Read THE CHILDHOOD OF THE WONDER - CHAPTER I of The Wonder , free online book, by J. D. Beresford, on ReadCentral.com.

THE MANNER OF HIS BIRTH

I

Stoke-Underhill lies in the flat of the valley that separates the Hampden from the Quainton Hills. The main road from London to Ailesworth does not pass through Stoke, but from the highway you can see the ascent of the bridge over the railway, down the vista of a straight mile of side road; and, beyond, a glimpse of scattered cottages. That is all, and as a matter of fact, no one who is not keeping a sharp look-out would ever notice the village, for the eye is drawn to admire the bluff of Deane Hill, the highest point of the Hampdens, which lowers over the little hamlet of Stoke and gives it a second name; and to the church tower of Chilborough Beacon, away to the right, another landmark.

The attraction which Stoke-Underhill held for Stott, lay not in its seclusion or its picturesqueness but in its nearness to the County Ground. Stott could ride the two flat miles which separated him from the scene of his work in ten minutes, and Ailesworth station is only a mile beyond. So when he found that there was a suitable cottage to let in Stoke, he looked no farther for a home; he was completely satisfied.

Stott’s absorption in any matter that was occupying his mind made him exceedingly careless about the detail of his affairs. He took the first cottage that offered when he looked for a home, he took the first woman who offered when he looked for a wife.

Stott was not an attractive man to women. He was short and plain, and he had an appearance of being slightly deformed, a “monkeyish” look, due to his build and his long arms. Still, he was famous, and might, doubtless, have been accepted by a dozen comely young women for that reason, even after his accident. But if Stott was unattractive to women, women were even more unattractive to Stott. “No opinion of women?” he used to say. “Ever seen a gel try to throw a cricket ball? You ’ave? Well, ain’t that enough to put you off women?” That was Stott’s intellectual standard; physically, he had never felt drawn to women.

Ellen Mary Jakes exhibited no superiority over her sisters in the matter of throwing a cricket ball. She was a friend of Ginger’s mother, and she was a woman of forty-two, who had long since been relegated to some remote shelf of the matrimonial exchange. But her physical disadvantages were outbalanced by her mental qualities. Ellen Mary was not a book-worm, she read nothing but the evening and Sunday papers, but she had a reasoning and intelligent mind.

She had often contemplated the state of matrimony, and had made more than one tentative essay in that direction. She had walked out with three or four sprigs of the Ailesworth bourgeoisie in her time, and the shadow of middle-age had crept upon her before she realised that however pliant her disposition, her lack of physical charm put her at the mercy of the first bright-eyed rival. At thirty-five Ellen had decided, with admirable philosophy, that marriage was not for her, and had assumed, with apparent complacency, the outward evidences of a dignified spinsterhood. She had discarded gay hats and ribbons, imitation jewellery, unreliable cheap shoes, and chill diaphanous stockings, and had found some solace for her singleness in more comfortable and suitable apparel.

When Ellen, a declared spinster of seven years’ standing, was first taken into the confidence of Ginger Stott’s mother, the scheme which she afterwards elaborated immediately presented itself to her mind. This fact is a curious instance of Ellen Mary’s mobility of intellect, and the student of heredity may here find matter for careful thought.

The confidence in question was Ginger’s declared intention of becoming the father of the world’s greatest bowler. Mrs. Stott was a dark, garrulous, rather deaf little woman, with a keen eye for the main chance; she might have become a successful woman of business if she had not been by nature both stingy and a cheat. When her son presented his determination, her first thought was to find some woman who would not dissipate her son’s substance, and in her opinion-not expressed to Ginger-the advertised purpose of the contemplated marriage evidenced a wasteful disposition.

Mrs. Stott did not think of Ellen Mary as a possible daughter-in-law, but she did hold forth for an hour and three-quarters on the contemptible qualities of the young maidens, first of Ailesworth, and then with a wider swoop that was not justified by her limited experience, of the girls of England, Scotland, and Ireland at large.

It required the flexible reasoning powers of Ellen Mary to find a solution of the problem. Any ordinary, average woman of forty-two, a declared spinster of seven years’ standing, who had lived all her life in a provincial town, would have been mentally unable to realise the possibilities of the situation. Such a representative of the decaying sexual instinct would have needed the stimulus of courtship, at the least of some hint of preference displayed by the suitor. Ruled by the conventions which hold her sex in bondage, she would have deemed it unwomanly to make advances by any means other than innuendo, the subtle suggestions which are the instruments of her sex, but which are often too delicate to pierce the understanding of the obtuse and slow-witted male.

Ellen Mary stood outside the ruck that determines the destinies of all such typical representatives. She considered the idea presented to her by Mrs. Stott with an open and mobile intelligence. She weighed the character of Ginger, the possibilities of rejection, and the influence of Mrs. Stott; and she gave no thought to the conventions, nor to the criticisms of Ailesworth society. When she had decided that such chances as she could calculate were in her favour, Ellen made up her mind, walked out to the County Ground one windy October forenoon, and discovered Ginger experimenting with grass seed in a shed off the pavilion.

In this shed she offered herself, while Ginger worked on, attentive but unresponsive. Perhaps she did not make an offer so much as state a case. A masterly case, without question; for who can doubt that Stott, however procrastinating and unwilling to make a definite overture, must already have had some type of womanhood in his mind; some conception, the seed of an ideal.

I find a quality of romance in this courageous and unusual wooing of Ellen Mary’s; but more, I find evidences of the remarkable quality of her intelligence. In other circumstances the name of Ellen Mary Jakes might have stood for individual achievement; instead of that, she is remembered as a common woman who happened to be the mother of Victor Stott. But when the facts are examined, can we say that chance entered? If ever the birth of a child was deliberately designed by both parents, it was in the case under consideration. And in what a strange setting was the inception first displayed.

Ellen Mary, a gaunt, tall, somewhat untidy woman, stood at the narrow door of the little shed off the Ailesworth pavilion; with one hand, shoulder-high, she steadied herself against the door frame, with the other she continually pushed forward the rusty bonnet which had been loosened during her walk by the equinoctial gale that now tore at the door of the shed, and necessitated the employment of a wary foot to keep the door from slamming. With all these distractions she still made good her case, though she had to raise her voice above the multitudinous sounds of the wind, and though she had to address the unresponsive shoulders of a man who bent over shallow trays of earth set on a trestle table under the small and dirty window. It is heroic, but she had her reward in full measure. Presently her voice ceased, and she waited in silence for the answer that should decide her destiny. There was an interval broken only by the tireless passion of the wind, and then Ginger Stott, the best-known man in England, looked up and stared through the incrusted pane of glass before him at the dim vision of stooping grass and swaying hedge. Unconsciously his hand strayed to his pockets, and then he said in a low, thoughtful voice: “Well! I dunno why not.”

II

Dr. O’Connell’s face was white and drawn, and the redness of his eyelids more pronounced than ever as he faced Stott in the pale October dawn. He clutched at his beard with a nervous, combing movement, as he shook his head decidedly in answer to the question put to him.

“If it’s not dead, now, ’twill be in very few hours,” he said.

Stott was shaken by the feeble passion of a man who has spent many weary hours of suspense. His anger thrilled out in a feeble stream of hackneyed profanities.

O’Connell looked down on him with contempt. At sunrise, after a sleepless night, a man is a creature of unrealised emotions.

“Damn it, control yourself, man!” growled O’Connell, himself uncontrolled, “your wife’ll pull through with care, though she’ll never have another child.” O’Connell did not understand; he was an Irishman, and no cricketer; he had been called in because he had a reputation for his skill in obstetrics.

Stott stared at him fiercely. The two men seemed as if about to grapple desperately for life in the windy, grey twilight.

O’Connell recovered his self-control first, and began again to claw nervously at his beard. “Don’t be a fool,” he said, “it’s only what you could expect. Her first child, and her a woman of near fifty.” He returned to the upstairs room; Stott seized his cap and went out into the chill world of sunrise.

“She’ll do, if there are no complications,” said O’Connell to the nurse, as he bent over the still, exhausted figure of Mrs. Stott. “She’s a wonderful woman to have delivered such a child alive.”

The nurse shivered, and avoiding any glance at the huddle that lay on an improvised sofa-bed, she said: “It can’t live, can it?”

O’Connell, still intent on his first patient, shook his head. “Never cried after delivery,” he muttered-“the worst sign.” He was silent for a moment and then he added: “But, to be sure, it’s a freak of some kind.” His scientific curiosity led him to make a further investigation. He left the bed and began to examine the huddle on the sofa-couch. Victor Stott owed his life, in the first instance, to this scientific curiosity of O’Connell’s.

The nurse, a capable, but sentimental woman, turned to the window and looked out at the watery trickle of feeble sunlight that now illumined the wilderness of Stott’s garden.

“Nurse!” The imperative call startled her; she turned nervously.

“Yes, doctor?” she said, making no movement towards him.

“Come here!” O’Connell was kneeling by the sofa. “There seems to be complete paralysis of all the motor centres,” he went on; “but the child’s not dead. We’ll try artificial respiration.”

The nurse overcame her repugnance by a visible effort. “Is it ... is it worth while?” she asked, regarding the flaccid, tumbled, wax-like thing, with its bloated, white globe of a skull. Every muscle of it was relaxed and limp, its eyes shut, its tiny jaw hanging. “Wouldn’t it be better to let it die...?”

O’Connell did not seem to hear her. He waved an impatient hand for her assistance. “Outside my experience,” he muttered, “no heart-beat discernible, no breath ... yet it is indubitably alive.” He depressed the soft, plastic ribs and gave the feeble heart a gentle squeeze.

“It’s beating,” he ejaculated, after a pause, with an ear close to the little chest, “but still no breath! Come!”

The diminutive lungs were as readily open to suggestion as the wee heart: a few movements of the twigs they called arms, and the breath came. O’Connell closed the mouth and it remained closed, adjusted the limbs, and they stayed in the positions in which they were placed. At last he gently lifted the lids of the eyes.

The nurse shivered and drew back. Even O’Connell was startled, for the eyes that stared into his own seemed to be heavy with a brooding intelligence....

Stott came back at ten o’clock, after a morose trudge through the misty rain. He found the nurse in the sitting-room.

“Doctor gone?” he asked.

The nurse nodded.

“Dead, I suppose?” Stott gave an upward twist of his head towards the room above.

The nurse shook her head.

“Can’t live though?” There was a note of faint hope in his voice.

The nurse drew herself together and sighed deeply. “Yes! we believe it’ll live, Mr. Stott,” she said. “But ... it’s a very remarkable baby.”

How that phrase always recurred!

III

There were no complications, but Mrs. Stott’s recovery was not rapid. It was considered advisable that she should not see the child. She thought that they were lying to her, that the child was dead and, so, resigned herself. But her husband saw it.

He had never seen so young an infant before, and, just for one moment, he believed that it was a normal child.

“What an ’ead!” was his first ejaculation, and then he realised the significance of that sign. Fear came into his eyes, and his mouth fell open. “’Ere, I say, nurse, it’s ... it’s a wrong ’un, ain’t it?” he gasped.

“I’m sure I can’t tell you, Mr. Stott,” broke out the nurse hysterically. She had been tending that curious baby for three hours, and she was on the verge of a break-down. There was no wet-nurse to be had, but a woman from the village had been sent for. She was expected every moment.

“More like a tadpole than anything,” mused the unhappy father.

“Oh! Mr. Stott, for goodness’ sake, don’t,” cried the nurse. “If you only knew....”

“Knew what?” questioned Stott, still staring at the motionless figure of his son, who lay with closed eyes, apparently unconscious.

“There’s something-I don’t know,” began the nurse, and then after a pause, during which she seemed to struggle for some means of expression, she continued with a sigh of utter weariness, “You’ll know when it opens its eyes. Oh! Why doesn’t that woman come, the woman you sent for?”

“She’ll be ’ere directly,” replied Stott. “What d’you mean about there bein’ something ... something what?”

“Uncanny,” said the nurse without conviction. “I do wish that woman would come. I’ve been up the best part of the night, and now ...”

“Uncanny? As how?” persisted Stott.

“Not normal,” explained the nurse. “I can’t tell you more than that.”

“But ’ow? What way?”

He did not receive an answer then, for the long expected relief came at last, a great hulk of a woman, who became voluble when she saw the child she had come to nurse.

“Oh! dear, oh! dear,” the stream began. “How unforchnit, and ’er first, too. It’ll be a idjit, I’m afraid. Mrs. ’Arrison’s third was the very spit of it....”

The stream ran on, but Stott heard no more. An idiot! He had fathered an idiot! That was the end of his dreams and ambitions! He had had an hour’s sleep on the sitting-room sofa. He went out to his work at the County Ground with a heart full of blasphemy.

When he returned at four o’clock he met the stout woman on the doorstep. She put up a hand to her rolling breast, closed her eyes tightly, and gasped as though completely overcome by this trifling rencounter.

“’Ow is it?” questioned the obsessed Stott.

“Oh dear! Oh dear!” panted the stout woman, “the leas’ thing upsets me this afternoon....” She wandered away into irrelevant fluency, but Stott was autocratic; his insistent questions overcame the inertia of even Mrs. Reade at last. The substance of her information, freed from extraneous matter, was as follows:

“Oh! ’ealthy? It’ll live, I’ve no doubt, if that’s what you mean; but ’elpless...! There, ’elpless is no word.... Learn ’im to open his mouth, learn ’im to close ’is ’ands, learn ’im to go to sleep, learn ’im everythink. I’ve never seen nothink like it, never in all my days, and I’ve ’elped to bring a few into the world.... I can’t begin to tell you about it, Mr. Stott, and that’s the solemn truth. When ’e first looked at me, I near ’ad a faint. A old-fashioned, wise sort of look as ’e might ’a been a ’undred. ’Lord ‘elp us, nurse,’ I says, ’Lord ‘elp us.’ I was that opset, I didn’t rightly know what I was a-saying....”

Stott pushed past the agitated Mrs. Reade, and went into the sitting-room. He had had neither breakfast nor lunch; there was no sign of any preparation for his tea, and the fireplace was grey with the cinders of last night’s fire. For some minutes he sat in deep despondency, a hero faced with the uncompromising detail of domestic neglect. Then he rose and called to the nurse.

She appeared at the head of the steep, narrow staircase. “Sh!” she warned, with a finger to her lips.

“I’m goin’ out again,” said Stott in a slightly modulated voice.

“Mrs. Reade’s coming back presently,” replied the nurse, and looked over her shoulder.

“Want me to wait?” asked Stott.

The nurse came down a few steps. “It’s only in case any one was wanted,” she began, “I’ve got two of ’em on my hands, you see. They’re both doing well as far as that goes. Only ...” She broke off and drifted into small talk. Ever and again she stopped and listened intently, and looked back towards the half-open door of the upstairs room.

Stott fidgeted, and then, as the flow of conversation gave no sign of running dry, he dammed it abruptly. “Look ’ere, miss,” he said, “I’ve ’ad nothing to eat since last night.”

“Oh! dear!” ejaculated the nurse. “If-perhaps, if you’d just stay here and listen, I could get you something.” She seemed relieved to have some excuse for coming down.

While she bustled about the kitchen, Stott, half-way upstairs, stayed and listened. The house was very silent, the only sound was the hushed clatter made by the nurse in the kitchen. There was an atmosphere of wariness about the place that affected even so callous a person as Stott. He listened with strained attention, his eyes fixed on the half-open door. He was not an imaginative man, but he was beset with apprehension as to what lay behind that door. He looked for something inhuman that might come crawling through the aperture, something grotesque, preternaturally wise and threatening-something horribly unnatural.

The window of the upstairs room was evidently open, and now and again the door creaked faintly. When that happened Stott gripped the handrail, and grew damp and hot. He looked always at the shadows under the door. If it crawled ...

The nurse stood at the door of the sitting-room while Stott ate, and presently Mrs. Reade came grunting and panting up the brick path.

“I’m going out, now,” said Stott resolutely, and he rose to his feet, though his meal was barely finished.

“You’ll be back before Mrs. Reade goes?” asked the nurse, and passed a hand over her tired eyes. “She’ll be here till ten o’clock. I’m going to lie down.”

“I’ll be back by ten,” Stott assured her as he went out.

He did come back at ten o’clock, but he was stupidly drunk.

IV

The Stotts’ cottage was no place to live in during the next few days, but the nurse made one stipulation: Mr. Stott must come home to sleep. He slept on an improvised bed in the sitting-room, and during the night the nurse came down many times and listened to the sound of his snores. She would put her ear against the door, and rest her nerves with the thought of human companionship. Sometimes she opened the door quietly and watched him as he slept. Except at night, when he was rarely quite sober, Stott only visited his cottage once a day, at lunch time; from seven in the morning till ten at night he remained in Ailesworth save for this one call of inquiry.

It was such a still house. Ellen Mary only spoke when speech was absolutely required, and then her words were the fewest possible, and were spoken in a whisper. The child made no sound of any kind. Even Mrs. Reade tried to subdue her stertorous breathing, to move with less ponderous quakings. The neighbours told her she looked thinner.

Little wonder that during the long night vigil the nurse, moving silently between the two upstairs rooms, should pause on the landing and lean over the handrail; little wonder that she should give a long sigh of relief when she heard the music of Stott’s snore ascend from the sitting-room.

O’Connell called twice every day during the first week, not because it was necessary for him to visit his two patients, but because the infant fascinated him. He would wait for it to open its eyes, and then he would get up and leave the room hurriedly. Always he intended to return the infant’s stare, but when the opportunity was given to him, he always rose and left the room-no matter how long and deliberately he had braced himself to another course of action.

It was on a Thursday that the baby was born, and it was on the following Thursday that the circumstance of the household was reshaped.

O’Connell came in the morning, full of resolution. After he had pronounced Mrs. Stott well on the way to recovery, he paid the usual visit to his younger patient. The child lay, relaxed, at full length, in the little cot which had been provided for him. His eyes were, as usual, closed, and he had all the appearance of the ordinary hydrocephalic idiot.

O’Connell sat down by the cot, listened to the child’s breathing and heart-beat, lifted and let fall again the lax wrist, turned back the eyelid, revealing only the white of the upturned eyeball, and then composed himself to await the natural waking of the child, if it were asleep-always a matter of uncertainty.

The nurse stood near him, silent, but she looked away from the cot.

“Hydrocephalus!” murmured O’Connell, staring at his tiny patient, “hydrocephalus, without a doubt. Eh? nurse!”

“Yes, perhaps! I don’t know, doctor.”

“Oh, not a doubt of it, not a doubt,” repeated O’Connell, and then came a flicker of the child’s eyelids and a weak crumpling of the tiny hand.

O’Connell caught his breath and clawed at his beard. “Hydrocephalus,” he muttered with set jaw and drawn eyebrows.

The tiny hand straightened with a movement that suggested the recovery of crushed grass, the mouth opened in a microscopic yawn, and then the eyelids were slowly raised and a steady unwavering stare of profoundest intelligence met O’Connell’s gaze.

He clenched his hands, shifted in his chair, and then rose abruptly and turned to the window.

“I-it won’t be necessary for me to come again, nurse,” he said curtly; “they are both doing perfectly well.”

“Not come again?” There was dismay in the nurse’s question.

“No! No! It’s unnecessary ...” He broke off, and made for the door without another glance in the direction of the cot.

Nurse followed him downstairs.

“If I’m wanted-you can easily send for me,” said O’Connell, as he went out. As he moved away he dragged at his beard and murmured: “Hydrocephalus, not a doubt of it.”

Following his departure, Mrs. Reade heard curious and most unwonted laughter, and cautiously blundered downstairs to investigate. She found the nurse in an advanced condition of hysteria, laughing, gurgling, weeping, and intermittently crying in a shrill voice: “Oh! Lord have mercy; Lord ha’ mercy!”

“Now, see you ’ere, my dear,” said Mrs. Reade, when nurse had been recovered to a red-eyed sanity, “it’s time she was told. I’ve never ’eld with keepin’ it from ’er, myself, and I’ve ’ad more experience than many....” Mrs. Reade argued with abundant recourse to parenthesis.

“Is she strog edough?” asked the nurse, still with tears in her voice; “cad she bear the sight of hib?” She blew her nose vigorously, and then continued with greater clearness: “I’m afraid it may turn her head.”

Out of her deep store of wisdom, Mrs. Reade produced a fact which she elaborated and confirmed by apt illustration, adducing more particularly the instance of Mrs. Harrison’s third. “She’s ’is mother,” was the essence of her argument, a fact of deep and strange significance.

The nurse yielded, and so the circumstance of Stott’s household was changed, and Stott himself was once more able to come home to meals.

The nurse, wisely, left all diplomacy to the capable Mrs. Reade, a woman specially fitted by nature for the breaking of news. She delivered a long, a record-breaking circumlocution, and it seemed that Ellen Mary, who lay with closed eyes, gathered no hint of its import. But when the impressive harangue was slowly rustling to collapse like an exhausted balloon, she opened her eyes and said quite clearly,

“What’s wrong with ’im, then?”

The question had the effect of reinflation, but at last the child itself was brought, and it was open-eyed.

The supreme ambition of all great women-and have not all women the potentialities of greatness?-is to give birth to a god. That ambition it is which is marred by the disappointing birth of a female child-when the man-child is born, there is always hope, and slow is the realisation of failure. That realisation never came to Ellen Mary. She accepted her child with the fear that is adoration. When she dropped her eyes before her god’s searching glance, she did it in reverence. She hid her faith from the world, but in her heart she believed that she was blessed above all women. In secret, she worshipped the inscrutable wonder that had used her as the instrument of his incarnation. Perhaps she was right....