HIS FATHER'S DESERTION
The strongest of all habits is that of acquiescence. It is this habit of submission that explains the admired patience and long-suffering of the abjectly poor. The lower the individual falls, the more unconquerable becomes the inertia of mind which interferes between him and revolt against his condition. All the miseries of the flesh, even starvation, seem preferable to the making of an effort great enough to break this habit of submission.
Ginger Stott was not poor. For a man in his station of life he was unusually well provided for, but in him the habit of acquiescence was strongly rooted. Before his son was a year old, Stott had grown to loathe his home, to dread his return to it, yet it did not occur to him until another year had passed that he could, if he would, set up another establishment on his own account; that he could, for instance, take a room in Ailesworth, and leave his wife and child in the cottage. For two years he did not begin to think of this idea, and then it was suddenly forced upon him.
Ever since they had overheard those strangely intelligent self-communings, the Stotts had been perfectly aware that their wonderful child could talk if he would. Ellen Mary, pondering that single expression, had read a world of meaning into her son's murmurs of "learning." In her simple mind she understood that his deliberate withholding of speech was a reserve against some strange manifestation.
The manifestation, when it came, was as remarkable as it was unexpected.
The armchair in which Henry Challis had once sat was a valued possession, dedicated by custom to the sole use of George Stott. Ever since he had been married, Stott had enjoyed the full and undisputed use of that chair. Except at his meals, he never sat in any other, and he had formed a fixed habit of throwing himself into that chair immediately on his return from his work at the County Ground.
One evening in November, however, when his son was just over two years old, Stott found his sacred chair occupied. He hesitated a moment, and then went in to the kitchen to find his wife.
"That child's in my chair," he said.
Ellen was setting the tray for her husband's tea. "Yes ... I know," she replied. "I—I did mention it, but 'e 'asn't moved."
"Well, take 'im out," ordered Stott, but he dropped his voice.
"Does it matter?" asked his wife. "Tea's just ready. Time that's done 'e'll be ready for 'is bath."
"Why can't you move 'im?" persisted Stott gloomily. "'E knows it's my chair."
"There! kettle's boilin', come in and 'ave your tea," equivocated the diplomatic Ellen.
During the progress of the meal, the child still sat quietly in his father's chair, his little hands resting on his knees, his eyes wide open, their gaze abstracted, as usual, from all earthly concerns.
But after tea Stott was heroic. He had reached the limit of his endurance. One of his deep-seated habits was being broken, and with it snapped his habit of acquiescence. He rose to his feet and faced his son with determination, and Stott had a bull-dog quality about him that was not easily defeated.
"Look 'ere! Get out!" he said. "That's my chair!"
The child very deliberately withdrew his attention from infinity and regarded the dogged face and set jaw of his father. Stott returned the stare for the fraction of a second, and then his eyes wavered and dropped, but he maintained his resolution.
"You got to get out," he said, "or I'll make you."
Ellen Mary gripped the edge of the table, but she made no attempt to interfere.
There was a tense, strained silence. Then Stott began to breathe heavily. He lifted his long arms for a moment and raised his eyes, he even made a tentative step towards the usurped throne.
The child sat calm, motionless; his eyes were fixed upon his father's face with a sublime, undeviating confidence.
Stott's arms fell to his sides again, he shuffled his feet. One more effort he made, a sudden, vicious jerk, as though he would do the thing quickly and be finished with it; then he shivered, his resolution broke, and he shambled evasively to the door.
"God damn," he muttered. At the door he turned for an instant, swore again in the same words, and went out into the night.
To Stott, moodily pacing the Common, this thing was incomprehensible, some horrible infraction of the law of normal life, something to be condemned; altered, if possible. It was unprecedented, and it was, therefore, wrong, unnatural, diabolic, a violation of the sound principles which uphold human society.
To Ellen Mary it was merely a miracle, the foreshadowing of greater miracles to come. And to her was manifested, also, a minor miracle, for when his father had gone, the child looked at his mother and gave out his first recorded utterance.
"'Oo is God?" he said.
Ellen Mary tried to explain, but before she had stammered out many words, her son abstracted his gaze, climbed down out of the chair, and intimated with his usual grunt that he desired his bath and his bed.
The depths of Stott were stirred that night. He had often said that "he wouldn't stand it much longer," but the words were a mere formula: he had never even weighed their intention. As he paced the Common, he muttered them again to the night, with new meaning; he saw new possibilities, and saw that they were practicable. "I've 'ad enough," was his new phrase, and he added another that gave evidence of a new attitude. "Why not?" he said again and again. "And why not?"
Stott's mind was not analytical. He did not examine his problem, weigh this and that and draw a balanced deduction. He merely saw a picture of peace and quiet, in a room at Ailesworth, in convenient proximity to his work (he made an admirable groundsman and umpire, his work absorbed him) and, perhaps, he conceived some dim ideal of pleasant evenings spent in the companionship of those who thought in the same terms as himself; who shared in his one interest; whose speech was of form, averages, the preparation of wickets, and all the detail of cricket.
Stott's ambition to have a son and to teach him the mysteries of his father's success had been dwindling for some time past. On this night it was finally put aside. Stott's "I've 'ad enough" may be taken to include that frustrated ideal. No more experiments for him, was the pronouncement that summed up his decision.
Still there were difficulties. Economically he was free, he could allow his wife thirty shillings a week, more than enough for her support and that of her child; but—what would she say, how would she take his determination? A determination it was, not a proposal. And the neighbours, what would they say? Stott anticipated a fuss. "She'll say I've married 'er, and it's my duty to stay by 'er," was his anticipation of his wife's attitude. He did not profess to understand the ways of the sex, but some rumours of misunderstandings between husbands and wives of his own class had filtered through his absorption in cricket.
He stumbled home with a mind prepared for dissension.
He found his wife stitching by the fire. The door at the foot of the stairs was closed. The room presented an aspect of cleanly, cheerful comfort; but Stott entered with dread, not because he feared to meet his wife, but because there was a terror sleeping in that house.
His armchair was empty now, but he hesitated before he sat down in it. He took off his cap and rubbed the seat and back of the chair vigorously: a child of evil had polluted it, the chair might still hold enchantment....
"I've 'ad enough," was his preface, and there was no need for any further explanation.
Ellen Mary let her hands fall into her lap, and stared dreamily at the fire.
"I'm sorry it's come to this, George," she said, "but it 'asn't been my fault no more'n it's been your'n. Of course I've seen it a-comin', and I knowed it 'ad to be, some time; but I don't think there need be any 'ard words over it. I don't expec' you to understand 'im, no more'n I do myself—it isn't in nature as you should, but all said and done, there's no bones broke, and if we 'ave to part, there's no reason as we shouldn't part peaceable."
That speech said nearly everything. Afterwards it was only a question of making arrangements, and in that there was no difficulty.
Another man might have felt a little hurt, a little neglected by the absence of any show of feeling on his wife's part, but Stott passed it by. He was singularly free from all sentimentality; certain primitive, human emotions seem to have played no part in his character. At this moment he certainly had no thought that he was being carelessly treated; he wanted to be free from the oppression of that horror upstairs—so he figured it—and the way was made easy for him.
He nodded approval, and made no sign of any feeling.
"I shall go to-morrer," he said, and then, "I'll sleep down 'ere to-night." He indicated the sofa upon which he had slept for so many nights at Stoke, after his tragedy had been born to him.
Ellen Mary had said nearly everything, but when she had made up a bed for her husband in the sitting-room, she paused, candle in hand, before she bade him good-night.
"Don't wish 'im 'arm, George," she said. "'E's different from us, and we don't understand 'im proper, but some day——"
"I don't wish 'im no 'arm," replied Stott, and shuddered. "I don't wish 'im no 'arm," he repeated, as he kicked off the boot he had been unlacing.
"You mayn't never see 'im again," added Ellen Mary.
Stott stood upright. In his socks, he looked noticeably shorter than his wife. "I suppose not," he said, and gave a deep sigh of relief. "Well, thank Gawd for that, anyway."
Ellen Mary drew her lips together. For some dim, unrealised reason, she wished her husband to leave the cottage with a feeling of goodwill towards the child, but she saw that her wish was little likely to be fulfilled.
"Well, good-night, George," she said, after a few seconds of silence, and she added pathetically, as she turned at the foot of the stairs: "Don't wish 'im no harm."
"I won't," was all the assurance she received.
When she had gone, and the door was closed behind her, Stott padded silently to the window and looked out. A young moon was dipping into a bank of cloud, and against the feeble brightness he could see an uncertain outline of bare trees. He pulled the curtain across the window, and turned back to the warm cheerfulness of the room.
"Shan't never see 'im again," he murmured, "thank Gawd!" He undressed quietly, blew out the lamp and got between the sheets of his improvised bed. For some minutes he stared at the leaping shadows on the ceiling. He was wondering why he had ever been afraid of the child. "After all, 'e's only a blarsted freak," was the last thought in his mind before he fell asleep.
And with that pronouncement Stott passes out of the history of the Hampdenshire Wonder. He was in many ways an exceptional man, and his name will always be associated with the splendid successes of Hampdenshire cricket, both before and after the accident that destroyed his career as a bowler. He was not spoiled by his triumphs: those two years of celebrity never made Stott conceited, and there are undoubtedly many traits in his character which call for our admiration. He is still in his prime, an active agent in finding talent for his county, and in developing that talent when found. Hampdenshire has never come into the field with weak bowling, and all the credit belongs to Ginger Stott.
One sees that he was not able to appreciate the wonderful gifts of his own son, but Stott was an ignorant man, and men of intellectual attainment failed even as Stott failed in this respect. Ginger Stott was a success in his own walk of life, and that fact should command our admiration. It is not for us to judge whether his attainments were more or less noble than the attainments of his son.
One morning, two days after Stott had left the cottage, Ellen Mary was startled by the sudden entrance of her child into the sitting-room. He toddled in hastily from the garden, and pointed with excitement through the window.
Ellen Mary was frightened; she had never seen her child other than deliberate, calm, judicial, in all his movements. In a sudden spasm of motherly love she bent to pick him up, to caress him.
"No," said the Wonder, with something that approached disgust in his tone and attitude. "No," he repeated. "What's 'e want 'angin' round 'ere? Send 'im off." He pointed again to the window.
Ellen Mary looked out and saw a grinning, slobbering obscenity at the gate. Stott had scared the idiot away, but in some curious, inexplicable manner he had learned that his persecutor and enemy had gone, and he had returned, and had made overtures to the child that walked so sedately up and down the path of the little garden.
Ellen Mary went out. "You be off," she said.
"A-ba, a-ba-ba," bleated the idiot, and pointed at the house.
"Be off, I tell you!" said Ellen Mary fiercely. But still the idiot babbled and pointed.
Ellen Mary stooped to pick up a stick. The idiot blenched; he understood that movement well enough, though it was a stone he anticipated, not a stick; with a foolish cry he dropped his arms and slouched away down the lane.