HIS DEBT TO HENRY CHALLIS
Challis was out of England for more than three years after that one brief intrusion of his into the affairs of Mr. and Mrs. Stott. During the interval he was engaged upon those investigations, the results of which are embodied in his monograph on the primitive peoples of the Melanesian Archipelago. It may be remembered that he followed Dr. W. H. R. Rivers' and Dr. C. G. Seligmann's inquiry into the practice and theory of native customs. Challis developed his study more particularly with reference to the earlier evolution of Totemism, and he was able by his patient work among the Polynesians of Tikopia and Ontong Java, and his comparisons of those sporadic tribes with the Papuasians of Eastern New Guinea, to correct some of the inferences with regard to the origins of exogamy made by Dr. J. G. Frazer in his great work on that subject, published some years before. A summary of Challis's argument may be found in vol. li. of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute.
When he returned to England, Challis shut himself up at Chilborough. He had engaged a young Cambridge man, Gregory Lewes, as his secretary and librarian, and the two devoted all their time to planning, writing, and preparing the monograph referred to.
In such circumstances it is hardly remarkable that Challis should have completely forgotten the existence of the curious child which had intrigued his interest nearly four years earlier, and it was not until he had been back at Challis Court for more than eight months, that the incursion of Percy Crashaw revived his memory of the phenomenon.
The library at Challis Court occupies a suite of three rooms. The first and largest of the three is part of the original structure of the house. Its primitive use had been that of a chapel, a one-storey building jutting out from the west wing. This Challis had converted into a very practicable library with a continuous gallery running round at a height of seven feet from the floor, and in it he had succeeded in arranging some 20,000 volumes. But as his store of books grew—and at one period it had grown very rapidly—he had been forced to build, and so he had added first one and then the other of the two additional rooms which became necessary. Outside, the wing had the appearance of an unduly elongated chapel, as he had continued the original roof over his addition, and copied the style of the old chapel architecture. The only external alteration he had made had been the lowering of the sills of the windows.
It was in the furthest of these three rooms that Challis and his secretary worked, and it was from here that they saw the gloomy figure of the Rev. Percy Crashaw coming up the drive.
This was the third time he had called. His two former visits had been unrewarded, but that morning a letter had come from him, couched in careful phrases, the purport of which had been a request for an interview on a "matter of some moment."
Challis frowned, and rose from among an ordered litter of manuscripts.
"I shall have to see this man," he said to Lewes, and strode hastily out of the library.
Crashaw was perfunctorily apologetic, and Challis, looking somewhat out of place, smoking a heavy wooden pipe in the disused, bleak drawing-room, waited, almost silent, until his visitor should come to the point.
"... and the—er—matter of some moment, I mentioned," Crashaw mumbled on, "is, I should say, not altogether irrelevant to the work you are at present engaged upon."
"Indeed!" commented Challis, with a lift of his thick eyebrows, "no Polynesians come to settle in Stoke, I trust?"
"On broad lines, relevant on broad, anthropological lines, I mean," said Crashaw.
Challis grunted. "Go on!" he said.
"You may remember that curious—er—abnormal child of the Stotts?" asked Crashaw.
"Stotts? Wait a minute. Yes! Curious infant with an abnormally intelligent expression and the head of a hydrocephalic?"
Crashaw nodded. "Its development has upset me in a most unusual way," he continued. "I must confess that I am entirely at a loss, and I really believe that you are the only person who can give me any intelligent assistance in the matter."
"Very good of you," murmured Challis.
"You see," said Crashaw, warming to his subject and interlacing his fingers, "I happen, by the merest accident, I may say, to be the child's godfather."
"Ah! you have responsibilities!" commented Challis, with the first glint of amusement in his eyes.
"I have," said Crashaw, "undoubtedly I have." He leaned forward with his hands still clasped together, and rested his forearms on his thighs. As he talked he worked his hands up and down from the wrists, by way of emphasis. "I am aware," he went on, "that on one point I can expect little sympathy from you, but I make an appeal to you, nevertheless, as a man of science and—and a magistrate; for ... for assistance."
He paused and looked up at Challis, received a nod of encouragement and developed his grievance.
"I want to have the child certified as an idiot, and sent to an asylum."
"On what grounds?"
"He is undoubtedly lacking mentally," said Crashaw, "and his influence is, or may be, malignant."
"Explain," suggested Challis.
For a few seconds Crashaw paused, intent on the pattern of the carpet, and worked his hands slowly. Challis saw that the man's knuckles were white, that he was straining his hands together.
"He has denied God," he said at last with great solemnity.
Challis rose abruptly, and went over to the window; the next words were spoken to his back.
"I have, myself, heard this infant of four years use the most abhorrent blasphemy."
Challis had composed himself. "Oh! I say; that's bad," he said as he turned towards the room again.
Crashaw's head was still bowed. "And whatever may be your own philosophic doubts," he said, "I think you will agree with me that in such a case as this, something should be done. To me it is horrible, most horrible."
"Couldn't you give me any details?" asked Challis.
"They are most repugnant to me," answered Crashaw.
"Quite, quite! I understand. But if you want any assistance.... Or do you expect me to investigate?"
"I thought it my duty, as his godfather, to see to the child's spiritual welfare," said Crashaw, ignoring the question put to him, "although he is not, now, one of my parishioners. I first went to Pym some few months ago, but the mother interposed between me and the child. I was not permitted to see him. It was not until a few weeks back that I met him—on the Common, alone. Of course, I recognised him at once. He is quite unmistakable."
"And then?" prompted Challis.
"I spoke to him, and he replied with, with—an abstracted air, without looking at me. He has not the appearance in any way of a normal child. I made a few ordinary remarks to him, and then I asked him if he knew his catechism. He replied that he did not know the word 'catechism.' I may mention that he speaks the dialect of the common people, but he has a much larger vocabulary. His mother has taught him to read, it appears."
"He seems to have a curiously apt intelligence," interpolated Challis.
Crashaw wrung his clasped hands and put the comment on one side. "I then spoke to him of some of the broad principles of the Church's teaching," he continued. "He listened quietly, without interruption, and when I stopped, he prompted me with questions."
"One minute!" said Challis. "Tell me; what sort of questions? That is most important."
"I do not remember precisely," returned Crashaw, "but one, I think, was as to the sources of the Bible. I did not read anything beyond simple and somewhat unusual curiosity into those questions, I may say.... I talked to him for some considerable time—I dare say for more than an hour...."
"No signs of idiocy, apparently, during all this?"
"I consider it less a case of idiocy than one of possession, maleficent possession," replied Crashaw. He did not see his host's grim smile.
"Well, and the blasphemy?" prompted Challis.
"At the end of my instruction, the child, still looking away from me, shook his head and said that what I had told him was not true. I confess that I was staggered. Possibly I lost my temper, somewhat. I may have grown rather warm in my speech. And at last ..." Crashaw clenched his hands and spoke in such a low voice that Challis could hardly hear him. "At last he turned to me and said things which I could not possibly repeat, which I pray that I may never hear again from the mouth of any living being."
"Profanities, obscenities, er—swear-words," suggested Challis.
"Blasphemy, blasphemy," cried Crashaw. "Oh! I wonder that I did not injure the child."
Challis moved over to the window again. For more than a minute there was silence in that big, neglected-looking room. Then Crashaw's feelings began to find vent in words, in a long stream of insistent asseverations, pitched on a rising note that swelled into a diapason of indignation. He spoke of the position and power of his Church, of its influence for good among the uneducated, agricultural population among which he worked. He enlarged on the profound necessity for a living religion among the poorer classes; and on the revolutionary tendency towards socialism, which would be encouraged if the great restraining power of a creed that enforced subservience to temporal power was once shaken. And, at last, he brought his arguments to a head by saying that the example of a child of four years old, openly defying a minister of the Church, and repudiating the very conception of the Deity, was an example which might produce a profound effect upon the minds of a slow-thinking people; that such an example might be the leaven which would leaven the whole lump; and that for the welfare of the whole neighbourhood it was an instant necessity that the child should be put under restraint, his tongue bridled, and any opportunity to proclaim his blasphemous doctrines forcibly denied to him. Long before he had concluded, Crashaw was on his feet, pacing the room, declaiming, waving his arms.
Challis stood, unanswering, by the window. He did not seem to hear; he did not even shrug his shoulders. Not till Crashaw had brought his argument to a culmination, and boomed into a dramatic silence, did Challis turn and look at him.
"But you cannot confine a child in an asylum on those grounds," he said; "the law does not permit it."
"The Church is above the law," replied Crashaw.
"Not in these days," said Challis; "it is by law established!"
Crashaw began to speak again, but Challis waved him down. "Quite, quite. I see your point," he said, "but I must see this child myself. Believe me, I will see what can be done. I will, at least, try to prevent his spreading his opinions among the yokels." He smiled grimly. "I quite agree with you that that is a consummation which is not to be desired."
"You will see him soon?" asked Crashaw.
"To-day," returned Challis.
"And you will let me see you again, afterwards?"
Crashaw still hesitated for a moment. "I might, perhaps, come with you," he ventured.
"On no account," said Challis.
Gregory Lewes was astonished at the long absence of his chief; he was more astonished when his chief returned.
"I want you to come up with me to Pym, Lewes," said Challis; "one of my tenants has been confounding the rector of Stoke. It is a matter that must be attended to."
Lewes was a fair-haired, hard-working young man, with a bent for science in general that had not yet crystallised into any special study. He had a curious sense of humour, that proved something of an obstacle in the way of specialisation. He did not take Challis's speech seriously.
"Are you going as a magistrate?" he asked; "or is it a matter for scientific investigation?"
"Both," said Challis. "Come along!"
"Are you serious, sir?" Lewes still doubted.
"Intensely. I'll explain as we go," said Challis.
It is not more than a mile and a half from Challis Court to Pym. The nearest way is by a cart track through the beech woods, that winds up the hill to the Common. In winter this track is almost impassable, over boot-top in heavy mud; but the early spring had been fairly dry, and Challis chose this route.
As they walked, Challis went through the early history of Victor Stott, so far as it was known to him. "I had forgotten the child," he said; "I thought it would die. You see, it is by way of being an extraordinary freak of nature. It has, or had, a curious look of intelligence. You must remember that when I saw it, it was only a few months old. But even then it conveyed in some inexplicable way a sense of power. Every one felt it. There was Harvey Walters, for instance—he vaccinated it; I made him confess that the child made him feel like a school-boy. Only, you understand, it had not spoken then——"
"What conveyed that sense of power?" asked Lewes.
"The way it had of looking at you, staring you out of countenance, sizing you up and rejecting you. It did that, I give you my word; it did all that at a few months old, and without the power of speech. Only, you see, I thought it was merely a freak of some kind, some abnormality that disgusted one in an unanalysed way. And I thought it would die. I certainly thought it would die. I am most eager to see this new development."
"I haven't heard. It confounded Crashaw, you say? And it cannot be more than four or five years old now?"
"Four; four and a half," returned Challis, and then the conversation was interrupted by the necessity of skirting a tiny morass of wet leaf-mould that lay in a hollow.
"Confounded Crashaw? I should think so," Challis went on, when they had found firm going again. "The good man would not soil his devoted tongue by any condescension to oratio recta, but I gathered that the child had made light of his divine authority."
"Great Cæsar!" ejaculated Lewes; "but that is immense. What did Crashaw do—shake him?"
"No; he certainly did not lay hands on him at all. His own expression was that he did not know how it was he did not do the child an injury. That is one of the things that interest me enormously. That power I spoke of must have been retained. Crashaw must have been blue with anger; he could hardly repeat the story to me, he was so agitated. It would have surprised me less if he had told me he had murdered the child. That I could have understood, perfectly."
"It is, of course, quite incomprehensible to me, as yet," commented Lewes.
When they came out of the woods on to the stretch of common from which you can see the great swelling undulations of the Hampden Hills, Challis stopped. A spear of April sunshine had pierced the load of cloud towards the west, and the bank of wood behind them gave shelter from the cold wind that had blown fiercely all the afternoon.
"It is a fine prospect," said Challis, with a sweep of his hand. "I sometimes feel, Lewes, that we are over-intent on our own little narrow interests. Here are you and I, busying ourselves in an attempt to throw some little light—a very little it must be—on some petty problems of the origin of our race. We are looking downwards, downwards always; digging in old muck-heaps; raking up all kinds of unsavoury rubbish to prove that we are born out of the dirt. And we have never a thought for the future in all our work,—a future that may be glorious, who knows? Here, perhaps in this village, insignificant from most points of view, but set in a country that should teach us to raise our eyes from the ground; here, in this tiny hamlet, is living a child who may become a greater than Socrates or Shakespeare, a child who may revolutionise our conceptions of time and space. There have been great men in the past who have done that, Lewes; there is no reason for us to doubt that still greater men may succeed them."
"No; there is no reason for us to doubt that," said Lewes, and they walked on in silence towards the Stotts' cottage.
Challis knocked and walked in. They found Ellen Mary and her son at the tea-table.
The mother rose to her feet and dropped a respectful curtsy. The boy glanced once at Gregory Lewes and then continued his meal as if he were unaware of any strange presence in the room.
"I'm sorry. I am afraid we are interrupting you," Challis apologised. "Pray sit down, Mrs. Stott, and go on with your tea."
"Thank you, sir. I'd just finished, sir," said Ellen Mary, and remained standing with an air of quiet deference.
Challis took the celebrated armchair, and motioned Lewes to the window-sill, the nearest available seat for him. "Please sit down, Mrs. Stott," he said, and Ellen Mary sat, apologetically.
The boy pushed his cup towards his mother, and pointed to the teapot; he made a grunting sound to attract her attention.
"You'll excuse me, sir," murmured Ellen Mary, and she refilled the cup and passed it back to her son, who received it without any acknowledgment. Challis and Lewes were observing the boy intently, but he took not the least notice of their scrutiny. He discovered no trace of self-consciousness; Henry Challis and Gregory Lewes appeared to have no place in the world of his abstraction.
The figure the child presented to his two observers was worthy of careful scrutiny.
At the age of four and a half years, the Wonder was bald, save for a few straggling wisps of reddish hair above the ears and at the base of the skull, and a weak, sparse down, of the same colour, on the top of his head. The eyebrows, too, were not marked by any line of hair, but the eyelashes were thick, though short, and several shades darker than the hair on the skull.
The face is not so easily described. The mouth and chin were relatively small, overshadowed by that broad cliff of forehead, but they were firm, the chin well moulded, the lips thin and compressed. The nose was unusual when seen in profile. There was no sign of a bony bridge, but it was markedly curved and jutted out at a curious angle from the line of the face. The nostrils were wide and open. None of these features produced any effect of childishness; but this effect was partly achieved by the contours of the cheeks, and by the fact that there was no indication of any lines on the face.
The eyes nearly always wore their usual expression of abstraction. It was very rarely that the Wonder allowed his intelligence to be exhibited by that medium. When he did, the effect was strangely disconcerting, blinding. One received an impression of extraordinary concentration: it was as though for an instant the boy was able to give one a glimpse of the wonderful force of his intellect. When he looked one in the face with intention, and suddenly allowed one to realise, as it were, all the dominating power of his brain, one shrank into insignificance, one felt as an ignorant, intelligent man may feel when confronted with some elaborate theorem of the higher mathematics. "Is it possible that any one can really understand these things?" such a man might think with awe, and in the same way one apprehended some vast, inconceivable possibilities of mind-function when the Wonder looked at one with, as I have said, intention.
He was dressed in a little jacket-suit, and wore a linen collar; the knickerbockers, loose and badly cut, fell a little below the knees. His stockings were of worsted, his boots clumsy and thick-soled, though relatively tiny. One had the impression always that his body was fragile and small, but as a matter of fact the body and limbs were, if anything, slightly better developed than those of the average child of four and a half years.
Challis had ample opportunity to make these observations at various periods. He began them as he sat in the Stotts' cottage. At first he did not address the boy directly.
"I hear your son has been having a religious controversy with Mr. Crashaw," was his introduction to the object of his visit.
"Indeed, sir!" Plainly this was not news to Mrs. Stott.
"Your son told you?" suggested Challis.
"Oh! no, sir, 'e never told me," replied Mrs. Stott, "'twas Mr. Crashaw. 'E's been 'ere several times lately."
Challis looked sharply at the boy, but he gave no sign that he heard what was passing.
"Yes; Mr. Crashaw seems rather upset about it."
"I'm sorry, sir, but——"
"Yes; speak plainly," prompted Challis. "I assure you that you will have no cause to regret any confidence you may make to me."
"I can't see as it's any business of Mr. Crashaw's, sir, if you'll forgive me for sayin' so."
"He has been worrying you?"
"'E 'as, sir, but 'e ..." she glanced at her son—she laid a stress on the pronoun always when she spoke of him that differentiated its significance—"'e 'asn't seen Mr. Crashaw again, sir."
Challis turned to the boy. "You are not interested in Mr. Crashaw, I suppose?" he asked.
The boy took no notice of the question.
Challis was piqued. If this extraordinary child really had an intelligence, surely it must be possible to appeal to that intelligence in some way. He made another effort, addressing Mrs. Stott.
"I think we must forgive Mr. Crashaw, you know, Mrs. Stott. As I understand it, your boy at the age of four years and a half has defied—his cloth, if I may say so." He paused, and as he received no answer, continued: "But I hope that matter may be easily arranged."
"Thank you, sir," said Mrs. Stott. "It's very kind of you. I'm sure, I'm greatly obliged to you, sir."
"That's only one reason of my visit to you, however," Challis hesitated. "I've been wondering whether I might not be able to help you and your son in some other way. I understand that he has unusual power of—of intelligence."
"Indeed 'e 'as, sir," responded Mrs. Stott.
"And he can read, can't he?"
"I've learned 'im what I could, sir: it isn't much."
"Well, perhaps I could lend him a few books."
Challis made a significant pause, and again he looked at the boy; but as there was no response, he continued: "Tell me what he has read."
"We've no books, sir, and we never 'ardly see a paper now. All we 'ave in the 'ouse is a Bible and two copies of Lillywhite's cricket annual as my 'usband left be'ind."
Challis smiled. "Has he read those?" he asked.
"The Bible 'e 'as, I believe," replied Mrs. Stott.
It was a conversation curious in its impersonality. Challis was conscious of the anomaly that he was speaking in the boy's presence, crediting him with a remarkable intelligence, and yet addressing a frankly ignorant woman as though the boy was not in the room. Yet how could he break that deliberate silence? It seemed to him as though there must, after all, be some mistake; yet how account for Crashaw's story if the boy were indeed an idiot?
With a slight show of temper he turned to the Wonder.
"Do you want to read?" he asked. "I have between forty and fifty thousand books in my library. I think it possible that you might find one or two which would interest you."
The Wonder lifted his hand as though to ask for silence. For a minute, perhaps, no one spoke. All waited, expectant; Challis and Lewes with intent eyes fixed on the detached expression of the child's face, Ellen Mary with bent head. It was a strange, yet very logical question that came at last:
"What should I learn out of all them books?" asked the Wonder. He did not look at Challis as he spoke.
Challis drew a deep breath and turned towards Lewes. "A difficult question, that, Lewes," he said.
Lewes lifted his eyebrows and pulled at his fair moustache. "If you take the question literally," he muttered.
"You might learn—the essential part ... of all the knowledge that has been ... discovered by mankind," said Challis. He phrased his sentence carefully, as though he were afraid of being trapped.
"Should I learn what I am?" asked the Wonder.
Challis understood the question in its metaphysical acceptation. He had the sense of a powerful but undirected intelligence working from the simple premisses of experience; of a cloistered mind that had functioned profoundly; a mind unbound by the tradition of all the speculations and discoveries of man, the essential conclusions of which were contained in that library at Challis Court.
"No!" said Challis, after a perceptible interval, "that you will not learn from any books in my possession, but you will find grounds for speculation."
"Grounds for speculation?" questioned the Wonder. He repeated the words quite clearly.
"Material—matter from which you can—er—formulate theories of your own," explained Challis.
The Wonder shook his head. It was evident that Challis's sentence conveyed little or no meaning to him.
He got down from his chair and took up an old cricket cap of his father's, a cap which his mother had let out by the addition of another gore of cloth that did not match the original material. He pulled this cap carefully over his bald head, and then made for the door.
At the threshold the strange child paused, and without looking at any one present said: "I'll coom to your library," and went out.
Challis joined Lewes at the window, and they watched the boy make his deliberate way along the garden path and up the lane towards the fields beyond.
"You let him go out by himself?" asked Challis.
"He likes to be in the air, sir," replied Ellen Mary.
"I suppose you have to let him go his own way?"
"Oh! yes, sir."
"I will send the governess cart up for him to-morrow morning," said Challis, "at ten o'clock. That is, of course, if you have no objection to his coming."
"'E said 'e'd coom, sir," replied Ellen Mary. Her tone implied that there was no appeal possible against her son's statement of his wishes. V
"His methods do not lack terseness," remarked Lewes, when he and Challis were out of earshot of the cottage.
"His methods and manners are damnable," said Challis, "but——"
"You were going to say?" prompted Lewes.
"Well, what is your opinion?"
"I am not convinced, as yet," said Lewes.
"Oh, surely," expostulated Challis.
"Not from objective, personal evidence. Let us put Crashaw out of our minds for the moment."
"Very well; go on, state your case."
"He has, so far, made four remarks in our presence," said Lewes, gesticulating with his walking stick. "Two of them can be neglected; his repetition of your words, which he did not understand, and his condescending promise to study your library."
"Yes; I'm with you, so far."
"Now, putting aside the preconception with which we entered the cottage, was there really anything in the other two remarks? Were they not the type of simple, unreasoning questions which one may often hear from the mouth of a child of that age? 'What shall I learn from your books?' Well, it is the natural question of the ignorant child, who has no conception of the contents of books, no experience which would furnish material for his imagination."
"The second remark is more explicable still. It is a remark we all make in childhood, in some form or another. I remember quite well at the age of six or seven asking my mother: 'Which is me, my soul or my body?' I was brought up on the Church catechism. But you at once accepted these questions—which, I maintain, were questions possible in the mouth of a simple, ignorant child—in some deep, metaphysical acceptation. Don't you think, sir, we should wait for further evidence before we attribute any phenomenal intelligence to this child?"
"Quite the right attitude to take, Lewes—the scientific attitude," replied Challis. "Let's go by the lane," he added, as they reached the entrance to the wood.
For some few minutes they walked in silence; Challis with his head down, his heavy shoulders humped. His hands were clasped behind him, dragging his stick as it were a tail, which he occasionally cocked. He walked with a little stumble now and again, his eyes on the ground. Lewes strode with a sure foot, his head up, and he slashed at the tangle of last year's growth on the bank whenever he passed some tempting butt for the sword-play of his stick.
"Do you think, then," said Challis at last, "that much of the atmosphere—you must have marked the atmosphere—of the child's personality, was a creation of our own minds, due to our preconceptions?"
"Yes, I think so," Lewes replied, a touch of defiance in his tone.
"Isn't that what you want to believe?" asked Challis.
Lewes hit at a flag of dead bracken and missed. "You mean...?" he prevaricated.
"I mean that that is a much stronger influence than any preconception, my dear Lewes. I'm no pragmatist, as you know; but there can be no doubt that with the majority of us the wish to believe a thing is true constitutes the truth of that thing for us. And that is, in my opinion, the wrong attitude for either scientist or philosopher. Now, in the case we are discussing, I suppose at bottom I should like to agree with you. One does not like to feel that a child of four and a half has greater intellectual powers than oneself. Candidly, I do not like it at all."
"Of course not! But I can't think that——"
"You can if you try; you would at once if you wished to," returned Challis, anticipating the completion of Lewes's sentence.
"I'll admit that there are some remarkable facts in the case of this child," said Lewes, "but I do not see why we should, as yet, take the whole proposition for granted."
"No! I am with you there," returned Challis. And no more was said until they were nearly home.
Just before they turned into the drive, however, Challis stopped. "Do you know, Lewes," he said, "I am not sure that I am doing a wise thing in bringing that child here!"
Lewes did not understand. "No, sir? Why not?" he asked.
"Why, think of the possibilities of that child, if he has all the powers I credit him with," said Challis. "Think of his possibilities for original thought if he is kept away from all the traditions of this futile learning." He waved an arm in the direction of the elongated chapel.
"Oh! but surely," remonstrated Lewes, "that is a necessary groundwork. Knowledge is built up step by step."
"Is it? I wonder. I sometimes doubt," said Challis. "Yes, I sometimes doubt whether we have ever learned anything at all that is worth knowing. And, perhaps, this child, if he were kept away from books.... However, the thing is done now, and in any case he would never have been able to dodge the School attendance officer."