HIS DEPARTURE FROM STOKE-UNDERHILL
The village of Stoke was no whit intimidated by the news that Mrs. Reade sowed abroad. The women exclaimed and chattered, the men gaped and shook their heads, the children hung about the ruinous gate that shut them out from the twenty-yard strip of garden which led up to Stott's cottage. Curiosity was the dominant emotion. Any excuse was good enough to make friendly overtures, but the baby remained invisible to all save Mrs. Reade; and the village community kept open ears while the lust of its eyes remained, perforce, unsatisfied. If Stott's gate slammed in the wind, every door that commanded a view of that gate was opened, and heads appeared, and bare arms—the indications of women who nodded to each other, shook their heads, pursed their lips and withdrew for the time to attend the pressure of household duty. Later, even that gate slamming would reinvigorate the gossip of backyards and front doorways.
The first stranger to force an entry was the rector. He was an Oxford man who, in his youth, had been an ardent disciple of the school that attempts the reconciliation of Religion and Science. He had been ambitious, but nature had predetermined his career by giving him a head of the wrong shape. At Oxford his limitations had not been clearly defined, and on the strength of a certain speech at the Union, he crept into a London west-end curacy. There he attempted to demonstrate the principle of reconciliation from the pulpit, but his vicar and his bishop soon recognised that excellent as were his intentions, he was doing better service to agnosticism than to his own religion. As a result of this clerical intrigue he was vilely marooned on the savage island of Stoke-Underhill, where he might preach as much science as he would to the natives, for there was no fear of their comprehending him. Fifteen years of Stoke had brought about a reaction. Nature had made him a feeble fanatic, and he was now as ardent an opponent of science as he had once been a defender. In his little mind he believed that his early reading had enabled him to understand all the weaknesses of the scientific position. His name was Percy Crashaw.
Mrs. Stott could not deny her rector the right of entry, and he insisted on seeing the infant, who was not yet baptised—a shameful neglect, according to Crashaw, for the child was nearly six weeks old. Nor had Mrs. Stott been "churched." Crashaw had good excuse for pressing his call.
Mrs. Stott refused to face the village. She knew that the place was all agape, eager to stare at what they considered some "new kind of idiot." Let them wait, was Ellen Mary's attitude. Her pride was a later development. In those early weeks she feared criticism.
But she granted Crashaw's request to see the child, and after the interview (the term is precise) the rector gave way on the question of a private ceremony, though he had indignantly opposed the scheme when it was first mooted. It may be that he conceived an image of himself with that child in his arms, the cynosure of a packed congregation....
Crashaw was one of the influences that hastened the Stotts' departure from Stoke. He was so indiscreet. After the christening he would talk. His attitude is quite comprehensible. He, the lawgiver of Stoke, had been thwarted. He had to find apology for the private baptism he had denied to many a sickly infant. Moreover, the Stotts had broken another of his ordinances, for father and mother had stood as godparents to their own child, and Crashaw himself had been the second godfather ordained as necessary by the rubric. He had given way on these important points so weakly; he had to find excuse, and he talked himself into a false belief with regard to the child he had baptised.
He began with his wife. "I would allow more latitude to medical men," he said. "In such a case as this child of the Stotts, for instance; it becomes a burden on the community, I might say a danger, yes, a positive danger. I am not sure whether I was right in administering the holy sacrament of baptism...."
"Oh! Percy! Surely ..." began Mrs. Crashaw.
"One moment, my dear," protested the rector, "I have not fully explained the circumstances of the case." And as he warmed to his theme the image of Victor Stott grew to a fearful grotesqueness. It loomed as a threat over the community and the church. Crashaw quoted, inaccurately, statistics of the growth of lunacy, and then went off at a tangent into the theory of possession by evil spirits. Since his rejection of science, he had lapsed into certain forms of mediævalism, and he now began to dally with the theory of a malign incarnation which he elaborated until it became an article of his faith.
To his poorer parishioners he spoke in vague terms, but he changed their attitude; he filled them with overawed terror. They were intensely curious still, but, now, when the gate was slammed, one saw a face pressed to the window, the door remained fast; and the children no longer clustered round that gate, but dared each other to run past it; which they did, the girls with a scream, the boys with a jeering "Yah—ah!" a boast of intrepidity.
This change of temper was soon understood by the persons most concerned. Stott grumbled and grew more morose. He had never been intimate with the villagers, and now he avoided any intercourse with them. His wife kept herself aloof, and her child sheltered from profane observation. Naturally, this attitude of the Stotts fostered suspicion. Even the hardiest sceptic in the taproom of the Challis Arms began to shake his head, to concede that there "moight be soomething in it."
Yet the departure from Stoke might have been postponed indefinitely, if it had not been for another intrusion. Both Stott and his wife were ready to take up a new idea, but they were slow to conceive it.
The intruder was the local magnate, the landlord of Stoke, Wenderby, Chilborough, a greater part of Ailesworth, two or three minor parishes, and, incidentally, of Pym.
This magnate, Henry Challis, was a man of some scholarship, whose ambition had been crushed by the weight of his possessions. He had a remarkably fine library at Challis Court, but he made little use of it, for he spent the greater part of his time in travel. In appearance he was rather an ungainly man; his great head and the bulk of his big shoulders were something too heavy for his legs.
Crashaw regarded his patron with mixed feelings. For Challis, the man of property, the man of high connections, of intimate associations with the world of science and letters, Crashaw had a feeling of awed respect; but in private he inveighed against the wickedness of Challis, the agnostic, the decadent.
When Victor Stott was nearly three months old, the rector met his patron one day on the road between Chilborough and Stoke. It was three years since their last meeting, and Crashaw noticed that in the interval Challis's pointed beard had become streaked with grey.
"Hallo! How d'ye do, Crashaw?" was the squire's casual greeting. "How is the Stoke microcosm?"
Crashaw smiled subserviently; he was never quite at his ease in Challis's presence. "Rari nantes in gurgite vasto," was the tag he found in answer to the question put. However great his contempt for Challis's way of life, in his presence Crashaw was often oppressed with a feeling of inferiority, a feeling which he fought against but could not subdue. The Latin tag was an attempt to win appreciation, it represented a boast of equality.
Challis correctly evaluated the rector's attitude; it was with something of pity in his mind that he turned and walked beside him.
There was but one item of news from Stoke, and it soon came to the surface. Crashaw phrased his description of Victor Stott in terms other than those he used in speaking to his wife or to his parishioners; but the undercurrent of his virulent superstition did not escape Challis, and the attitude of the villagers was made perfectly plain.
"Hm!" was Challis's comment, when the flow of words ceased, "nigroque simillima cygno, eh?"
"Ah! of course, you sneer at our petty affairs," said Crashaw.
"By no means. I should like to see this black swan of Stoke," replied Challis. "Anything so exceptional interests me."
"No doubt Mrs. Stott would be proud to exhibit the horror," said Crashaw. He had a gleam of satisfaction in the thought that even the great Henry Challis might be scared. That would, indeed, be a triumph.
"If Mrs. Stott has no objection, of course," said Challis. "Shall we go there, now?"
The visit of Henry Challis marked the first advent of Ellen Mary's pride in the exhibition of her wonder. After the King and the Royal Family—superhuman beings, infinitely remote—the great landlord of the neighbourhood stood as a symbol of temporal power to the whole district. The budding socialist of the taproom might sneer, and make threat that the time was coming when he, the boaster, and Challis, the landlord, would have equal rights; but in public the socialist kow-towed to his master with a submission no less obsequious than that of the humblest conservative on the estate.
Mrs. Stott dropped a deep curtsy when, opening the door to the autocratic summons of Crashaw's rat-a-tat, she saw the great man of the district at her threshold. Challis raised his hat. Crashaw did not imitate his example; he was all officiousness, he had the air of a chief superintendent of police.
"Oh! Mrs. Stott, we should like to come in for a few minutes. Mr. Challis would like to see your child."
"Damn the fool!" was Challis's thought, but he gave it less abrupt expression. "That is, of course, if it is quite convenient to you, Mrs. Stott. I can come at some other time...."
"Please walk in, sir," replied Mrs. Stott, and curtsied again as she stood aside.
Superintendent Crashaw led the way....
Challis called again next day, by himself this time; and the day after he dropped in at six o'clock while Mr. and Mrs. Stott were at tea. He put them at their ease by some magic of his personality, and insisted that they should continue their meal while he sat among the collapsed springs of the horsehair armchair. He leaned forward, swinging his stick as a pendulum between his knees, and shot out questions as to the Stotts' relations with the neighbours. And always he had an attentive eye on the cradle that stood near the fire.
"The neighbours are not highly intelligent, I suspect," said Challis. "Even Mr. Crashaw, I fancy, does not appreciate the—peculiarities of the situation."
"He's worse than any," interpolated Stott. Ellen Mary sat in the shadow; there was a new light in her eyes, a foretaste of glory.
"Ah! a little narrow, a little dogmatic, no doubt," replied Challis. "I was going to propose that you might prefer to live at Pym."
"Much farther for me," muttered Stott. He had mixed with nobility on the cricket field, and was not overawed.
"No doubt; but you have other interests to consider, interests of far greater importance." Challis shifted his gaze from the cradle, and looked Stott in the face. "I understand that Mrs. Stott does not care to take her child out in the village. Isn't that so?"
"Yes, sir," replied Ellen, to whom this question was addressed. "I don't care to make an exhibition of 'im."
"Quite right, quite right," went on Challis, "but it is very necessary that the child should have air. I consider it very necessary, a matter of the first importance that the child should have air," he repeated. His gaze had shifted back to the cradle again. The child lay with open eyes, staring up at the ceiling.
"Now, there is an excellent cottage at Pym which I will have put in repair for you at once," continued Challis. "It is one of two together, but next door there are only old Metcalfe and his wife and daughter, who will give you no trouble. And really, Mrs. Stott," he tore his regard from the cradle for a moment, "there is no reason in the world why you should fear the attention of your neighbours. Here, in Stoke, I admit, they have been under a complete misapprehension, but I fancy that there were special reasons for that. In Pym you will have few neighbours, and you need not, I'm sure, fear their criticism."
"They got one idiot there, already," Stott remarked somewhat sulkily.
"You surely do not regard your own child as likely to develop into an idiot, Stott!" Challis's tone was one of rebuke.
Stott shifted in his chair and his eyes flickered uncertainly in the direction of the cradle. "Dr. O'Connell says 'twill," he said.
"When did he see the child last?" asked Challis.
"Not since 'twere a week old, sir," replied Ellen.
"In that case his authority goes for nothing, and, then, by the way, I suppose the child has not been vaccinated?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Better have that done. Get Walters. I'll make myself responsible. I'll get him to come."
Before Challis left, it was decided that the Stotts should move to Pym in February.
When the great landowner had gone, Mrs. Stott looked wistfully at her husband.
"You ain't fair to the child, George," she said. "There's more than you or any one sees, more than Mr. Challis, even."
Stott stared moodily into the fire.
"And it won't be so out of the way far for you, at Pym, with your bike," she continued; "and we can't stop 'ere."
"We might 'a took a place in Ailesworth," said Stott.
"But it'll be so much 'ealthier for 'im up at Pym," protested Ellen. "It'll be fine air up there for 'im."
"Oh! 'im. Yes, all right for 'im," said Stott, and spat into the fire. Then he took his cap and went out. He kept his eyes away from the cradle.
Harvey Walters lived in Wenderby, but his consulting-rooms were in Harley Street, and he did not practise in his own neighbourhood; nevertheless he vaccinated Victor Stott to oblige Challis.
"Well?" asked Challis a few days later, "what do you make of him, Walters? No clichés, now, and no professional jargon."
"Candidly, I don't know," replied Walters, after a thoughtful interval.
"How many times have you seen him?"
"Good patient? Healthy flesh and that sort of thing?"
"Did he look you in the eyes?"
"Once, only once, the first time I visited the house."
Challis nodded. "My own experience, exactly. And did you return that look of his?"
"Not willingly. It was, I confess, not altogether a pleasant experience."
Challis was silent for a few moments, and it was Walters who took up the interrogatory.
"Have you, now, some feeling of, shall I say, distaste for the child? Do you feel that you have no wish to see it again?"
"Is it that exactly?" parried Challis.
"If not, what is it?" asked Walters.
"In my own case," said Challis, "I can find an analogy only in my attitude towards my 'head' at school. In his presence I was always intimidated by my consciousness of his superior learning. I felt unpleasantly ignorant, small, negligible. Curiously enough, I see something of the same expression of feeling in the attitude of that feeble Crashaw to myself. Well, one makes an attempt at self-assertion, a kind of futile bragging; and one knows the futility of it—at the time. But, afterwards, one finds excuse and seeks to belittle the personality and attainment of the person one feared. At school we did not love the 'head,' and, as schoolboys will, we were always trying to run him down. 'Next time he rags me, I'll cheek him,' was our usual boast—but we never did. Let's be honest, Walters, are not you and I exhibiting much the same attitude towards this extraordinary child? Didn't he produce the effect upon you that I've described? Didn't you have a little of the 'fifth form' feeling,—a boy under examination?"
Walters smiled and screwed his mouth on one side. "The thing is so absurd," he said.
"That is what we used to say at school," replied Challis.
The Stotts' move to Pym was not marked by any incident. Mrs. Stott and her boy were not unduly stared upon as they left Stoke—the children were in school—and their entry into the new cottage was uneventful.
They moved on a Thursday. On Sunday morning they had their first visitor.
He came mooning round the fence that guarded the Stotts' garden from the little lane—it was hardly more than a footpath. He had a great shapeless head that waggled heavily on his shoulders, his eyes were lustreless, and his mouth hung open, frequently his tongue lagged out. He made strange, inhuman noises. "A-ba-ba," was his nearest approach to speech.
"Now, George," called Mrs. Stott, "look at that. It's Mrs. 'Arrison's boy what Mrs. Reade's spoke about. Now, is 'e anythink like ..." she paused, "anythink like 'im?" and she indicated the cradle in the sitting-room.
"What's 'e want, 'angin' round 'ere?" replied Stott, disregarding the comparison. "'Ere, get off," he called, and he went into the garden and picked up a stick.
The idiot shambled away.