HIS PASSAGE THROUGH THE PRISON OF KNOWLEDGE
Challis led the way to the library; Lewes, petulant and mutinous, hung in the rear.
The Wonder toddled forward, unabashed, to enter his new world. On the threshold, however, he paused. His comprehensive stare took in a sweeping picture of enclosing walls of books, and beyond was a vista of further rooms, of more walls all lined from floor to ceiling with records of human discovery, endeavour, doubt, and hope.
The Wonder stayed and stared. Then he took two faltering steps into the room and stopped again, and, finally, he looked up at Challis with doubt and question; his gaze no longer quelling and authoritative, but hesitating, compliant, perhaps a little child-like.
"'Ave you read all these?" he asked.
It was a curious picture. The tall figure of Challis, stooping, as always, slightly forward; Challis, with his seaman's eyes and scholar's head, his hands loosely clasped together behind his back, paying such scrupulous attention to that grotesque representative of a higher intellectuality, clothed in the dress of a villager, a patched cricket-cap drawn down over his globular skull, his little arms hanging loosely at his sides; who, nevertheless, even in this new, strange aspect of unwonted humility bore on his face the promise of some ultimate development which differentiated him from all other humanity, as the face of humanity is differentiated from the face of its prognathous ancestor.
The scene is set in a world of books, and in the background lingers the athletic figure and fair head of Lewes, the young Cambridge undergraduate, the disciple of science, hardly yet across the threshold which divides him from the knowledge of his own ignorance.
"'Ave you read all these?" asked the Wonder.
"A greater part of them—in effect," replied Challis. "There is much repetition, you understand, and much record of experiment which becomes, in a sense, worthless when the conclusions are either finally accepted or rejected."
The eyes of the Wonder shifted and their expression became abstracted; he seemed to lose consciousness of the outer world; he wore the look which you may see in the eyes of Jakob Schlesinger's portrait of the mature Hegel, a look of profound introspection and analysis.
There was an interval of silence, and then the Wonder unknowingly gave expression to a quotation from Hamlet. "Words," he whispered reflectively, and then again "words."
Challis understood him. "You have not yet learned the meaning of words?" he asked.
The brief period—the only one recorded—of amazement and submission was over. It may be that he had doubted during those few minutes of time whether he was well advised to enter into that world of books, whether he would not by so doing stunt his own mental growth. It may be that the decision of so momentous a question should have been postponed for a year—two years; to a time when his mind should have had further possibilities for unlettered expansion. However that may be, he decided now and finally. He walked to the table and climbed up on a chair.
"Books about words," he commanded, and pointed at Challis and Lewes.
They brought him the latest production of the twentieth century in many volumes, the work of a dozen eminent authorities on the etymology of the English language, and they seated him on eight volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica (India paper edition) in order that he might reach the level of the table.
At first they tried to show him how his wonderful dictionary should be used, but he pushed them on one side, neither then nor at any future time would he consent to be taught—the process was too tedious for him, his mind worked more fluently, rapidly, and comprehensively than the mind of the most gifted teacher that could have been found for him.
So Challis and Lewes stood on one side and watched him, and he was no more embarrassed by their presence than if they had been in another world, as, possibly, they were.
He began with volume one, and he read the title page and the introduction, the list of abbreviations, and all the preliminary matter in due order.
Challis noted that when the Wonder began to read, he read no faster than the average educated man, but that he acquired facility at a most astounding rate, and that when he had been reading for a few days his eye swept down the column, as it were at a single glance.
Challis and Lewes watched him for, perhaps, half an hour, and then, seeing that their presence was of an entirely negligible value to the Wonder, they left him and went into the farther room.
"Well?" asked Challis, "what do you make of him?"
"Is he reading or pretending to read?" parried Lewes. "Do you think it possible that he could read so fast? Moreover, remember that he has admitted that he knows few words of the English language, yet he does not refer from volume to volume; he does not look up the meanings of the many unknown words which must occur even in the introduction."
"I know. I had noticed that."
"Then you think he is humbugging—pretending to read?"
"No; that solution seems to me altogether unlikely. He could not, for one thing, simulate that look of attention. Remember, Lewes, the child is not yet five years old."
"What is your explanation, then?"
"I am wondering whether the child has not a memory beside which the memory of a Macaulay would appear insignificant."
Lewes did not grasp Challis's intention. "Even so ..." he began.
"And," continued Challis, "I am wondering whether, if that is the case, he is, in effect, prepared to learn the whole dictionary by heart, and, so to speak, collate its contents later, in his mind."
"Oh! Sir!" Lewes smiled. The supposition was too outrageous to be taken seriously. "Surely, you can't mean that." There was something in Lewes's tone which carried a hint of contempt for so far-fetched a hypothesis.
Challis was pacing up and down the library, his hands clasped behind him. "Yes, I mean it," he said, without looking up. "I put it forward as a serious theory, worthy of full consideration."
Lewes sneered. "Oh, surely not, sir," he said.
Challis stopped and faced him. "Why not, Lewes; why not?" he asked, with a kindly smile. "Think of the gap which separates your intellectual powers from those of a Polynesian savage. Why, after all, should it be impossible that this child's powers should equally transcend our own? A freak, if you will, an abnormality, a curious effect of nature's, like the giant puff-ball—but still——"
"Oh! yes, sir, I grant you the thing is not impossible from a theoretical point of view," argued Lewes, "but I think you are theorising on altogether insufficient evidence. I am willing to admit that such a freak is theoretically possible, but I have not yet found the indications of such a power in the child."
Challis resumed his pacing. "Quite, quite," he assented; "your method is perfectly correct—perfectly correct. We must wait."
At twelve o'clock Challis brought a glass of milk and some biscuits, and set them beside the Wonder—he was apparently making excellent progress with the letter "A."
"Well, how are you getting on?" asked Challis.
The Wonder took not the least notice of the question, but he stretched out a little hand and took a biscuit and ate it, without looking up from his reading.
"I wish he'd answer questions," Challis remarked to Lewes, later.
"I should prescribe a sound shaking," returned Lewes.
Challis smiled. "Well, see here, Lewes," he said, "I'll take the responsibility; you go and experiment; go and shake him."
Lewes looked through the folding doors at the picture of the Wonder, intent on his study of the great dictionary. "Since you've franked me," he said, "I'll do it—but not now. I'll wait till he gives me some occasion."
"Good," replied Challis, "my offer holds ... and, by the way, I have no doubt that an occasion will present itself. Doesn't it strike you as likely, Lewes, that we shall see a good deal of the child here?"
They stood for some minutes, watching the picture of that intent student, framed in the written thoughts of his predecessors.
The Wonder ignored an invitation to lunch; he ignored, also, the tray that was sent in to him. He read on steadily till a quarter to six, by which time he was at the end of "B," and then he climbed down from his Encyclopædia, and made for the door. Challis, working in the farther room, saw him and came out to open the door.
"Are you going now?" he asked.
The child nodded.
"I will order the cart for you, if you will wait ten minutes," said Challis.
The child shook his head. "It's very necessary to have air," he said.
Something in the tone and pronunciation struck Challis, and awoke a long dormant memory. The sentence spoken, suddenly conjured up a vision of the Stotts' cottage at Stoke, of the Stotts at tea, of a cradle in the shadow, and of himself, sitting in an uncomfortable armchair and swinging his stick between his knees. When the child had gone—walking deliberately, and evidently regarding the mile-and-a-half walk through the twilight wood and over the deserted Common as a trivial incident in the day's business—Challis set himself to analyse that curious association.
As he strolled back across the hall to the library, he tried to reconstruct the scene of the cottage at Stoke, and to recall the outline of the conversation he had had with the Stotts.
"Lewes!" he said, when he reached the room in which his secretary was working. "Lewes, this is curious," and he described the associations called up by the child's speech. "The curious thing is," he continued, "that I had gone to advise Mrs. Stott to take a cottage at Pym, because the Stoke villagers were hostile, in some way, and she did not care to take the child out in the street. It is more than probable that I used just those words, 'It is very necessary to have air,' very probable. Now, what about my memory theory? The child was only six months old at that time."
Lewes appeared unconvinced. "There is nothing very unusual in the sentence," he said.
"Forgive me," replied Challis, "I don't agree with you. It is not phrased as a villager would phrase it, and, as I tell you, it was not spoken with the local accent."
"You may have spoken the sentence to-day," suggested Lewes.
"I may, of course, though I don't remember saying anything of the sort, but that would not account for the curiously vivid association which was conjured up."
Lewes pursed his lips. "No, no, no," he said. "But that is hardly ground for argument, is it?"
"I suppose not," returned Challis thoughtfully; "but when you take up psychology, Lewes, I should much like you to specialise on a careful inquiry into association in connection with memory. I feel certain that if one can reproduce, as nearly as may be, any complex sensation one has experienced, no matter how long ago, one will stimulate what I may call an abnormal memory of all the associations connected with that experience. Just now I saw the interior of that room in the Stotts' cottage so clearly that I had an image of a dreadful oleograph of Disraeli hanging on the wall. But, now, I cannot for the life of me remember whether there was such an oleograph or not. I do not remember noticing it at the time."
"Yes, that's very interesting," replied Lewes. "There is certainly a wide field for research in that direction."
"You might throw much light on our mental processes," replied Challis.
(It was as the outcome of this conversation that Gregory Lewes did, two years afterwards, take up this line of study. The only result up to the present time is his little brochure Reflexive Associations, which has added little to our knowledge of the subject.)
Challis's anticipation that he and Lewes would be greatly favoured by the Wonder's company was fully realised.
The child put in an appearance at half-past nine the next morning, just as the governess cart was starting out to fetch him. When he was admitted he went straight to the library, climbed on to the chair, upon which the volumes of the Encyclopædia still remained, and continued his reading where he had left off on the previous evening.
He read steadily throughout the day without giving utterance to speech of any kind.
Challis and Lewes went out in the afternoon, and left the child deep in study. They came in at six o'clock, and went to the library. The Wonder, however, was not there.
Challis rang the bell.
"Has little Stott gone?" he asked when Heathcote came.
"I 'aven't seen 'im, sir," said Heathcote.
"Just find out if any one opened the door for him, will you?" said Challis. "He couldn't possibly have opened that door for himself."
"No one 'asn't let Master Stott hout, sir," Heathcote reported on his return.
"Are you sure?"
"Quite sure, sir. I've made full hinquiries," said Heathcote with dignity.
"Well, we'd better find him," said Challis.
"The window is open," suggested Lewes.
"He would hardly ..." began Challis, walking over to the low sill of the open window, but he broke off in his sentence and continued, "By Jove, he did, though; look here!"
It was, indeed, quite obvious that the Wonder had made his exit by the window; the tiny prints of his feet were clearly marked in the mould of the flower-bed; he had, moreover, disregarded all results of early spring floriculture.
"See how he has smashed those daffodils," said Lewes. "What an infernally cheeky little brute he is!"
"What interests me is the logic of the child," returned Challis. "I would venture to guess that he wasted no time in trying to attract attention. The door was closed, so he just got out of the window. I rather admire the spirit; there is something Napoleonic about him. Don't you think so?"
Lewes shrugged his shoulders. Heathcote's expression was quite non-committal.
"You'd better send Jessop up to Pym, Heathcote," said Challis. "Let him find out whether the child is safe at home."
Jessop reported an hour afterwards that Master Stott had arrived home quite safely, and Mrs. Stott was much obliged.
Altogether the Wonder spent five days, or about forty hours, on his study of the dictionary, and in the evening of his last day's work he left again by the open window. Challis, however, had been keeping him under fairly close observation, and knew that the preliminary task was finished.
"What can I give that child to read to-day?" he asked at breakfast next morning.
"I should reverse the arrangement; let him sit on the Dictionary and read the Encyclopædia." Lewes always approached the subject of the Wonder with a certain supercilious contempt.
"You are not convinced yet that he isn't humbugging?"
"No! Frankly, I'm not."
"Well, well, we must wait for more evidence, before we argue about it," said Challis, but they sat on over the breakfast-table, waiting for the child to put in an appearance, and their conversation hovered over the topic of his intelligence.
"Half-past ten?" Challis ejaculated at last, with surprise. "We are getting into slack habits, Lewes." He rose and rang the bell.
"Apparently the Stott infant has had enough of it," suggested Lewes. "Perhaps he has exhausted the interest of dictionary illustrations."
"We shall see," replied Challis, and then to a deferentially appearing Heathcote he said: "Has Master Stott come this morning?"
"No, sir. Leastways, no one 'asn't let 'im in, sir."
"It may be that he is mentally collating the results of the past two days' reading," said Challis, as he and Lewes made their way to the library.
"Oh!" was all Lewes's reply, but it conveyed much of impatient contempt for his employer's attitude.
Challis only smiled.
When they entered the library they found the Wonder hard at work, and he had, of his own initiative, adopted the plan ironically suggested by Lewes, for he had succeeded in transferring the Dictionary volumes to the chair, and he was deep in volume one, of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.
The library was never cleared up by any one except Challis or his deputy, but an early housemaid had been sent to dust, and she had left the casement of one of the lower lights of the window open. The means of the Wonder's entrance was thus clearly in evidence.
"It's Napoleonic," murmured Challis.
"It's most infernal cheek," returned Lewes in a loud voice, "I should not be at all surprised if that promised shaking were not administered to-day."
The Wonder took no notice. Challis says that on that morning his eyes were travelling down the page at about the rate at which one could count the lines.
"He isn't reading," said Lewes. "No one could read as fast as that, and most certainly not a child of four and a half."
"If he would only answer questions ..." hesitated Challis.
"Oh! of course he won't do that," said Lewes. "He's clever enough not to give himself away."
The two men went over to the table and looked down over the child's shoulder. He was in the middle of the article on "Aberration"—a technical treatise on optical physics.
Lewes made a gesture. "Now do you believe he's humbugging?" he asked confidently, and made no effort to modulate his voice.
Challis drew his eyebrows together. "My boy," he said, and laid his hand lightly on Victor Stott's shoulder, "can you understand what you are reading there?"
But no answer was vouchsafed. Challis sighed. "Come along, Lewes," he said; "we must waste no more time."
Lewes wore a look of smug triumph as they went to the farther room, but he was clever enough to refrain from expressing his triumph in speech.
Challis gave directions that the window which the Wonder had found to be his most convenient method of entry and exit should be kept open, except at night; and a stool was placed under the sill inside the room, and a low bench was fixed outside to facilitate the child's goings and comings. Also, a little path was made across the flower-bed.
The Wonder gave no trouble. He arrived at nine o'clock every morning, Sunday included, and left at a quarter to six in the evening. On wet days he was provided with a waterproof which had evidently been made by his mother out of a larger garment. This he took off when he entered the room and left on the stool under the window.
He was given a glass of milk and a plate of bread-and-butter at twelve o'clock; and except for this he demanded and received no attention.
For three weeks he devoted himself exclusively to the study of the Encyclopædia.
Lewes was puzzled.
Challis spoke little of the child during these three weeks, but he often stood at the entrance to the farther rooms and watched the Wonder's eyes travelling so rapidly yet so intently down the page. That sight had a curious fascination for him; he returned to his own work by an effort, and an hour afterwards he would be back again at the door of the larger room. Sometimes Lewes would hear him mutter: "If he would only answer a few questions...." There was always one hope in Challis's mind. He hoped that some sort of climax might be reached when the Encyclopædia was finished. The child must, at least, ask then for another book. Even if he chose one for himself, his choice might furnish some sort of a test.
So Challis waited and said little; and Lewes was puzzled, because he was beginning to doubt whether it were possible that the child could sustain a pose so long. That, in itself, would be evidence of extraordinary abnormality. Lewes fumbled in his mind for another hypothesis.
This reading craze may be symptomatic of some form of idiocy, he thought; "and I don't believe he does read," was his illogical deduction.
Mrs. Stott usually came to meet her son, and sometimes she would come early in the afternoon and stand at the window watching him at his work; but neither Challis nor Lewes ever saw the Wonder display by any sign that he was aware of his mother's presence.
During those three weeks the Wonder held himself completely detached from any intercourse with the world of men. At the end of that period he once more manifested his awareness of the human factor in existence.
Challis, if he spoke little to Lewes of the Wonder during this time, maintained a strict observation of the child's doings.
The Wonder began his last volume of the Encyclopædia one Wednesday afternoon soon after lunch, and on Thursday morning, Challis was continually in and out of the room watching the child's progress, and noting his nearness to the end of the colossal task he had undertaken.
At a quarter to twelve he took up his old position in the doorway, and with his hands clasped behind his back he watched the reading of the last forty pages.
There was no slackening and no quickening in the Wonder's rate of progress. He read the articles under "Z" with the same attention he had given to the remainder of the work, and then, arrived at the last page, he closed the volume and took up the Index.
Challis suffered a qualm; not so much on account of the possible postponement of the crisis he was awaiting, as because he saw that the reading of the Index could only be taken as a sign that the whole study had been unintelligent. No one could conceivably have any purpose in reading through an index.
And at this moment Lewes joined him in the doorway.
"What volume has he got to now?" asked Lewes.
"The Index," returned Challis.
Lewes was no less quick in drawing his inference than Challis had been.
"Well, that settles it, I should think," was Lewes's comment.
"Wait, wait," returned Challis.
The Wonder turned a dozen pages at once, glanced at the new opening, made a further brief examination of two or three headings near the end of the volume, closed the book, and looked up.
"Have you finished?" asked Challis.
The Wonder shook his head. "All this," he said—he indicated with a small and dirty hand the pile of volumes that were massed round him—"all this ..." he repeated, hesitated for a word, and again shook his head with that solemn, deliberate impressiveness which marked all his actions.
Challis came towards the child, leaned over the table for a moment, and then sat down opposite to him. Between the two protagonists hovered Lewes, sceptical, inclined towards aggression.
"I am most interested," said Challis. "Will you try to tell me, my boy, what you think of—all this?"
"So elementary ... inchoate ... a disjunctive ... patchwork," replied the Wonder. His abstracted eyes were blind to the objective world of our reality; he seemed to be profoundly analysing the very elements of thought.
Then that almost voiceless child found words. Heathcote's announcement of lunch was waved aside, the long afternoon waned, and still that thin trickle of sound flowed on.
The Wonder spoke in odd, pedantic phrases; he used the technicalities of every science; he constructed his sentences in unusual ways, and often he paused for a word and gave up the search, admitting that his meaning could not be expressed through the medium of any language known to him.
Occasionally Challis would interrupt him fiercely, would even rise from his chair and pace the room, arguing, stating a point of view, combating some suggestion that underlay the trend of that pitiless wisdom which in the end bore him down with its unanswerable insistence.
During those long hours much was stated by that small, thin voice which was utterly beyond the comprehension of the two listeners; indeed, it is doubtful whether even Challis understood a tithe of the theory that was actually expressed in words.
As for Lewes, though he was at the time non-plussed, quelled, he was in the outcome impressed rather by the marvellous powers of memory exhibited than by the far finer powers shown in the superhuman logic of the synthesis.
One sees that Lewes entered upon the interview with a mind predisposed to criticise, to destroy. There can be no doubt that as he listened his uninformed mind was endeavouring to analyse, to weigh, and to oppose; and this antagonism and his own thoughts continually interposed between him and the thought of the speaker. Lewes's account of what was spoken on that afternoon is utterly worthless.
Challis's failure to comprehend was not, at the outset, due to his antagonistic attitude. He began with an earnest wish to understand: he failed only because the thing spoken was beyond the scope of his intellectual powers. But he did, nevertheless, understand the trend of that analysis of progress; he did in some half-realised way apprehend the gist of that terrible deduction of a final adjustment.
He must have apprehended, in part, for he fiercely combated the argument, only to quaver, at last, into a silence which permitted again that trickle of hesitating, pedantic speech, which was yet so overwhelming, so conclusive.
As the afternoon wore on, however, Challis's attitude must have changed; he must have assumed an armour of mental resistance not unlike the resistance of Lewes. Challis perceived, however dimly, that life would hold no further pleasure for him if he accepted that theory of origin, evolution, and final adjustment; he found in this cosmogony no place for his own idealism; and he feared to be convinced even by that fraction of the whole argument which he could understand.
We see that Challis, with all his apparent devotion to science, was never more than a dilettante. He had another stake in the world which, at the last analysis, he valued more highly than the acquisition of knowledge. Those means of ease, of comfort, of liberty, of opportunity to choose his work among various interests, were the ruling influence of his life. With it all Challis was an idealist, and unpractical. His genial charity, his refinement of mind, his unthinking generosity, indicate the bias of a character which inclined always towards a picturesque optimism. It is not difficult to understand that he dared not allow himself to be convinced by Victor Stott's appalling synthesis.
At last, when the twilight was deepening into night, the voice ceased, the child's story had been told, and it had not been understood. The Wonder never again spoke of his theory of life. He realised from that time that no one could comprehend him.
As he rose to go, he asked one question that, simple as was its expression, had a deep and wonderful significance.
"Is there none of my kind?" he said. "Is this," and he laid a hand on the pile of books before him, "is this all?"
"There is none of your kind," replied Challis; and the little figure born into a world that could not understand him, that was not ready to receive him, walked to the window and climbed out into the darkness.
(Henry Challis is the only man who could ever have given any account of that extraordinary analysis of life, and he made no effort to recall the fundamental basis of the argument, and so allowed his memory of the essential part to fade. Moreover, he had a marked disinclination to speak of that afternoon or of anything that was said by Victor Stott during those six momentous hours of expression. It is evident that Challis's attitude to Victor Stott was not unlike the attitude of Captain Wallis to Victor Stott's father on the occasion of Hampdenshire's historic match with Surrey. "This man will have to be barred," Wallis said. "It means the end of cricket." Challis, in effect, thought that if Victor Stott were encouraged, it would mean the end of research, philosophy, all the mystery, idealism, and joy of life. Once, and once only, did Challis give me any idea of what he had learned during that afternoon's colloquy, and the substance of what Challis then told me will be found at the end of this volume.)