something horribly
The window of the upstairs room was evidently open, and now and again
the door creaked faintly. When that happened Stott gripped the handrail,
and grew damp and hot. He looked always at the shadows under the door.
If it crawled ...
The nurse stood at the door of the sitting-room while Stott ate, and
presently Mrs. Reade came grunting and panting up the brick path.
"I'm going out, now," said Stott resolutely, and he rose to his feet,
though his meal was barely finished.
"You'll be back before Mrs. Reade goes?" asked the nurse, and passed a
hand over her tired eyes. "She'll be here till ten o'clock. I'm going to
"I'll be back by ten," Stott assured her as he went out.
He did come back at ten o'clock, but he was stupidly drunk.
The Stotts' cottage was no place to live in during the next few days,
but the nurse made one stipulation: Mr. Stott must come home to sleep.
He slept on an improvised bed in the sitting-room, and during the night
the nurse came down many times and listened to the sound of his snores.
She would put her ear against the door, and rest her nerves with the
thought of human companionship. Sometimes she opened the door quietly
and watched him as he slept. Except at night, when he was rarely quite
sober, Stott only visited his cottage once a day, at lunch time; from
seven in the morning till ten at night he remained in Ailesworth save
for this one call of inquiry.
It was such a still house. Ellen Mary only spoke when speech was
absolutely required, and then her words were the fewest possible, and
were spoken in a whisper. The child made no sound of any kind. Even Mrs.
Reade tried to subdue her stertorous breathing, to move with less
ponderous quakings. The neighbours told her she looked thinner.
Little wonder that during the long night vigil the nurse, moving
silently between the two upstairs rooms, should pause on the landing and
lean over the handrail; little wonder that she should give a long sigh
of relief when she heard the music of Stott's snore ascend from the
O'Connell called twice every day during the first week, not because it
was necessary for him to visit his two patients, but because the infant
fascinated him. He would wait for it to open its eyes, and then he
would get up and leave the room hurriedly. Always he intended to return
the infant's stare, but when the opportunity was given to him, he always
rose and left the room--no matter how long and deliberately he had
braced himself to another course of action.
It was on a Thursday that the baby was born, and it was on the following
Thursday that the circumstance of the household was reshaped.
O'Connell came in the morning, full of resolution. After he had
pronounced Mrs. Stott well on the way to recovery, he paid the usual
visit to his younger patient. The child lay, relaxed, at full length, in
the little cot which had been provided for him. His eyes were, as usual,
closed, and he had all the appearance of the ordinary hydrocephalic
O'Connell sat down by the cot, listened to the child's breathing and
heart-beat, lifted and let fall again the lax wrist, turned back the
eyelid, revealing only the white of the upturned eyeball, and then
composed himself to await the natural waking of the child, if it were
asleep--always a matter of uncertainty.
The nurse stood near him, silent, but she looked away from the cot.
"Hydrocephalus!" murmured O'Connell, staring at his tiny patient,
"hydrocephalus, without a doubt. Eh? nurse!"
"Yes, perhaps! I don't know, doctor."
"Oh, not a doubt of it, not a doubt," repeated O'Connell, and then came
a flicker of the child's eyelids and a weak crumpling of the tiny hand.
O'Connell caught his breath and clawed at his beard. "Hydrocephalus," he
muttered with set jaw and drawn eyebrows.
The tiny hand straightened with a movement that suggested the recovery
of crushed grass, the mouth opened in a microscopic yawn, and then the
eyelids were slowly raised and a steady unwavering stare of profoundest
intelligence met O'Connell's gaze.
He clenched his hands, shifted in his chair, and then rose abruptly and
turned to the window.
"I--it won't be necessary for me to come again, nurse," he said curtly;
"they are both doing perfectly well."
"Not come again?" There was dismay in the nurse's question.
"No! No! It's unnecessary ..." He broke off, and made for the door
without another glance in the direction of the cot.
Nurse followed him downstairs.
"If I'm wanted--you can easily send for me," said O'Connell, as he went
out. As he moved away he dragged at his beard and murmured:
"Hydrocephalus, not a doubt of it."
Following his departure, Mrs. Reade heard curious and most unwonted
laughter, and cautiously blundered downstairs to investigate. She found
the nurse in an advanced condition of hysteria, laughing, gurgling,
weeping, and intermittently crying in a shrill voice: "Oh! Lord have
mercy; Lord ha' mercy!"
"Now, see you 'ere, my dear," said Mrs. Reade, when nurse had been
recovered to a red-eyed sanity, "it's time she was told. I've never 'eld
with keepin' it from 'er, myself, and I've 'ad more experience than
many...." Mrs. Reade argued with abundant recourse to parenthesis.
"Is she strog edough?" asked the nurse, still with tears in her voice;
"cad she bear the sight of hib?" She blew her nose vigorously, and then
continued with greater clearness: "I'm afraid it may turn her head."
Out of her deep store of wisdom, Mrs. Reade produced a fact which she
elaborated and confirmed by apt illustration, adducing more particularly
the instance of Mrs. Harrison's third. "She's 'is mother," was the
essence of her argument, a fact of deep and strange significance.
The nurse yielded, and so the circumstance of Stott's household was
changed, and Stott himself was once more able to come home to meals.
The nurse, wisely, left all diplomacy to the capable Mrs. Reade, a woman
specially fitted by nature for the breaking of news. She delivered a
long, a record-breaking circumlocution, and it seemed that Ellen Mary,
who lay with closed eyes, gathered no hint of its import. But when the
impressive harangue was slowly rustling to collapse like an exhausted
balloon, she opened her eyes and said quite clearly,
"What's wrong with 'im, then?"
The question had the effect of reinflation, but at last the child itself
was brought, and it was open-eyed.
The supreme ambition of all great women--and have not all women the
potentialities of greatness?--is to give birth to a god. That ambition
it is which is marred by the disappointing birth of a female child--when
the man-child is born, there is always hope, and slow is the realisation
of failure. That realisation never came to Ellen Mary. She accepted her
child with the fear that is adoration. When she dropped her eyes before
her god's searching glance, she did it in reverence. She hid her faith
from the world, but in her heart she believed that she was blessed above
all women. In secret, she worshipped the inscrutable wonder that had
used her as the instrument of his incarnation. Perhaps she was
Next: His Departure From Stoke-underhill
Previous: The Disillusionment Of Ginger Stott