In Chapter 1, the central character, Widge, relates how he never knew his mother or father, but was raised in an orphanage. His life there was hard, but not unbearable, as for the most part the children "were not mistreated as much as neglected." When Widge is seven, he is taken as an apprentice by Dr. Timothy Bright, a preacher and doctor of medicine. His job is to help in the apothecary preparing "medicines and infusions", and to learn to read and write.
Widge not only becomes literate in English and in Latin, but he also learns "a curious abbreviated language of Dr. Bright's own devising," a kind of shorthand known as charactery, which allows an individual to "transcribe the spoken word as rapidly as it issues from the tongue." Using this system, Widge keeps the doctor's scientific notes, and transcribes his weekly sermons, as well as those of other clergymen.
In Chapter 2, a stranger comes to the rectory with a copy of Dr. Bright's book on charactery. He asks the doctor how many people have been taught the system of shorthand, and the doctor is forced to admit that Widge is the only one. The stranger then tests Widge on his facility with the system of writing, and, satisfied, offers to buy him from his master for the handsome sum of ten pounds sterling. The doctor accepts the payment, and Widge is instructed to swifly gather his belonging and to follow the stranger into a new life unknown. As Widge takes his leave from the doctor's abode, there is no one to bid him farewell but a "placid tabby cat gazing at (him) from under the shelter of the eaves."