James eyed Mrs. Bagley carefully. He said softly, "Mrs. Bagley, tell me, would you give Martha a college education if you had--or will you if you have at the time--the wherewithal to provide it?"
"You have it here," said James. "So long as you stay to protect it."
"But won't it make--?" her voice trailed away uncertainly.
"A little intellectual monster out of her?" laughed the boy. "Maybe. Maybe I am, too. On the other hand it might make a brilliant woman out of her. She might be a doctor if she has the capacity of a brilliant doctor. My father's machine is no monster-maker, Mrs. Bagley. With it a person could memorize the Britannica. And from the Britannica that person would learn that there is much good in the world and also that there is rich reward for being a part of that capacity for good."
"I seem to have been outmaneuvered," said Mrs. Bagley with a worried frown.
James smiled. "Not at all," he said. "It was just a matter of finding someone who wanted desperately to have what I wanted to give, and of course overcoming the natural adult reluctance to admit that anybody my size and age can operate on grown-up terms."
"You sound so sure of yourself."
"I am sure of myself. And one of the more important things in life is to understand one's limitations."
"But couldn't you convince them--?"
"One--you--I can convince. Maybe another, later. But if I tackle the great American public, I'm licked by statistics. My guess is that there is one brand-new United States citizen born every ten seconds. It takes me longer than ten seconds to convince someone, that I know what I'm talking about. But so long as I have an accepted adult out front, running the store, I don't have to do anything but sit backstage, run the hidden strings, and wait until my period of growth provides me with a stature that won't demand any explanation."
From the playroom, Martha came running. "Mummy! Mummy!" she cried in a shrill voice filled with the strident tones of alarm, "Dolly's sick and I can't leave her!"
Mrs. Bagley folded her daughter in her arms. "We won't leave," she said. "We're staying."
James Holden nodded with satisfaction, but one thing he realized then and there: He simply had to rush the completion of his father's machine.
He could not stand the simpering prattle of Martha Bagley's playgames.
The arrival of Mrs. Bagley changed James Holden's way of life far more than he'd expected. His basic idea had been to free himself from the hours of dishwashing, bedmaking, dusting, cleaning and straightening and from the irking chore of planning his meals far enough ahead to obtain sustenance either through mail or carried note. He gave up his haphazard chores readily. Mrs. Bagley's menus often served him dishes that he wouldn't have given house-room; but he also enjoyed many meals that he could not or would not have taken the time to prepare.
He did have some faint notion that being freed from the household toil would allow him sixteen or eighteen hours at the typewriter, but he was not greatly dismayed to find that this did not work.
When he wrote himself out, he relaxed by reading, or sitting quietly planning his next piece. Even that did not fill his entire day. To take some advantage of his time, James began to indulge in talk-fests with Mrs. Bagley.
These were informative. He was learning from her how the outside world was run, from one who had no close association with his own former life. Mrs. Bagley was by no means well-informed on all sides of life, but she did have her opinions and her experiences and a fair idea of how things went on in her own level. And, of course, James had made this choice because of the girl. He wanted a companion of his own age. Regardless of what Mrs. Bagley really thought of this matter of rapid education, James proposed to use it on Martha. That would give him a companion of his own like, they would come closer to understanding one another than he could ever hope to find understanding elsewhere.
So he talked and played with Martha in his moments of relaxation. And he found her grasp of life completely unreal.
James could not get through to her. He could not make her stop play-acting in everything that she did not ignore completely. It worried him.
With the arrival of summer, James and Martha played outside in the fresh air. They made a few shopping excursions into town, walking the mile and more by taking their time, and returning with their shopping load in the station-master's taxicab mail car. But on these expeditions, James hung close to Martha lest her babbling prattle start an unwelcome line of thought. She never did it, but James was forever on edge.
This source of possible danger drove him hard. The machine that was growing in a mare's-nest on the second floor began to evolve faster.
James Holden's work was a strangely crude efficiency. The prototype had been built by his father bit by bit and step by step as its design demanded. Sections were added as needed, and other sections believed needed were abandoned as the research showed them unnecessary. Louis Holden had been a fine instrumentation engineer, but his first models were hay-wired in the breadboard form. James copied his father's work--including his father's casual breadboard style. And he added some inefficiencies of his own.
Furthermore, James was not strong enough to lift the heavier assemblies into place. James parked the parts wherever they would sit.
To Mrs. Bagley, the whole thing was bizarre and unreasonable. Given her opinion, with no other evidence, she would have rejected the idea at once. She simply did not understand anything of a technical nature.
One day she bluntly asked him how he knew what he was doing.
James grinned. "I really don't know what I'm doing," he admitted. "I'm only following some very explicit directions. If I knew the pure theory of my father's machine I could not design the instrumentation that would make it work. But I can build a reproduction of my father's machine from the directions."
"How can that be?"
James stopped working and sat on a packing case. "If you bought a lawn-mower," he said, "it might come neatly packed in a little box with all the parts nested in cardboard formers and all the little nuts and bolts packed in a bag. There would be a set of assembly directions, written in such a way as to explain to anybody who can read that Part A is fastened to Bracket B using Bolt C, Lockwasher D, and Nut E. My father's one and only recognition of the dangers of the unforeseeable future was to drill deep in my brain these directions. For instance," and he pointed to a boxed device, "that thing is an infra-low frequency amplifier. Now, I haven't much more than a faint glimmer of what the thing is and how it differs from a standard amplifier, but I know that it must be built precisely thus-and-so, and finally it must be fitted into the machine per instructions. Look, Mrs. Bagley." James picked up a recently-received package, swept a place clear on the packing case and dumped it out. It disgorged several paper bags of parts, some large plates and a box. He handed her a booklet. "Try it yourself," he said. "That's a piece of test equipment made in kit form by a commercial outfit in Michigan. Follow those directions and build it for me."
"But I don't know anything about this sort of thing."
"You can read," said James with a complete lack of respect. He turned back to his own work, leaving Mrs. Bagley leafing her way through the assembly manual.
To the woman it was meaningless. But as she read, a secondary thought rose in her mind. James was building this devilish-looking nightmare, and he had every intention of using it on her daughter! She accepted without understanding the fact that James Holden's superior education had come of such a machine--but it had been a machine built by a competent mechanic. She stole a look at James. The anomaly puzzled her.
When the lad talked, his size and even the thin boyish voice were negated by the intelligence of his words, the size of his vocabulary, the clarity of his statements. Now that he was silent, he became no more than an eight-year-old lad who could not possibly be doing anything constructive with this mad array of equipment. The messiness of the place merely made the madness of the whole program seem worse.
But she turned back to her booklet. Maybe James was right. If she could assemble this doodad without knowing the first principle of its operation, without even knowing from the name what the thing did, then she might be willing to admit that--messy as it looked--the machine could be reconstructed.
Trapped by her own interest, Mrs. Bagley pitched in.
They took a week off to rearrange the place. They built wooden shelves to hold the parts in better order. These were by no means the work of a carpenter, for Mrs. Bagley's aim with a saw was haphazard, and her batting average with a hammer was about .470; but James lacked the strength, so the construction job was hers. Crude as it was, the place looked less like a junkshop when they were done. Work resumed on the assembly of the educator.
Of course the writing suffered.
The budget ran low. James was forced to abandon the project for his typewriter. He drove himself hard, fretting and worrying himself into a stew time after time. And then as August approached, Nature stepped in to add more disorder.
James entered a "period of growth." In three weeks he gained two inches.
His muscles, his bones and his nervous system ceased to coordinate. He became clumsy. His handwriting underwent a change, so severe that James had to practically forge his own signature of Charles Maxwell. To avoid trouble he stopped the practice of writing individual checks for the bills and transferred a block sum of money to an operating account in Mrs. Bagley's name.
His fine regimen went to pieces.
He embarked on a haphazard program of sleeping, eating and working at odd hours, and his appetite became positively voracious. He wanted what he wanted when he wanted it, even if it were the middle of the night. He pouted and groused when he didn't get it. In calmer moments he hated himself for these tantrums, but no amount of self-rationalization stopped them.
During this period, James was by no means an efficient youngster. His writing suffered the ills of both his period of growth and his upset state of mind. His fingers failed to coordinate on his typewriter and his manuscript copy turned out rough, with strikeovers, xxx-outs, and gross mistakes. The pile of discarded paper massed higher than his finished copy until Mrs. Bagley took over and began to retype his rough script for him.
His state of mind remained chaotic.
Mrs. Bagley began to treat him with special care. She served him warm milk and insisted that he rest. Finally she asked him why he drove himself so hard.
"We are approaching the end of summer," he said, "and we are not prepared."
"Prepared for what?"
They were relaxing in the living room, James fretting and Mrs. Bagley seated, Martha Bagley asprawl on the floor turning the pages of a crayon-coloring book. "Look at us," he said. "I am a boy of eight, your daughter is a girl of seven. By careful dress and action I could pass for a child one year younger, but that would still make me seven. Last summer when I was seven, I passed for six."
"Mrs. Bagley, there are laws about compulsory education. Sooner or later someone is going to get very curious about us."
"What do you intend to do about it?"
"That's the problem," he said. "I don't really know. With a lot of concentrated effort I can probably enter school if I have to, and keep my education covered up. But Martha is another story."
"I don't see--?" Mrs. Bagley bit her lip.
"We can't permit her to attend school," said James.
"You shouldn't have advertised for a woman with a girl child!" said Mrs. Bagley.
"Perhaps not. But I wanted someone of my own age and size around so that we can grow together. I'm a bit of a misfit until I'm granted the right to use my education as I see fit."
"And you hope to make Martha another misfit?"
"If you care to put it that way," admitted James. "Someone has to start. Someday all kids will be educated with my machine and then there'll be no misfits."
"But until then--?"
"Mrs. Bagley, I am not worried about what is going to happen next year. I am worried about what is going to happen next month."
Mrs. Bagley sat and watched him for a moment. This boy was worried, she could see that. But assuming that any part of his story was true--and it was impossible to doubt it--he had ample cause.
The past years had given Mrs. Bagley a hard shell because it was useful for survival; to keep herself and her child alive she had had to be permanently alert for every threat. Clearly this was a threat. Martha was involved. Martha's future was, at the least, bound to be affected by what James did.
And the ties of blood and habit made Martha's future the first consideration in Janet Bagley's thoughts.
But not the only consideration; for there is an in-born trait in the human race which demands that any helpless child should be helped. James was hardly helpless; but he certainly was a child. It was easy to forget it, talking to him--until something came up that the child could not handle.
Mrs. Bagley sighed. In a different tone she asked, "What did you do last year?"
"Played with Rags on the lawn," James said promptly. "A boy and his dog is a perfectly normal sight--in the summer. Then, when school opened, I stayed in the house as much as I could. When I had to go out I tried to make myself look younger. Short pants, dirty face. I don't think I could get away with it this year."
"I think you're right," Mrs. Bagley admitted. "Well, suppose you could do what you wish this year? What would that be?"
James said: "I want to get my machine working. Then I want to use it on Martha."
"On Martha! But--"
James said patiently: "It won't hurt her, Mrs. Bagley. There isn't any other way. The first thing she needs is a good command of English."
"English?" Mrs. Bagley hesitated, and was lost. After all, what was wrong with the girl's learning proper speech?
"Martha is a child both physically and intellectually. She has been talked to about 'right' and 'wrong' and she knows that 'telling the truth' is right, but she doesn't recognize that talking about fairies is a misstatement of the truth. Question her carefully about how we live, and you'll get a fair approximation of the truth."
"But suppose someone asks Martha about the Hermit of Martin's Hill?"
"What do you fear?"
"We might play upon her make-believe stronger than we have. She play-acts his existence very well. But suppose someone asks her what he eats, or where he gets his exercise, or some other personal question. She hasn't the command of logic to improvise a convincing background."
"But why should anybody ask such personal questions?" asked Mrs. Bagley.
James said patiently: "To ask personal questions of an adult is 'prying' and is therefore considered improper and antisocial. To ask the same questions of a child is proper and social. It indicates a polite interest in the world of the child. You and I, Mrs. Bagley, have a complete picture of the Hermit all prepared, and with our education we can improvise plausible answers. I've hoped to finish my machine early enough to provide Martha with the ability to do the same."
"So what can we do?"
"About the only thing we can do is to hide," said James. "Luckily, most of the business is conducted out of this place by mail. Write letters to some boarding school situated a good many miles from here. Ask the usual routine questions about entering a seven-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy for one semester. Robert Holmes, our postmaster-taxicab driver-station-master, reads everything that isn't sealed. He will read the addresses, and he will see replies and read their return address."
"And then we'll pretend to send you and Martha to boarding school?"
James nodded. "Confinement is going to be difficult, but in this climate the weather gets nasty early and that keeps people out of one another's hair."
"But this station-master business--?"
"We've got to pull some wool over Robert's eyes," said James. "Somehow, we've got to make it entirely plausible. You've got to take Martha and me away and come back alone just as if we were in school."
"We should have a car," said Mrs. Bagley.
"A car is one piece of hardware that I could never justify," said James. "Nor," he chuckled, "buy from a mail-order house because I couldn't accept delivery. I bought furniture from Sears and had it delivered according to mailed instructions. But I figured it better to have the folks in Shipmont wondering why Charles Maxwell didn't own a car than to have them puzzling why he owned one that never was used, nor even moved. Besides, a car--costs--"
Mrs. Bagley smiled with real satisfaction. "There," she said, "I think I can help. I can buy the car."
James was startled. "But can you afford it?"
Mrs. Bagley nodded seriously. "James," she said, "I've been scratching out an existence on hard terms and I've had to make sure of tomorrow. Even when things were worst, I tried to put something away--some weeks it was only a few pennies, sometimes nothing at all. But--well, I'm not afraid of tomorrow any more."
James was oddly pleased. While he was trying to find a way to say it, Mrs. Bagley relieved him of the necessity. "It won't be a brand-new convertible," she warned. "But they tell me you can get something that runs for two or three hundred dollars. Tim Fisher has some that look about right in his garage--and besides," she said, clinching it, "it gives me a chance to give out a little more Maxwell and boarding-school propaganda."
The letter was a masterpiece of dissembling. It suggested, without promising, that Charles Maxwell intended to send his young charge to boarding school along with his housekeeper's daughter. It asked the school's advice and explained the deformity that made Charles Maxwell a recluse. The reply could hardly have been better if they'd penned it themselves for the signature of the faculty advisor. It discussed the pros and cons of away-from-home schooling and went on at great length to discuss the attitude of children and their upbringing amid strange surroundings. It invited a long and inconclusive correspondence--just what James wanted.