Young Archimedes

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(Extract from the story by A.Huxley "Young Archimedes". Abridged.)

It was the view which finally made us take the place. Our nearest neighbours lived very near. We had two sets of them,1 as a matter of fact, almost in the same house with us. One was the peasant family. Our other neighbours were the owners of the villa.

They were a curious people, our proprietors. An old husband, grey, listless, tottering, seventy at least; and a signora of about forty, short, very plump, with tiny fat hands and feet and a pair of very large, very dark eyes, which she used with all the skill of a born comedian.

But we had found other reasons, after a few days' residence,2 for liking the house. Of these the most cogent was that, in the peasant's youngest child, we had discovered the perfect play-fellow for our own small boy.3 Between little Guido for that was his name and the youngest of his brothers and sisters there was a gap of seven years. He was between six and seven years old and as precocious, self-assured, and responsible as the children of the poor generally are.

Though fully two and a half years older than little Robin and at that age thirty months are crammed with half a lifetime's experience4 Guido took no undue advantage of his superior intelligence and strength. I have never seen a child more patient, tolerant, and untyrannical. He never laughed at Robin; he did not tease or bully, but helped his small companion when he was in difficulties and explained when he could not understand. In return, Robin adored him, regarded him as the model and perfect Big Boy,5 and slavishly imitated him in every way he could.

Guido was a thoughtful child, given to brooding.6 One would find him sitting in a corner by himself, chin in hand, elbow on knee, plunged in the profoundest meditation. And sometimes, even in the midst of the play, he would suddenly break off, to stand, his hands behind his back,7 frowning and staring at the ground. And his eyes, if one looked into them, were beautiful in their grave and pensive calm.

They were large eyes, set far apart and, what was strange in a dark-haired Italian child, of a luminous pale blue-grey colour. They were not always grave and calm, as in these pensive moments. When he was playing, when he talked or laughed, they lit up. Above those eyes was a beautiful forehead, high and steep and domed in a curve that was like the subtle curve of a rose petal.8 The nose was straight, the chin small and rather pointed, the mouth drooped a little sadly at the corners.

My gramophone and two or three boxes of records arrived from England. Guido was immensely interested. The first record he heard, I remember, was that of the slow movement of Bach's Concerto in D Minor for two violins. That was the disc I put on the turn-table.

Guido came to a halt in front of the gramophone and stood there, motionless, listening. His pale blue-grey eyes opened themselves wide; making a little nervous gesture that I had often noticed in him before, he plucked at his lower lip with his thumb and forefingers.

After lunch he reappeared. 'May I listen to the music now?' he asked. And for an hour he sat there in front of the instrument, hishead cocked slightly on one side, listening while I put one disc after another. Thenceforward he came every afternoon.

What stirred him almost more than anything was the Coriolan overture. One day he made me play it three or four times in succession; then he put it away.

'I don't think I want to hear that any more,' he said.

'Why not?'

'It's too... too...' he hesitated, 'too big,' he said at last. 'I don't really understand it. Play me the one that goes like this.' He hummed the phrase from the D Minor Concerto.

'Do you like that one better?' I asked.

He shook his head. 'No, it's not that exactly. But it's easier.'

'Easier?' It seemed to me rather a queer word to apply to Bach.

In due course, the piano arrived. After giving him the minimum of preliminary instruction, I let Guido loose on it.9 He made excellent progress. Every afternoon, while Robin was asleep, he came for his concert and his lesson. But what to me was more interesting was that he had begun to make up little pieces on his own account.10 He had a passion for canons. When I explained to him the principles of the form he was enchanted.

'It is beautiful,' he said, with admiration. 'Beautiful, beautiful. And so easy!'

Again the word surprised me.

But in the invention of other kinds of music he did not show himself so fertile11 as I had hoped.

'He's hardly a Mozart,' we agreed, as we played his little pieces over. I felt, it must be confessed, almost aggrieved.

He was not a Mozart. No. But he was somebody, as I was to find out,12 quite extraordinary. It was one morning in the early summer that I made the discovery. I was sitting in the warm shade of our balcony, working. Absorbed in my work, it was only, I suppose, after the silence had prolonged itself a considerable time that I became aware that the children were making remarkably little noise. Knowing by experience that when children are quiet it generally means that they are absorbed in some delicious mischief,131 got up from my chair and looked over the balustrade to see what they were doing. I expected to catch them dabbling in water, making a bonfire, covering themselves with tar. But what I actually saw was Guido, with a burnt stick in his hand, demonstrating on the smooth paving-stones of the path, that the square on the hypotenuse of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. Robin listened, with an expression on his bright, freckled face of perfect incomprehension.

Guido implored: 'But do just look at this. It's so beautiful. It's so easy.'

So easy... The theorem of Pythagoras seemed to explain for me Guide's musical predilections. It was not an infant Mozart we had been cherishing; it was a little Archimedes with, like most of his kind, an incidental musical twist.14

Leaning on the rail of the balcony, I watched the children below. I thought of the extraordinary thing I had just seen and of what it meant.

I thought of the vast differences between human beings. We classify men by the colour of their eyes and hair, the shape of their skulls. Would it not be more sensible to divide them up into intellectual species? There would be even wider gulfs between the extreme mental types than between a Bushman and a Scandinavian.'5 This child, I thought, when he grows up, will be to me, intellectually, what a man is to a dog.

: 2015-09-13; : 10;

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