Challis's first visit was paid to Sir Deane Elmer, that man of many activities, whose name inevitably suggests his favourite phrase of "Organised Progress"—with all its variants.
This is hardly the place in which to criticise a man of such diverse abilities as Deane Elmer, a man whose name still figures so prominently in the public press in connection with all that is most modern in eugenics; with the Social Reform programme of the moderate party; with the reconstruction of our penal system; with education, and so many kindred interests; and, finally, of course, with colour photography and process printing. This last Deane Elmer always spoke of as his hobby, but we may doubt whether all his interests were not hobbies in the same sense. He is the natural descendant of those earlier amateur scientists—the adjective conveys no reproach—of the nineteenth century, among whom we remember such striking figures as those of Lord Avebury and Sir Francis Galton.
In appearance Deane Elmer was a big, heavy, rather corpulent man, with a high complexion, and his clean-shaven jowl and his succession of chins hung in heavy folds. But any suggestion of material grossness was contradicted by the brightness of his rather pale-blue eyes, by his alertness of manner, and by his ready, whimsical humour.
As chairman of the Ailesworth County Council, and its most prominent unpaid public official—after the mayor—Sir Deane Elmer was certainly the most important member of the Local Authority, and Challis wisely sought him at once. He found him in the garden of his comparatively small establishment on the Quainton side of the town. Elmer was very much engaged in photographing flowers from nature through the ruled screen and colour filter—in experimenting with the Elmer process, in fact; by which the intermediate stage of a coloured negative is rendered unnecessary. His apparatus was complicated and cumbrous.
"Show Mr. Challis out here," he commanded the man who brought the announcement.
"You must forgive me, Challis," said Elmer, when Challis appeared. "We haven't had such a still day for weeks. It's the wind upsets us in this process. Screens create a partial vacuum."
He was launched on a lecture upon his darling process before Challis could get in a word. It was best to let him have his head, and Challis took an intelligent interest.
It was not until the photographs were taken, and his two assistants could safely be trusted to complete the mechanical operations, that Elmer could be divorced from his hobby. He was full of jubilation. "We should have excellent results," he boomed—he had a tremendous voice—"but we shan't be able to judge until we get the blocks made. We do it all on the spot. I have a couple of platens in the shops here; but we shan't be able to take a pull until to-morrow morning, I'm afraid. You shall have a proof, Challis. We should get magnificent results." He looked benignantly at the vault of heaven, which had been so obligingly free from any current of air.
Challis was beginning to fear that even now he would be allowed no opportunity to open the subject of his mission. But quite suddenly Elmer dropped the shutter on his preoccupation, and with that ready adaptability which was so characteristic of the man, forgot his hobby for the time being, and turned his whole attention to a new subject.
"Well?" he said, "what is the latest news in anthropology?"
"A very remarkable phenomenon," replied Challis. "That is what I have come to see you about."
"I thought you were in Paraguay pigging it with the Guaranis——"
"No, no; I don't touch the Americas," interposed Challis. "I want all your attention, Elmer. This is important."
"Come into my study," said Elmer, "and let us have the facts. What will you have—tea, whisky, beer?"
Challis's résumé of the facts need not be reported. When it was accomplished, Elmer put several keen questions, and finally delivered his verdict thus:
"We must see the boy, Challis. Personally I am, of course, satisfied, but we must not give Crashaw opportunity to raise endless questions, as he can and will. There is Mayor Purvis, the grocer, to be reckoned with, you must remember. He represents a powerful Nonconformist influence. Crashaw will get hold of him—and work him if we see Purvis first. Purvis always stiffens his neck against any breach of conventional procedure. If Crashaw saw him first, well and good, Purvis would immediately jump to the conclusion that Crashaw intended some subtle attack on the Nonconformist position, and would side with us."
"I don't think I know Purvis," mused Challis.
"Purvis & Co. in the Square," prompted Elmer. "Black-and-white fellow; black moustache and side whiskers, black eyes and white face. There's a suggestion of the Methodist pulpit about him. Doesn't appear in the shop much, and when he does, always looks as if he'd sooner sell you a Bible than a bottle of whisky."
"Ah, yes! I know," said Challis. "I daresay you're right, Elmer; but it will be difficult to persuade this child to answer any questions his examiners may put to him."
"Surely he must be open to reason," roared Elmer. "You tell me he has an extraordinary intelligence, and in the next sentence you imply that the child's a fool who can't open his mouth to serve his own interests. What's your paradox?"
"Sublimated material. Intellectual insight and absolute spiritual blindness," replied Challis, getting to his feet. "The child has gone too far in one direction—in another he has made not one step. His mind is a magnificent, terrible machine. He has the imagination of a mathematician and a logician developed beyond all conception, he has not one spark of the imagination of a poet. And so he cannot deal with men; he can't understand their weaknesses and limitations; they are geese and hens to him, creatures to be scared out of his vicinity. However, I will see what I can do. Could you arrange for the members of the Authority to come to my place?"
"I should think so. Yes," said Elmer. "I say, Challis, are you sure you're right about this child? Sounds to me like some—some freak."
"You'll see," returned Challis. "I'll try and arrange an interview. I'll let you know."
"And, by the way," said Elmer, "you had better invite Crashaw to be present. He will put Purvis's back up, and that'll enlist the difficult grocer on our side probably."
When Challis had gone, Elmer stood for a few minutes, thoughtfully scratching the ample red surface of his wide, clean-shaven cheek. "I don't know," he ejaculated at last, addressing his empty study, "I don't know." And with that expression he put all thought of Victor Stott away from him, and sat down to write an exhaustive article on the necessity for a broader basis in primary education.
Challis called at the rectory of Stoke-Underhill on the way back to his own house.
"I give way," was the characteristic of his attitude to Crashaw, and the rector suppled his back again, remembered the Derby office-boy's tendency to brag, and made the amende honorable. He even overdid his magnanimity and came too near subservience—so lasting is the influence of the lessons of youth.
Crashaw did not mention that in the interval between the two interviews he had called upon Mr. Purvis in the Square. The ex-mayor had refused to commit himself to any course of action.
But Challis forgot the rectory and all that it connoted before he was well outside the rectory's front door. Challis had a task before him that he regarded with the utmost distaste. He had warmly championed a cause; he had been heated by the presentation of a manifest injustice which was none the less tyrannical because it was ridiculous. And now he realised that it was only the abstract question which had aroused his enthusiastic advocacy, and he shrank from the interview with Victor Stott—that small, deliberate, intimidating child.
Henry Challis, the savant, the man of repute in letters, the respected figure in the larger world; Challis, the proprietor and landlord; Challis, the power among known men, knew that he would have to plead, to humble himself, to be prepared for a rebuff—worst of all, to acknowledge the justice of taking so undignified a position. Any aristocrat may stoop with dignity when he condescends of his own free will; but there are few who can submit gracefully to deserved contempt.
Challis was one of the few. He had many admirable qualities. Nevertheless, during that short motor ride from Stoke to his own house, he resented the indignity he anticipated, resented it intensely—and submitted.
He was allowed no respite. Victor Stott was emerging from the library window as Challis rolled up to the hall door. It was one of Ellen Mary's days—she stood respectfully in the background while her son descended; she curtsied to Challis as he came forward.
He hesitated a moment. He would not risk insult in the presence of his chauffeur and Mrs. Stott. He confronted the Wonder; he stood before him, and over him like a cliff.
"I must speak to you for a moment on a matter of some importance," said Challis to the little figure below him, and as he spoke he looked over the child's head at the child's mother. "It is a matter that concerns your own welfare. Will you come into the house with me for a few minutes?"
Ellen Mary nodded, and Challis understood. He turned and led the way. At the door, however, he stood aside and spoke again to Mrs. Stott. "Won't you come in and have some tea, or something?" he asked.
"No, sir, thank you, sir," replied Ellen Mary; "I'll just wait 'ere till 'e's ready."
"At least come in and sit down," said Challis, and she came in and sat in the hall. The Wonder had already preceded them into the house. He had walked into the morning-room—probably because the door stood open, though he was now tall enough to reach the handles of the Challis Court doors. He stood in the middle of the room when Challis entered.
"Won't you sit down?" said Challis.
The Wonder shook his head.
"I don't know if you are aware," began Challis, "that there is a system of education in England at the present time, which requires that every child should attend school at the age of five years, unless the parents are able to provide their children with an education elsewhere."
The Wonder nodded.
Challis inferred that he need proffer no further information with regard to the Education Act.
"Now, it is very absurd," he continued, "and I have, myself, pointed out the absurdity; but there is a man of some influence in this neighbourhood who insists that you should attend the elementary school." He paused, but the Wonder gave no sign.
"I have argued with this man," continued Challis, "and I have also seen another member of the Local Education Authority—a man of some note in the larger world—and it seems that you cannot be exempted unless you convince the Authority that your knowledge is such that to give you a Council school education would be the most absurd farce."
"Cannot you stand in loco parentis?" asked the Wonder suddenly, in his still, thin voice.
"You mean," said Challis, startled by this outburst, "that I am in a sense providing you with an education? Quite true; but there is Crashaw to deal with."
"Inform him," said the Wonder.
Challis sighed. "I have," he said, "but he can't understand." And then, feeling the urgent need to explain something of the motives that govern this little world of ours—the world into which this strangely logical exception had been born—Challis attempted an exposition.
"I know," he said, "that these things must seem to you utterly absurd, but you must try to realise that you are an exception to the world about you; that Crashaw or I, or, indeed, the greatest minds of the present day, are not ruled by the fine logic which you are able to exercise. We are children compared to you. We are swayed even in the making of our laws by little primitive emotions and passions, self-interests, desires. And at the best we are not capable of ordering our lives and our government to those just ends which we may see, some of us, are abstractly right and fine. We are at the mercy of that great mass of the people who have not yet won to an intellectual and discriminating judgment of how their own needs may best be served, and whose representatives consider the interests of a party, a constituency, and especially of their own personal ambitions and welfare, before the needs of humanity as a whole, or even the humanity of these little islands.
"Above all, we are divided man against man. We are split into parties and factions, by greed and jealousies, petty spites and self-seeking, by unintelligence, by education, and by our inability—a mental inability—'to see life steadily and see it whole,' and lastly, perhaps chiefly, by our intense egotisms, both physical and intellectual.
"Try to realise this. It is necessary, because whatever your wisdom, you have to live in a world of comparative ignorance, a world which cannot appreciate you, but which can and will fall back upon the compelling power of the savage—the resort to physical, brute force."
The Wonder nodded. "You suggest——?" he said.
"Merely that you should consent to answer certain elementary questions which the members of the Local Authority will put to you," replied Challis. "I can arrange that these questions be asked here—in the library. Will you consent?"
The Wonder nodded, and made his way into the hall, without another word. His mother rose and opened the front door for him.
As Challis watched the curious couple go down the drive, he sighed again, perhaps with relief, perhaps at the impotence of the world of men.
There were four striking figures on the Education Committee selected by the Ailesworth County Council.
The first of these was Sir Deane Elmer, who was also chairman of the Council at this time. The second was the vice-chairman, Enoch Purvis, the ex-mayor, commonly, if incorrectly, known as "Mayor" Purvis.
The third was Richard Standing, J.P., who owned much property on the Quainton side of the town. He was a bluff, hearty man, devoted to sport and agriculture; a Conservative by birth and inclination, a staunch upholder of the Church and the Tariff Reform movement.
The fourth was the Rev. Philip Steven, a co-opted member of the Committee, head master of the Ailesworth Grammar School. Steven was a tall, thin man with bent shoulders, and he had a long, thin face, the length of which was exaggerated by his square brown beard. He wore gold-mounted spectacles which, owing to his habit of dropping his head, always needed adjustment whenever he looked up. The movement of lifting his head and raising his hand to his glasses had become so closely associated, that his hand went up even when there was no apparent need for the action. Steven spoke of himself as a Broad Churchman, and in his speech on prize-day he never omitted some allusion to the necessity for "marching" or "keeping step" with the times. But Elmer was inclined to laugh at this assumption of modernity. "Steven," he said, on one occasion, "marks time and thinks he is keeping step. And every now and then he runs a little to catch up." The point of Elmer's satire lay in the fact that Steven was usually to be seen either walking very slowly, head down, lost in abstraction; or—when aroused to a sense of present necessity—going with long-strides as if intent on catching up with the times without further delay. Very often, too, he might be seen running across the school playground, his hand up to those elusive glasses of his. "There goes Mr. Steven, catching up with the times," had become an accepted phrase.
There were other members of the Education Committee, notably Mrs. Philip Steven, but they were subordinate. If those four striking figures were unanimous, no other member would have dreamed of expressing a contrary opinion. But up to this time they had not yet been agreed upon any important line of action.
This four, Challis and Crashaw met in the morning-room of Challis Court one Thursday afternoon in November. Elmer had brought a stenographer with him for scientific purposes.
"Well," said Challis, when they were all assembled. "The—the subject—I mean, Victor Stott is in the library. Shall we adjourn?" Challis had not felt so nervous since the morning before he had sat for honours in the Cambridge Senate House.
In the library they found a small child, reading.
He did not look up when the procession entered, nor did he remove his cricket cap. He was in his usual place at the centre table.
Challis found chairs for the Committee, and the members ranged themselves round the opposite side of the table. Curiously, the effect produced was that of a class brought up for a viva voce examination, and when the Wonder raised his eyes and glanced deliberately down the line of his judges, this effect was heightened. There was an audible fidgeting, a creak of chairs, an indication of small embarrassments.
"Her—um!" Deane Elmer cleared his throat with noisy vigour; looked at the Wonder, met his eyes and looked hastily away again; "Hm!—her—rum!" he repeated, and then he turned to Challis. "So this little fellow has never been to school?" he said.
Challis frowned heavily. He looked exceedingly uncomfortable and unhappy. He was conscious that he could take neither side in this controversy—that he was in sympathy with no one of the seven other persons who were seated in his library.
He shook his head impatiently in answer to Sir Deane Elmer's question, and the chairman turned to the Rev. Philip Steven, who was gazing intently at the pattern of the carpet.
"I think, Steven," said Elmer, "that your large experience will probably prompt you to a more efficient examination than we could conduct. Will you initiate the inquiry?"
Steven raised his head slightly, put a readjusting hand up to his glasses, and then looked sternly at the Wonder over the top of them. Even the sixth form quailed when the head master assumed this expression, but the small child at the table was gazing out of the window.
Doubtless Steven was slightly embarrassed by the detachment of the examinee, and blundered. "What is the square root of 226?" he asked—he probably intended to say 225.
"15·03329—to five places," replied the Wonder.
Steven started. Neither he nor any other member of the Committee was capable of checking that answer without resort to pencil and paper.
"Dear me!" ejaculated Squire Standing.
Elmer scratched the superabundance of his purple jowl, and looked at Challis, who thrust his hands into his pockets and stared at the ceiling.
Crashaw leaned forward and clasped his hands together. He was biding his time.
"Mayor" Purvis alone seemed unmoved. "What's that book he's got open in front of him?" he asked.
"May I see?" interposed Challis hurriedly, and he rose from his chair, picked up the book in question, glanced at it for a moment, and then handed it to the grocer. The book was Van Vloten's Dutch text and Latin translation of Spinoza's Short Treatise.
The grocer turned to the title-page. "Ad—beany—dick—ti—de—Spy—nozer," he read aloud and then: "What's it all about, Mr. Challis?" he asked. "German or something, I take it?"
"In any case it has nothing to do with elementary arithmetic," replied Challis curtly, "Mr. Steven will set your mind at ease on that point."
"Certainly, certainly," murmured Steven.
Grocer Purvis closed the book carefully and replaced it on the desk. "What does half a stone o' loaf sugar at two-three-farthings come to?" he asked.
The Wonder shook his head. He did not understand the grocer's phraseology.
"What is seven times two and three quarters?" translated Challis.
"19·25," answered the Wonder.
"What's that in shillin's?" asked Purvis.
"Wrong!" returned the grocer triumphantly.
"Er—excuse me, Mr. Purvis," interposed Steven, "I think not. The—the—er—examinee has given the correct mathematical answer to five places of decimals—that is, so far as I can check him mentally."
"Well, it seems to me," persisted the grocer, "as he's gone a long way round to answer a simple question what any fifth-standard child could do in his head. I'll give him another."
"Cast it in another form," put in the chairman. "Give it as a multiplication sum."
Purvis tucked his fingers carefully into his waistcoat pockets. "I put the question, Mr. Chairman," he said, "as it'll be put to the youngster when he has to tot up a bill. That seems to be a sound and practical form for such questions to be put in."
Challis sighed impatiently. "I thought Mr. Steven had been delegated to conduct the first part of the examination," he said. "It seems to me that we are wasting a lot of time."
Elmer nodded. "Will you go on, Mr. Steven?" he said.
Challis was ashamed for his compeers. "What children we are," he thought.
Steven got to work again with various arithmetical questions, which were answered instantly, and then he made a sudden leap and asked: "What is the binomial theorem?"
"A formula for writing down the coefficient of any stated term in the expansion of any stated power of a given binomial," replied the Wonder.
Elmer blew out his cheeks and looked at Challis, but met the gaze of Mr. Steven, who adjusted his glasses and said, "I am satisfied under this head."
"It's all beyond me," remarked Squire Standing frankly.
"I think, Mr. Chairman, that we've had enough theoretical arithmetic," said Purvis. "There's a few practical questions I'd like to put."
"No more arithmetic, then," assented Elmer, and Crashaw exchanged a glance of understanding with the grocer.
"Now, how old was our Lord when He began His ministry?" asked the grocer.
"Uncertain," replied the Wonder.
Mr. Purvis smiled. "Any Sunday-school child knows that!" he said.
"Of course, of course," murmured Crashaw.
But Steven looked uncomfortable. "Are you sure you understand the purport of the answer, Mr. Purvis?" he asked.
"Can there be any doubt about it?" replied the grocer. "I asked how old our Lord was when He began His ministry, and he"—he made an indicative gesture with one momentarily released hand towards the Wonder—"and he says he's 'uncertain.'"
"No, no," interposed Challis impatiently, "he meant that the answer to your question was uncertain."
"How's that?" returned the grocer. "I've always understood——"
"Quite, quite," interrupted Challis. "But what we have always understood does not always correspond to the actual fact."
"What did you intend by your answer?" put in Elmer quickly, addressing the Wonder.
"The evidence rests mainly on Luke's Gospel," answered the Wonder, "but the phrase 'ἀρχόμενος ὡσὲι ἐτῶν τριάκοντα' is vague—it allows latitude in either direction. According to the chronology of John's Gospel the age might have been about thirty-two."
"It says 'thirty' in the Bible, and that's good enough for me," said the grocer, and Crashaw muttered "Heresy, heresy," in an audible under tone.
"Sounds very like blarsphemy to me," said Purvis, "like doubtin' the word of God. I'm for sending him to school."
Deane Elmer had been regarding the face of the small abstracted child with considerable interest. He put aside for the moment the grocer's intimation of his voting tendency.
"How many elements are known to chemists?" asked Elmer of the examinee.
"Eighty-one well characterised; others have been described," replied the Wonder.
"Which has the greatest atomic weight?" asked Elmer.
"And that weight is?"
"On the oxygen basis of 16—238·5."
"Extraordinary powers of memory," muttered Elmer, and there was silence for a moment, a silence broken by Squire Standing, who, in a loud voice, asked suddenly and most irrelevantly, "What's your opinion of Tariff Reform?"
"An empirical question that cannot be decided from a theoretical basis," replied the Wonder.
Elmer laughed out, a great shouting guffaw. "Quite right, quite right," he said, his cheeks shaking with mirth. "What have you to say to that, Standing?"
"I say that Tariff Reform's the only way to save the country," replied Squire Standing, looking very red and obstinate, "and if this Government——"
Challis rose to his feet. "Oh! aren't you all satisfied?" he said. "Is this Committee here to argue questions of present politics? What more evidence do you need?"
"I'm not satisfied," put in Purvis resolutely, "nor is the Rev. Mr. Crashaw, I fancy."
"He has no vote," said Challis. "Elmer, what do you say?"
"I think we may safely say that the child has been, and is being, provided with an education elsewhere, and that he need not therefore attend the elementary school," replied Elmer, still chuckling.
"On a point of order, Mr. Chairman, is that what you put to the meeting?" asked Purvis.
"This is quite informal," replied Elmer. "Unless we are all agreed, the question must be put to the full Committee."
"Shall we argue the point in the other room?" suggested Challis.
"Certainly, certainly," said Elmer. "We can return, if necessary."
And the four striking figures of the Education Committee filed out, followed by Crashaw and the stenographer.
Challis, coming last, paused at the door and looked back.
The Wonder had returned to his study of Spinoza.
Challis waved a hand to the unconscious figure. "I must join my fellow-children," he said grimly, "or they will be quarrelling."
But when he joined his fellow-children, Challis stood at the window of the morning-room, attending little to the buzz of voices and the clatter of glasses which marked the relief from the restraint of the examination-room. Even the stenographer was talking; he had joined Crashaw and Purvis—a lemonade group; the other three were drinking whisky. The division, however, is arbitrary, and in no way significant.
Challis caught a fragment of the conversation here and there: a bull-roar from Elmer or Squire Standing; an occasional blatancy from Purvis; a vibrant protest from Crashaw; a hesitating tenor pronouncement from Steven.
"Extraordinary powers of memory.... It isn't facts, but what they stand for that I.... Don't know his Bible—that's good enough for me.... Heresy, heresy.... An astounding memory, of course, quite astounding, but——"
The simple exposition of each man's theme was dogmatically asserted, and through it all Challis, standing alone, hardly conscious of each individual utterance, was still conscious that the spirits of those six men were united in one thing, had they but known it. Each was endeavouring to circumscribe the powers of the child they had just left—each was insistent on some limitation he chose to regard as vital.
They came to no decision that afternoon. The question as to whether the Authority should prosecute or not had to be referred to the Committee.
At the last, Crashaw entered his protest and announced once more that he would fight the point to the bitter end.
Crashaw's religious hatred was not, perhaps, altogether free from a sense of affronted dignity, but it was nevertheless a force to be counted; and he had that obstinacy of the bigot which has in the past contributed much fire and food to the pyre of martyrdom. He had, too, a power of initiative within certain limits. It is true that the bird on a free wing could avoid him with contemptuous ease, but along his own path he was a terrifying juggernaut. Crashaw, thus circumscribed, was a power, a moving force.
But now he was seeking to crush, not some paralysed rabbit on the road, but an elusive spirit of swiftness which has no name, but may be figured as the genius of modernity. The thing he sought to obliterate ran ahead of him with a smiling facility and spat rearwards a vaporous jet of ridicule.
Crashaw might crush his clerical wideawake over his frowning eyebrows, arm himself with a slightly dilapidated umbrella, and seek with long, determined strides the members of the Local Education Authority, but far ahead of him had run an intelligence that represented the instructed common sense of modernity.
It was for Crashaw to realise—as he never could and never did realise—that he was no longer the dominant force of progress; that he had been outstripped, left toiling and shouting vain words on a road that had served its purpose, and though it still remained and was used as a means of travel, was becoming year by year more antiquated and despised.
Crashaw toiled to the end, and no one knows how far his personal purpose and spite were satisfied, but he could never impede any more that elusive spirit of swiftness; it had run past him.
 Afterwards Lord Quainton.