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.