Read THE WONDER AMONG BOOKS : CHAPTER IV of The Wonder , free online book, by J. D. Beresford, on ReadCentral.com.

HIS INTERVIEW WITH HERR GROSSMANN

I

Crashaw must have suffered greatly just at that time; and the anticipation of his defeat by the Committee was made still more bitter by the wonderful visit of Herr Grossmann. It is true that that visit feebly helped Crashaw’s cause at the moment by further enlisting the sympathies and strenuous endeavour of the Nonconformist Purvis; but no effort of the ex-mayor could avail to upset the majority of the Local Education Authority and the grocer, himself, was not a person acceptable to Crashaw. The two men were so nearly allied by their manner of thought and social origin; and Crashaw instinctively flaunted the splendid throne of his holy office, whenever he and Purvis were together. Purvis was what the rector might have described as an ignorant man. It is a fact that, until Crashaw very fully and inaccurately informed him, he had never even heard of Hugo Grossmann.

In that conversation between Crashaw and Purvis, the celebrated German Professor figured as the veritable Anti-Christ, the Devil’s personal representative on earth; but Crashaw was not a safe authority on Science and Philosophy.

Herr Grossmann’s world-wide reputation was certainly not won in the field of religious controversy. He had not at that time reached the pinnacle of achievement which placed him so high above his brilliant contemporaries, and now presents him as the unique figure and representative of twentieth-century science. But his very considerable contributions to knowledge had drawn the attention of Europe for ten years, and he was already regarded by his fellow-scientists with that mixture of contempt and jealousy which inevitably precedes the world’s acceptance of its greatest men.

Sir Deane Elmer, for example, was a generous and kindly man; he had never been involved in any controversy with the professional scientists whose ground he continually encroached upon, and yet he could not hear the name of Grossmann without frowning. Grossmann had the German vice of thoroughness. He took up a subject and exhausted it, as far as is possible within the limits of our present knowledge; and his monograph on Heredity had demonstrated with a detestable logic that much of Elmer’s treatise on Eugenics was based on evidence that must be viewed with the gravest suspicion. Not that Grossmann had directly attacked that treatise; he had made no kind of reference to it in his own book; but his irrefutable statements had been quoted by every reviewer of “Eugenics” who chanced to have come across the English translation of “Heredity and Human Development,” to the confounding of Elmer’s somewhat too optimistic prophecies concerning the possibility of breeding a race that should approximate to a physical and intellectual perfection.

And it happened that Elmer met Grossmann at an informal gathering of members of the Royal Society a few days after the examination of the Wonder in the Challis Court Library. Herr Grossmann was delivering an impromptu lecture on the limits of variation from the normal type, when Elmer came in and joined the group of the great Professor’s listeners, every one of whom was seeking some conclusive argument to confute their guest’s overwhelmingly accurate collation of facts.

Elmer realised instantly that his opportunity had come at last. He listened patiently for a few minutes to the flow of the German’s argument, and then broke in with a loud exclamation of dissent. All the learned members of the Society turned to him at once, with a movement of profound relief and expectation.

“You said what?” asked Grossmann with a frown of great annoyance.

Elmer thrust out his lower lip and looked at his antagonist with the expression of a man seeking a vital spot for the coup de grace.

“I said, Herr Professor,” Elmer returned, “that there are exceptions which confound your argument.”

“For example?” Grossmann said, putting his hands behind him and gently nodding his head like a tolerant schoolmaster awaiting the inevitable confusion of the too intrepid scholar.

“Christian Heinecken?” suggested Elmer.

“Ah! You have not then read my brochure on certain abnormalities reported in history?” Grossmann said, and continued, “Mr. Aylmer, is it not? To whom I am speaking? Yes? We have met, I believe, once in Leipzig. I thought so. But in my brochure, Mr. Aylmer, I have examined the Heinecken case and shown my reasons to regard it as not so departing from the normal.”

Elmer shook his head. “Your reasons are not valid, Herr Professor,” he said and held up a corpulent forefinger to enforce Grossmann’s further attention. “They seemed convincing at the time, I admit, but this new prodigy completely upsets your case.”

“Eh! What is that? What new prodigy?” sneered Grossmann; and two or three savants among the little ring of listeners, although they had not that perfect confidence in Elmer which would have put them at ease, nodded gravely as if they were aware of the validity of his instance.

Elmer blew out his cheeks and raised his eyebrows. “Ah! you haven’t heard of him!” he remarked with a rather fleshy surprise. “Victor Stott, you know, son of a professional cricketer, protege of Henry Challis, the anthropologist. Oh! you ought to investigate that case, Herr Professor. It is most remarkable, most remarkable.”

Ach! What form does the abnormality take?” asked Grossmann suspiciously, and his tone made it clear that he had little confidence in the value of any report made to him by such an observer as Sir Deane Elmer.

“I can’t pretend to give you anything like a full account of it,” Elmer returned. “I have only seen the child once. But, honestly, Herr Professor, you cannot use that brochure of yours in any future argument until you have investigated this case of young Stott. It confutes you.”

“I can see him, then?” Grossmann asked, frowning. In that company he could not afford to decline the challenge that had been thrown down. There were, at least, five men present who would, he believed, immediately conduct the examination on their own account, should he refuse the opportunity; men who would not fail to use their material for the demolition of that pamphlet on the type of abnormality, more particularly represented by the amazing precocity of Christian Heinecken.

To the layman such an attack may seem a small matter, and likely to have little effect on such a reputation as that already won by Hugo Grossmann; and it should be explained that in the Professor’s great work on “Heredity and Human Development,” an essential argument was based on the absence of any considerable progressive variation from the normal. Indeed it was from this premise that he developed the celebrated “variation” theory which is, now, generally admitted to have compromised the whole principle of “Natural Selection” while it has given a wonderful impetus to all recent investigations and experiments on the lines first indicated by Mendel.

“I can see him, then?” asked Grossmann, with the faintly annoyed air of one who is compelled by circumstances to undertake a futile task.

“Certainly, I will arrange an interview for you,” Elmer replied, and went on to give an account of his own experience, an account that lost nothing in the telling.

Elmer created a mild sensation in the rooms of the Royal Society that evening.

II

He found Challis at his house in Eaton Square the next morning, but it became evident from the outset that the plan of confounding Grossmann did not appeal to the magnate of Stoke-Underhill. Challis frowned and prevaricated. “It’s a thousand to one, the child won’t condescend to answer,” was his chief evasion.

Elmer was not to be frustrated in the development of his scheme by any such trivial excuse as that. He began to display a considerable annoyance at last.

“Oh! nonsense; nonsense, Challis,” he said. “You make altogether too much fuss about this prodigy of yours.”

“Not mine,” Challis interrupted. “Take him over yourself, Elmer. Bring him out. Exhibit him. I make you a gift of all my interest in him.”

Elmer looked thoughtful for a moment, as if he were seriously considering that proposition, and then he said, “I recognise that there are-difficulties. The child seems-er-to have a queer, morose temper, doesn’t he?”

Challis shook his head. “It isn’t that,” he said.

Elmer scratched his cheek. “I understand,” he began, and then broke off and went on, “I’m putting this as a personal favour, Challis; but it is more than that. You know my theories with regard to the future of the race. I have a steady faith in our enormous potentialities for real progress. But it must be organised, and Grossmann is just now standing in our way. That stubborn materialism of his has infected many fine intelligences; and I would make very great sacrifices in order to clear this great and terrible obstacle out of the way.”

“And you believe that this interview ...” interrupted Challis.

“I do, indeed,” Elmer said. “It will destroy one of Grossmann’s most vital prémisses. This prodigy of yours-he is unquestionably a prodigy-demonstrates the fact of an immense progressive variation. Once that is conceded, the main argument of Grossmann’s ‘Heredity’ is invalidated. We shall have knocked away the keystone of his mechanistic theory of evolution....”

“But suppose that the boy refuses....”

“He did not refuse to see us.”

“That was to save himself from further trouble.”

“But isn’t he susceptible to argument?”

“Not the kind of argument you have been using to me,” Challis said gravely.

Elmer blew like a porpoise; looked very thoughtful for a moment, and then said:

“You could represent Grossmann as the final court of appeal-the High Lord Muck-a-muck of the L.E.A.”

“I should have to do something of the sort,” Challis admitted, and continued with a spurt of temper. “But understand, Elmer, I don’t do it again; no, not to save the reputation of the Royal Society.”

III

Unhappily, no record exists of the conversation between the Wonder and Herr Grossmann.

The Professor seems at the last moment to have had some misgiving as to the nature of the interview that was before him, and refused to have a witness to the proceedings.

Challis made the introduction, and he says that the Wonder regarded Grossmann with perhaps rather more attention than he commonly conceded to strangers; and that the Professor exhibited the usual signs of embarrassment.

Altogether, Grossmann was in the library for about half an hour, and he displayed no sign of perturbation when he rejoined Challis and Elmer in the breakfast-room. Indeed, only one fact of any significance emerges to throw suspicion on Grossmann’s attitude during the progress of that secluded half-hour with the greatest intellect of all time-the Professor’s spectacles had been broken.

He spoke of the accident with a casual air when he was in the breakfast-room, but Challis remarked a slight flush on the great scientist’s face as he referred, perhaps a trifle too ostentatiously, to the incident. And although it is worthless as evidence, there is something rather suspicious in Challis’s discovery of finely powdered glass in his library-a mere pinch on the parquet near the further window of the big room, several feet away from the table at which the Wonder habitually sat. Challis would never have noticed the glass, had not one larger atom that had escaped pulverisation, caught the light from the window and drawn his attention.

But even this find is in no way conclusive. The Professor may quite well have walked over to the window, taken off his spectacles to wipe them and dropped them as he, himself, explained. While the crushing of some fragment of one of the lenses was probably due to the chance of his stepping upon it, as he turned on his heel to continue the momentarily interrupted conversation. It is hard to believe that so great a man as Grossmann could have been convulsed by a petty rage that found expression in some act of wanton destruction.

His own brief account of the interview accords very well with the single reference to the Wonder which exists in the literature of the world. This reference is a footnote to a second edition of Grossmann’s brochure entitled “An Explanation of Certain Intellectual Abnormalities reported in History” ("Eine Erklaerung gewisser Intellektueller geschichtlich ueberlieferter Anormalen Erscheinungen"). This footnote comes at the end of Grossmann’s masterly analysis of the Heinecken case and reads: “I recently examined a similar case of abnormality in England, but found that it presented no such marked divergence from the type as would demand serious investigation.”

And in his brief account of the interview rendered to Challis and Elmer, Herr Grossmann, in effect, did no more than draft that footnote.

IV

It must remain uncertain, now, whether or not Elmer would have persisted in his endeavour to exploit the Wonder to the confounding of Grossmann, despite Challis’s explicit statement that he would do no more, not even if it were to save the reputation of the Royal Society. Elmer certainly had the virtue of persistence and might have made the attempt. But in one of his rare moments of articulate speech, the Wonder decided the fate of that threatened controversy beyond the possibility of appeal.

He spoke to Challis that same afternoon. He put up his tiny hand to command attention and made the one clear statement on record of his own interests and ambitions in the world.

Challis, turning from his discovery of the Professor’s crushed glasses, listened in silence.

“This Grossmann,” the Wonder said, “was not concerned in my exemption?”

Challis shook his head. “He is the last,” the Wonder concluded with a fine brevity. “You and your kind have no interest in truth.”

That last statement may have had a double intention. It is obvious from the Wonder’s preliminary question,-which had, indeed, also the quality of an assertion,-how plainly he had recognised that Grossmann had been introduced under false pretences. But, it is permissible to infer that the pronouncement went deeper than that. The Wonder’s logic penetrated far into the mysteries of life and he may have seen that Grossmann’s attitude was warped by the human limitations of his ambition to shine as a great exponent of science; that he dared not follow up a line of research which might end in the invalidation of his great theory of heredity.

Victor Stott had once before expounded his philosophy and Challis, on that occasion, had deliberately refused to listen. And we may guess that Grossmann, also, might have received some great illumination, had he chosen to pay deference to a mind so infinitely greater than his own.