It was a mistake to let my father see me, as, in the perverted state of his mind, the mere sight of me was enough to make him furious. Whether he hated me or not, nobody knows; but he treated me as if I was the most odious little object that could be brought before his eyes. Very soon after the scene about the article in the "Times," and probably in consequence of the excitement brought on by it, my father had a fit of apoplexy, and lingered till the next morning about nine o'clock. I was not in the room when he died, but my aunt took me to see him immediately after, and then I received an impression which has lasted to the present day. The corpse was lying on its side amidst disordered bedclothes, and to this day I can never go into a bedroom where the bed has not been made without feeling as if there were a corpse in it. That dreadful childish sensation received when I saw my father's body just as it lay at the close of the death-agony, can even now be revived by the sight of a disordered bed; such is the force of early impressions, especially when they are received by a nervous system that has been overwrought by the extreme of mental wretchedness.
The reader will hardly believe that the death of so hard a father could have been felt otherwise than as an inexpressible relief, and yet I was deeply affected by his loss. The kindest of fathers could hardly have been wept for more. My aunt's tears were more explicable; she was old enough to understand the frightful waste of the best gifts involved in that premature ending; as for my grief, perhaps the true explanation of it may be that I mourned rather the father who had been kind to me in Wales, than the cruel master at Ivy Cottage.
I sometimes try to imagine what he might have been under more favorable circumstances. There were times after his wife's death when he meditated a complete change of residence, which might have saved him. He would always have been severe and authoritative, but without alcohol he would probably not have been cruel.
I remember the day of the funeral quite distinctly. My father's two brothers came, though he had had scarcely any intercourse with them for years. They were most respectable men, quite free from my father's errors; but they had not half his life and energy. Such was the strength of his constitution that so recently as the time of our journey in Wales his health was not visibly impaired, and at the time of his death he had that rare possession for a man of thirty-nine, a complete set of perfectly sound teeth.
His coffin was carried on the shoulders of six men from Ivy Cottage to the graveyard near the chapel. Shaw at that time had only a chapel, a hideous building on a bleak piece of rising ground, surrounded by many graves. It never looked more dreary than on that wretched January day in 1844, when we stood round as the sexton threw earth on my father's coffin. He was laid in the same tomb with the poor young wife who had loved him truly, and to whom he had been a tender and devoted husband whilst their short union lasted.
I am the only survivor of that day's ceremony. The little procession has all followed my father into the darkness, descending one by one into graves separated by great spaces of land and sea. And when this is printed I, too, shall be asleep in mine.
Dislike to Shaw in consequence of the dreadful life I led there with my father.—My guardian.—Her plan for my education.—Doncaster School.—Mr. Cape and his usher.—The usher's intolerance of Dissenters. —My feeling for architecture and music.—The drawing-master.—My guardian insists on my learning French.—Our French master, Sig. Testa.—A painful incident.—I begin to learn the violin.—Dancing.—My aversion to cricket.—Early readings.—Love of Scott.—My first library.—Classical studies.
One consequence of the horrible life I had led at Ivy Cottage was a permanent dislike to the place and the neighborhood, the evil effects of which will be seen in the sequel. For the present it is enough to say that I never went there again quite willingly. After my father's death my grandmother lived in the village, and I was taken to see her every year until her death; but though she was a very kind old lady, it was a trial to me to visit her. I used to lie awake in her house at nights, realizing those horrible nights I had passed at Ivy Cottage, with such extreme intensity that it seemed as if my father might enter the room at any time. This was not a superstitious dread of apparitions; but the association of ideas brought back the past with a clearness that was extremely painful. Even now, at a distance of more than forty years, I avoid whatever reminds me of that time, and am not sorry that this narrative now leads to something else.
My father had no great affection for his brothers, who on their part could not have much esteem for him, so there was a mutual coolness which prevented him from appointing either of them to be my guardian. Probably they felt this as a slight, for, although always kind to me, they held completely aloof from anything like paternal interference with my education. My father had named his eldest sister, Mary, as my sole guardian, with, two lawyers as co-executors with her. The reader will probably think it was a mistake to appoint an old maid to be guardian to a boy; but my aunt was a woman of excellent sense, and certainly not disposed to bring me up effeminately; indeed, her willingness to encourage me in everything manly was such that she would always inflict upon herself considerable anxiety about my safety rather than prevent me from taking my full share of the more or less perilous exercises of youth. As to my education and profession her scheme was very simple and clear, and would have been perfectly rational if I had been all that she wished me to be. According to her plan I was to go to good schools first, and then be prepared for Oxford by tutors, and become a clergyman. There was some thought at one time of sending me to one of the great public schools; but this was abandoned, and I was first sent to Burnley School again, and then, after the summer holidays of 1845, to Doncaster, where I was a boarder in the house of the head-master.
A word from me in favor of one of the public schools would probably have decided my guardian to send me there; but there was a vis inertiae in my total want of social and scholastic ambition. I never in my life felt the faintest desire to rise in the world either by making the acquaintance of people of rank (which is the main reason why boys of middling station are sent to aristocratic schools), or by getting letters put after my name as a reward for learning what had no intrinsic charm for me. In the worldly sense I never had any ambition whatever.
It seemed rather hard, after living at Burnley with my kind guardian, to be sent to Doncaster School and separated from her for five months at a time, but she thought the separation necessary, as there was nothing in the world she dreaded more than that her great affection might spoil me. Always gentle in her ways, always kind and considerate, that admirable woman had still a remarkable firmness of character, and would act, on due occasion, in direct opposition both to her own feelings and to mine, if she believed that duty required it.
In those days there was no railway station at Doncaster, and my guardian took me from Featherstone (where her brother-in-law, Mr. Hinde, was vicar) to Doncaster in a hired carriage. I remember that it was an open carriage and we had nobody with us except the driver, and it was a fine hot day in August. I remember the long road, the arrival at an inn at Doncaster not far from the new church, and my first presentation to Mr. Cape, the head-master, who seemed a very kind and gentle sort of clergyman to a boy not yet acquainted with his cane. Then I was left alone in the strange school, not in the best of spirits, and if it had been difficult to restrain tears when my guardian left me, it became impossible in the little iron bed in the dormitory at night.
There were not many boarders, perhaps a dozen, and three or four private pupils who were preparing for Cambridge. All these were lodged in the head-master's house, which was in a pleasant, open part of the town, on the road leading to the race-course, just beyond the well-known Salutation Hotel. Besides these, there were rather a large number of day scholars,—I forget how many, perhaps fifty or sixty,—and in those days the schoolhouse was a ground floor under the old theatre. We marched down thither in the morning under the control of an usher, who was always with us in our walks. This usher, whose name I well remember, but do not choose to print, was a vulgar, overbearing man whom it was difficult to like, yet at the same time we all felt that he was a very valuable master. Boys feel the difference between a master who is a gentleman and one who falls short of that ideal. We were clearly aware that the head-master, Mr. Cape, was a gentleman, and that the usher was not. Nevertheless, in spite of his occasional coarseness and even brutality, the usher was a painstaking, honest fellow, who did his duty very energetically. His best quality, which I appreciate far more now than I did then, was an extreme readiness to help a willing boy in his work, by clearly explaining those difficulties that are likely to stop him in his progress. Mr. Cape was more an examiner than a teacher, at least for us; with the private pupils he may have been more didactic. The usher evidently liked to be asked; he was extremely helpful to me, and thanks to him chiefly I made very rapid progress at Doncaster. Unfortunately an occasional injustice made it difficult to be so grateful to him as we ought to have been. Here is an example. One evening in the playground he told me to get on the back of another boy, and then thrashed me with a switch from an apple-tree. I begged to be told for what fault this punishment was inflicted, and the only answer he condescended to give me was that a master owed no explanation to a schoolboy. Down to the present time I have never been able to make out what the punishment was for, and strongly suspect that it was simply to exercise the usher's arm, which was a powerful one. He was a fair cricketer, though rather too fat for that exercise, and a capital swimmer, for which his fat was an advantage. He was an immoderate snuff-taker. Sometimes he would lay a train of snuff on the back of his hand and snuff it up greedily and voluptuously. In hot weather he sometimes sat in his shirt-sleeves, and would occasionally amuse himself by laying the snuff on his thick fat arm and then pass it all under his nose, which drew it up as the pneumatic discharging machines drew grain from the hold of a vessel. The odor of snuff was inseparable from his person.
On Sunday mornings we were made to read chapters in the Bible before going to church, and the usher, who was preparing himself to enter Holy Orders, would sometimes talk to us a little about theology. Once he said that the establishment of religious toleration in England had been a deplorable mistake, and that Dissent ought not to be permitted by the Sovereign. This frank expression of perfect intolerance rather surprised me even then, and I did not quite know whether it would be just to extirpate Dissent or not. My principal feeling about the matter was the prejudice inherited by young English gentlemen of old Tory families, that Dissent was something indescribably low, and quite beneath the attention of a gentleman. Still, to go farther and compel Dissenters by force to attend the services of the Church of England did seem to me rather hard, and on thinking over the matter seriously in my own mind, I came to the conclusion that our usher must be wrong, unless Dissenters were guilty of some crime I was not aware of; but this, after all, seemed quite possible.
We were taken to the services in Doncaster old church, which was destroyed by fire many years afterwards. Though not yet in my teens, I had an intense delight in architecture, and deeply enjoyed the noble old building, one of the finest of its class in England. Our pew was in the west gallery, not far from the organ, and from it we had a good view of the interior. The effect of the music was very strong upon me, as the instrument was a fine one, and I was fully alive to the influence of music and architecture in combination. The two arts go together far better than architecture and painting; for music seems to make architecture alive, as it rolls along the aisles and under the lofty vaults. I well remember feeling, when some noble anthem was being performed, as if the sculptured heads between the arches added a noble animation to their serenity. Even now, the impression received in those early days still remains in my memory with considerable clearness and fidelity, and I believe that the habit of attending service in such a beautiful church was a powerful stimulus to an inborn passion for architecture.
I had already taken lessons in drawing, of the kind which in those days was thought suitable for boys who were not expected to be professional artists, so the drawing-master at Doncaster had me amongst his pupils. He was an elderly man, rather stout, and very respectable. His house was extremely neat and tidy, with proper mahogany furniture, and no artistic eccentricities of any kind whatever. He himself was always irreproachably dressed, and he wore a large ruby ring on the little finger of his left hand. To us boys he appeared to be a personage of great dignity, but we were not afraid of him in spite of the dignity of his manners, as he could not apply the cane. He was not unkind, yet in all my life I never met with anybody concerned with the fine arts who had so little sympathy, so little enthusiasm. On the whole, he was distinctly gentle with me, but I made him angry twice. He had done me the honor to promote me to water-color, and as I wanted a rag to wipe my slab and brushes, I ventured to ask for one, on which he turned upon me a glance of haughty surprise, and said, "Do you suppose, sir, that I can undertake to supply you with rags?" This will give an idea of the curiously unsympathetic nature of the man. On another occasion I was drawing a house, or beginning to draw one, when the master came to look over my shoulder and found great fault with me for beginning with the upper part of the edifice. "What stonemason or bricklayer," said he, "would think of building his chimney before he had laid the first row of stones on the foundation?" A young pupil must not correct the bad reasoning of his elders, but it seemed to me that the cases of a bricklayer building a real house and an artist representing one on paper were not precisely the same. Later in life I found that the best artists brought their works forward as much as possible simultaneously, sketching all the parts lightly at first, and keeping them all in the same degree of finish till the end. [Footnote: The most rational way to paint is first to paint all the large masses together, then the smaller or secondary masses, and finally the details, bringing the picture forward all together, as nearly as possible.]
Nevertheless, the drawing-lessons were always a delightful break in our week's occupation, and I remember with pleasure the walk in the morning down to the drawing-master's house, two days in the week, and the happy hour of messing with water-color that followed it. In those days of blissful ignorance I had, of course, no conception of the difficulties of art, and was making that delusively rapid apparent progress which is so very encouraging to all incipient amateurs. Not a single study of those times remains in my portfolios to-day, and I know not what may have become of them. This is the more to be regretted, that in the fine weather our master took us into the fields round Doncaster and taught us to sketch from nature, which we accomplished in a rudimentary way.
My dear, wise, and excellent guardian was always anxious that I should receive as good an education as my opportunities would permit, so she insisted on my learning French, and had herself taught me the elements of that language, which she was able to read, though she did not pretend to speak it. On going to Doncaster I found Latin and Greek so serious a business that I wanted to lighten my burdens, and begged to be excused from going on with French; but my guardian (who, with all her exquisite gentleness, had a very strong will) would not hear of any such abandonment, and wrote very determinedly on the subject both to me and to Mr. Cape. It is extremely probable that this exercise of my guardian's will may have had a great influence on my future life, as without some early knowledge of French I might not have felt tempted to pursue the study later, and if I had never spoken French my whole existence would have been quite different.
Our French master at Doncaster was an Italian of good family named Testa, one of the most perfect gentlemen I ever met, and an excellent teacher. My deepest regret about him now is that I did not learn Italian with him also, then or afterwards. [Footnote: It is astonishing how many chances of improvement young men foolishly allow to slip by them. It would have been quite worth while after I became a free agent to go and spend six months or more at Doncaster, simply to read Italian with so good a master as Testa.] I learned Italian later in life, and with a far inferior master. Signor Testa was a tall, thin man, of rather cold and stately manners, with a fine-looking, noble head covered with curly brown hair. He was always exquisitely clean and orderly, both about his person and the books and things that belonged to him in his rooms, where there was an atmosphere of almost feminine refinement, though their occupant was by no means effeminate in his thoughts or bearing. We understood that he had left Italy in consequence of some political difficulty, and we knew that he had still relations there. One day, as we were engaged with our lesson at his lodgings, he took some leaves and a faded flower or two that had just arrived in a letter from Italy, and said, with tears in his eyes, "These have come from my father's place." Now it so happened that the eldest boy in our class was liable to fits of perfectly uncontrollable laughter (what the French call le fou rire), and, as the reader is sure to know, if he has ever been troubled with that disease himself, the fit very often comes on just at the moment when the patient feels that he is called upon to look particularly grave. This is what happened in the present case. Our unlucky fellow-pupil was tickled with something in Testa's accent or manner, or perhaps as he was an English boy the foreigner's tenderness of feeling may have seemed to him absurd; but whatever may have been the reason, his face became convulsed with suppressed laughter, which burst forth at last uncontrollably. This made the rest of us laugh too—not at poor Testa, but at our unworthy comrade. I shall never forget the Italian gentleman's look on that occasion. His eyes were still brimming with tears, but he laid down the flattened leaves and flowers and looked at us all round with an expression that cut me, at least, to the quick. "Young gentlemen," he said, "I did not expect you to be so unkind." I longed to explain, but did not find words at the moment, and we went on with our lesson. The fact was that Testa had not the least sense of humor in his composition, and so he could not understand what had happened. A humorous man, acquainted with the nature of boys, would have understood the attack of fou rire, and forgiven it; but then a humorous man would have thought twice before appealing to a set of English boys for sympathy with the feelings of an exile. The incident certainly increased my feelings of respect for Signor Testa, and made me try to please him. The French lessons were very agreeable to me, and besides duly preparing them, I read some French on my own account, and acquired a liking for the language that has remained with me ever since.
If the reader has the sound old-fashioned notions about education by which all subjects were strictly divided into the two classes of serious and frivolous pursuits, he will already have suspicions about the soundness of a training that included the two idle accomplishments of Drawing and French, and what will he say, I wonder, when music is added to the list? My initiation into music took place in the following manner. We had a dancing-master who came regularly to Mr. Cape's house to prepare us to shine in society, and his instrument was the convenient dancing-master's pocket fiddle or kit. Although this instrument gives forth but a feeble kind of music, I was far more enchanted with it than by the dancing, and wrote a most persuasive letter to my good guardian imploring her to let me study the violin. Those were the happy times when one had energy for everything! I had already three languages on hand, and the art of painting in water-colors, besides which I was in a mathematical school where boys were prepared for Cambridge, [Footnote: Doncaster School at that time was a sort of little nursery for Cambridge. Mr. Cape was a Cambridge man, and so was his brother, the able master of Peterborough School.] but there seemed to be no reason why the art of violin-playing should not be added to these pursuits. My guardian, before consenting, prudently wrote to Mr. Cape to ask if this new accomplishment would not interfere too much with other matters, and his answer was in these words: "The lad is getting on well enough with his studies, so if he wants to amuse himself a little by scraping catgut, even let him scrape away!" It will be seen that Mr. Cape did not assign to music the high rank in education which has been attributed to it by some famous thinkers in ancient and modern times. Few musical sensations experienced during my whole life have equalled in intensity the sensation of hearing our dancing-master play upon a full-sized violin, after the weak and thin tones that our ears had been accustomed to by his kit. I was so little in the way of hearing music at Doncaster that the richer note of the violin seemed musical as the lyre of Apollo. A contrast so striking made me more passionately eager to learn, but I was informed by one of the private pupils who exercised considerable authority over the younger boys, that although I might study the violin with the dancing-master, I was never to practise it by myself. This restriction was pardonable in one who might reasonably dread the torturing attempts of a beginner, but it was certainly not favorable to my progress. However, in course of time it came to be relaxed; that is, as soon as I could play tunes.
It is very odd that any one who dislikes dancing as heartily as I have always disliked it in manhood, should have been rather a brilliant performer when a boy. Our dancing-master was extremely pleased with me, and encouraged me by many compliments; nay, he even went so far as to teach me a sailor's hornpipe, which I danced in public as a pas seul when the school gave a theatrical entertainment on the approach of the Christmas holidays. All this is simply inconceivable now, for there is nothing which bores me so thoroughly as a ball, and I would at any time travel fifty miles to avoid one.
At school the principal amusement was cricket, for which I soon acquired an intense aversion. All games bore me except chess and billiards, and it was especially hard to be compelled to field out to please the elder boys, and so waste the precious holiday afternoons. Our cricket ground was on the racecourse, and when I could get away I did so most joyfully, and betook myself to a quiet place amongst the furze nearer to the Red House than the Grand Stand. There my great delight was to read Scott's poems, which I possessed in pocket volumes. The same volumes are in my study now, and simply to handle them is enough to bring back many sensations of long-past boyhood. Of all the influences that had sway over me in those days and for long afterwards, the influence of Scott was by far the strongest. A boy cannot make a better choice. Scott has the immense advantage over dull authors of being almost always interesting, and the equally great advantage over many exciting authors that he never leaves an unhealthy feeling in the mind. I began with "The Lady of the Lake," then read "Marmion," and "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" and the Ballads, and finally "Rokeby." These were in separate small volumes, which gave me a desire to possess other authors in the same convenient form, so I added Goldsmith, Crabbe, Kirke White, and Moore's "Irish Melodies." A prize for history gave me "Paradise Lost" in two volumes of my favorite size, and two school-fellows, who saw that I had a taste for such volumes, kindly gave me others. During the holidays my guardian authorized the purchase of a Shakespeare in seven pocket volumes, and the "Spectator" in eight, so I had quite a little library, which became inexpressibly dear to me. It is very remarkable that for a long time I knew Scott thoroughly as a poet without having read a single novel by him. Having been invited by one of my school-fellows to a country house not very far from Doncaster, I was asked by the lady of the house what authors I had read, and on mentioning Scott's poems was told that he was greater as a novelist than as a poet, and that the Waverley novels were certainly his finest works. This seemed incredible to me then, the poems being so delightful that they could not possibly be surpassed. On another occasion I happened to be standing with Mr. Cape in the little chapel at Conisborough Castle, and having heard from an older school-fellow that Athelstane had died there, I asked Mr. Cape if it was true. "Yes," he answered, "if you believe Sir Walter Scott." Not having read "Ivanhoe," I was under the impression that the Athelstane in question was an historical personage.
Nothing in the retrospect of life strikes me as more astonishing than the rapid mental growth that must have taken place between the date of my father's death and its second or third anniversary. When my father died I was simply a child, though rather a precocious one, as the journal in Wales testifies; but between two and three years after that event the child had become a boy, with a keen taste for literature, which, if it had been taken advantage of by his teachers, ought to have made his education a more complete success than it ever became.
The misfortune was that the classics were not taught as literature at all, but as exercises in grammar and prosody. They were dissected by teachers who were simply lecturers on the science of language, and who had not large views even about that. Our whole attention being directed to the technicalities of the pedagogue, we did not perceive that the classic authors had produced poems which, as literature, were not inferior to those of our best English poets. So it happened that those of us who had literary tastes were content to satisfy them in reading English authors, and left them, as it were, at the door of the classroom. I worked courageously enough at the Latin books which were set before me, but never found the slightest enjoyment in them; indeed, it was only much later, and through the medium of French and Italian, that I gained some partial access to the literary beauty of Latin. As for Greek, I began it vigorously at Doncaster, but I did not get beyond the rudiments during my stay there.
Early attempts in English verse.—Advantages of life at Doncaster.—A school incident.—Fagging.—Story of a dog.—Robbery.—My schoolfellow, Henry Alexander.—His remarkable influence.—Other schoolfellows. —Story of a boat.—A swimming adventure.—Our walks and battles.
The love of literature was naturally followed by some early attempts at versification in English, which is generally looked upon as a silly waste of time in a boy, though if he writes Latin verses, which we were taught to do, he is thought to be seriously occupied. Prom the age of eleven to that of twenty-one I wrote English verses very frequently, and am now very glad I did so, being quite convinced that it was a most profitable exercise in the language. My early verses were invariably echoes of my dearly beloved Sir Walter Scott, a master whom it is not very difficult to imitate so far as mere versification is concerned. One little incident about this early verse-making is worth mentioning in this place. I was staying for a few days with a school-fellow at a house near Doncaster, when I dreamed a new ballad about a shipwreck, and on awaking wrote it down at once. The thing would not be worth quoting, if it were possible to remember it; but it was correct enough in rhymes and metre.
My life at Doncaster was not on the whole unhappy, and the steady discipline of the school was doing me much good. Mr. Cape was a very severe master, and he used the cane very freely; but to a boy who had lived under the tyranny of my father Mr. Cape's severity seemed a light affliction. He kept up his dignity by seldom appearing in the schoolroom; he sat in his library or in the dining-room in a large morocco-covered arm-chair, holding a book in one hand whilst the other was always ready to clasp the cane that he kept close by. Any failure of memory would cause him to dart a severe look at the delinquent, a false quantity made him scowl, and when he suspected real carelessness the cane was resorted to at once. Unfortunately he could not apply it and keep his temper at the same time. The exercise roused him to fury, and a punishment which in his first intention was to have been mild became cruel through the effect of his own rapidly increasing irritation. Mr. Cape's health was not good, and no doubt this added to the natural irritability of his temper. There was one unfortunate youngster whose hands were covered with chilblains, and who was constantly displeasing Mr. Cape by inattention or inaccuracy, so he incurred such perpetual canings that his hands were pitiable to see, and must have been extremely painful. Our head-master was no doubt laudably, or selfishly, anxious that we should get on with our work so as to do him credit at Cambridge, where most of us were expected to go; but he seemed almost incapable of pity. I remember having the intense pleasure of playing him a little trick just after he had been caning a lad who was a very good friend of mine.
It happened in this way—but first I must describe the topography of the place. Mr. Cape's house was a tall brick building that looked upon the street on one side, and on our playground (which had formerly been a garden) on the other. At the other end of the garden was a wash-house with the schoolroom over it, and in the wash-house there was a large copper for boiling linen. In the house the dining-room looked over the play-ground, and it somehow happened (perhaps it was in the Easter holidays) that there were no pupils left in the place but my friend Brokenribs and I. [Footnote: We always called him Brokenribs, which recalled his real name by a sort of imitation; besides which, though his ribs had not actually been broken, he had suffered from a good many bruises.] Mr. Cape called him up into the dining-room after dark, and began to thrash him. Brokenribs, after some time, began to think that a sufficient number of strokes had been administered, and put the dining-table between himself and his adversary, who could not get at him any longer. I was in the playground, and understood all that was passing by the shadows on the window-blinds.
It was most amusing to me, as a spectator, to see the shadow of Brokenribs flit rapidly past, and still better perhaps to see it followed by that of Mr. Cape, with bald head and uplifted cane. When this entertainment had lasted some time I heard a great banging of doors, and Brokenribs issued from the house, rushing like a hunted deer the whole length of the playground. "Cape's after me!" he said. "Where shall I hide?" "In the copper!" I answered with a sudden inspiration, and ran into the wash-house with him, where I lifted the lid and stowed him away in safety. The lid had but just been replaced when Mr. Cape appeared in the playground and asked if I had seen Brokenribs. "Yes, sir, certainly; he was running this way, sir." I accompanied Mr. Cape into the wash-house, which had an outer door giving access to a lane, and observed with pleasure that he was forced to the irresistible conclusion that Brokenribs had taken flight. The lad's parents lived at an accessible distance (perhaps twenty miles), so Mr. Cape was tormented with the unpleasant idea that the lad had gone home to tell his own story. He therefore ordered a gig and drove off so as to catch Brokenribs during his flight. As my friend had been sitting in cold water, I got him out when the coast was clear, and made him go to bed, where the housekeeper sent him a treacle posset. After driving many a mile in vain, Mr. Cape returned very late, and never said a word on the subject to either of us.
Poor Brokenribs was not only very often caned, but he was fag to a tyrannical private pupil, who made him suffer severely. The private pupils upheld the sacred institution of fagging, which gave them a pleasant sense of authority, and as they sat like gods above us, they were not in danger of retaliation. Brokenribs was fag to a young man who determined that he should learn two things,—first, to endure pain without flinching, and secondly, to smoke tobacco. To achieve the first of these great purposes, he used to twist the lad's arms and administer a certain number of hard blows upon them. This he did every day so long as the whim lasted. As for the smoking, poor Brokenribs had to smoke a certain number of pipes every day. A single pipe made him look ghastly, and the whole series made him dreadfully ill. I remember his white face at such times; but he attained his reward in becoming an accomplished and precocious smoker.
I was fag myself at one time to a private pupil; but he was not very tyrannical with me, and only ordered me to light fires, which was a valuable element in my education.
It gives one a fine independence of servants to be able to light a fire quickly and well. This accomplishment enables a man to get up as early as he chooses, even in winter, and I have never forgotten it; indeed, I lighted a fire an hour before writing this page. In my opinion, it would be wise to teach every boy the art of doing without servants on occasion.
The private pupils exercised authority in other ways than by converting us into fags. It so happened that I became possessor of an unfortunate tawny dog. How one boy should be owner of a dog at school when the others had nothing to do with him may be difficult to understand; and indeed my ownership did not last for very long, but it was pleasant to me whilst it lasted. The poor beast, if I remember rightly, belonged to somebody who did not want him, and was going to have him slain. I had always an intense affection for dogs, and begged Mr. Cape to let me keep this one, promising that it should not be a nuisance. I was rather a favorite with the head-master, so he granted this very extraordinary request, and it was understood that the dog was to lodge in a box in the wash-house. I bought some fresh straw for him, and took the greatest care of him, so that he soon became strongly attached to me. Had there been no private pupils the creature would have been safe enough, as I would have fought any lad of my own age in his behalf, and Brokenribs, who was older, would have fought the bigger boys; but we none of us dared to resist the privates, who were grown men. One of the privates thought that a small boy ought not to possess a dog, and began to affirm that the animal was a nuisance. He then said it would be an improvement to cut off its tail, which he did accordingly, in spite of all my remonstrances. I pitied the poor beast when it lay suffering with its bleeding stump, and did all that affection could suggest for its consolation; but shortly afterwards the same private pupil, who had a taste for pistol-shooting, thought it would be good fun to shoot at a living target, so he took my dog away into a field and shot him there. I knew what he was going to do, but had no power to prevent it, as he had begun by persuading Mr. Cape that the poor beast was a nuisance, which he certainly was not. He was a very quiet, timid dog, of an anxious, apprehensive temperament, having probably never had reason to place much trust in the human species.
There was one lad at the school who was a coarse bully, and I remember his playing a trick on me which was nothing less than pure brigandage. He ordered me to give him my keys, and rummaged in my private box. He found a small telescope in it which was to his liking, and took it. I never got any redress about that telescope, as the bully coolly said it had always belonged to him, and he was powerful enough to act on the great principle that la force prime le droit.
It is most astonishing how some boys gain a great ascendency over others when there seems to be no substantial reason for it. One of my school-fellows, who was cousin to some of my cousins, and bore my surname as one of his Christian names, had quite a remarkable ascendency over boys, and yet he had not the physical size and strength which usually impose upon them. He was slight and small, though he had a handsome face; but he had an aristocratic temperament, which inspired a sort of respect, and a governing disposition, which made other boys yield to him. Nothing was more curious than to see how completely the bully effaced himself before that young gentleman's superiority. The bully was also a snob, and probably believed that Henry Alexander belonged to the highest aristocracy. He was well descended and well connected (there was an abeyant peerage in his family), but in point of fact, his social position was not better than that of some other boys in the school. I remember well the intense astonishment of the bully when he found out one day that Alexander bore my name as a Christian name, and learned the reason.
Alexander was a perfect little dandy, being at all times exceptionally well dressed for a schoolboy, and on Sundays he came out with remarkable splendor. In spring and summer he wore a jacket and trousers of the most fashionable cut and of the very finest blue cloth, with a gloss upon it, and a white waistcoat adorned with a bunch of valuable trinkets to his watch-chain.
His hat, his gloves, his wonderfully small boots, were all the pink of perfection. He smoked very good cigars, and talked about life with an air of the most consummate experience, that gained him profound respect. Most boys hesitate about the choice of a profession, but Alexander had no such indecision. He had made up his mind to be an officer, with his father's consent, and guided by a sure instinct, as he had exactly the qualities to make himself respected in a regiment. It does a young officer no harm to be rather a dandy and to shine in society, whilst the extreme decision and promptitude of Alexander's peremptory will, and the natural ease with which he assumed authority, would be most useful in command. A few years later he joined the 64th Regiment and went to India, where in spite of his rather delicate frame he became an active sportsman. One day, however, the surgeon of the regiment saw him by accident in his bath, and declared that he was too thin to be well, so he examined him, and found that consumption had begun. Alexander returned to England, where he lingered a few months, and then died. He came to see me not very long before his death, not looking nearly so ill as I had expected, but the doctor knew best. With better health he might have had a brilliant career, and was certain, at least, to be an efficient and popular officer, with the right degree of love for his profession.
Another of my fellow-pupils who died early was the eldest son and heir of a country squire, and one of the handsomest and most able young men I ever met. He was a private pupil, yet not at all disliked by the younger boys, as he was always kind and friendly towards us. There was a project for his going out to India, and he talked over the matter with his father one evening at his own home. A dispute arose between father and son as they sat talking late, and when they separated for the night they were not on good terms. The next morning the young gentleman was found dead in bed under circumstances which led to a very strong suspicion of suicide. We were all deeply grieved by his death, as he seemed to have the best gifts of Nature, and life was opening so brightly before him; but he had a very high spirit, and if he really did commit suicide, which is not improbable, it is very likely that his pride had been wounded. Whenever I read in the poets or elsewhere of gifted young men who have ended sadly and prematurely, his image rises before me, though it is now forty years since we met. Poor Brokenribs is gone too, though he lived long enough to be a clergyman for some years. He was a thoroughly good fellow, bearing all his hardships with admirable equanimity.
Before quitting the history of my school-days, I ought, perhaps, to tell the story of a great swimming exploit whereof I was the hero. The reader, after this expression, will count upon some display of prowess and of vanity at the same time, but there is neither in this case.
After I had been at Doncaster about a year, one of the private pupils came to me one day with a pencil and a piece of paper in his hand, and said, "We are going to buy a boat at Cambridge; will you subscribe?" Now it so happened that I was born a boating creature, just as decidedly as I was not born to be a cricketing creature, and such a question addressed to me was much as if one said to a young duck, "Would you like to go on the pond, or would you prefer being shut up in a cage?" Of course I said "yes" at once, and wrote an artful letter to my dear guardian begging for the four guineas which were to constitute me a shareholder in the expected vessel.
The future captain of the boat took my money very readily when it came, and nobody could have felt more certain of a boating career than I did; but just before the arrival of the vessel itself, it occurred to Mr. Cape (rather late in the day) that he would take a prudent precaution, so he issued a ukase to the effect that none but good swimmers were to make any use of the boat. Now I had often heard, and read too in books, that man was naturally a swimming animal, and that any one who was thrown into water would swim if only he was not afraid, so I said inwardly, "It is true that I never did swim, but that is probably because I have only bathed in shallow water; I have courage enough, and if they pitch me into the river Don, most probably I shall swim, as man is naturally a swimming animal and fear is the only impediment." One day at dinner Mr. Cape asked all the subscribers, one after another, if they could swim. There was a boy of about fourteen who was a splendid swimmer, and well known for such both to the masters and his school-fellows, but Mr. Cape did not omit him, and I envied the simple ease of his "Yes, sir." When it came to me, I too said "Yes, sir," affecting the same ease, and Mr. Cape looked at me, and the assistant-master looked at me, and every one of the fellows looked at me, and then a slight smile was visible on all their countenances. After dinner the fine swimmer expressed his regret that he had not known sooner about my possession of this accomplishment, as we might have enjoyed it together in the Don. The next Saturday afternoon was fine, so the swimmers went to the river with the assistant-master, and I was very politely invited to accompany them. On this an older boy, who had always been kind to me, said privately, "You can't swim, I know you can't, and you'd better confess it, for if you don't, you run a good chance of being drowned this afternoon; the water is thirty feet deep." I answered, with cold thanks, that my friend's apprehensions were groundless; and we set off.
On our way to the river the unpleasant reflection occurred to my mind, that possibly the books and the people might be wrong, and that mere courage might not enable me to dispense with acquired skill. [Footnote: The doctrine that courage is enough is most mischievous and perilous nonsense. I have become a good swimmer since those days, and have taught my sons: but we had to learn it as an art, just as one learns to skate.] But I put away this idea as too disagreeable to be dwelt upon. Unfortunately the disagreeable idea that we set aside is often the true and the wise one.
As we went through the town to the water the boy who had expressed his scepticism disappeared for a moment in a rope-maker's shop, and soon emerged with a long and strong cord over his shoulder. I guessed what that was for, and felt humiliated, but said nothing. The swimmers stripped and plunged, but just at the moment when I was going to plunge too I felt the strong hand of the assistant-master on my shoulder, and he said, "Wait one moment," The moment was employed by my school-fellow in fastening the cord round my waist, "Now, plunge as much as you like!"
I was soon in the depths and struggling to get to the surface, but, somehow, did not swim. My preserver on the bank thought it would be as well to convince me of my inability by a prolonged immersion, so he let me feel the unpleasant beginning of drowning. They say that the sensation is delightful at a later stage, and that the patient dreams he is walking in flowery meadows on the land. The first stage is undoubtedly disagreeable,—the oppression, the desire to breathe, are horrible,—but I did not get so far as to fill the lungs with water. Just in proper time there came a great tug at the cord, and I was fished up. I dressed, and felt very small, looking with envy on the real swimmers, and especially at the fat usher, who was rolling about like a porpoise in the middle of the river.
The boat came, and I was allowed only to see her from the bank. How lovely she looked with her outside varnish and her internal coat of Cambridge blue! How beautiful were the light and elegant oars that I was forbidden to touch!
Some time after that one of my school-fellows said: "You know, Hamerton, you're just as well out of that boat as in her, for whenever we want to go out on Wednesday or Saturday afternoons we always find that the privates have got the start of us. The fact is, the boat is as if she belonged to them." In a word, the private pupils looked on the aspirations of the others with marked disapproval. There ought, of course, to have been a plurality of boats; but Mr. Cape was not himself a boating man, and did not encourage the amusement. He dreaded the responsibility for accidents.
One result of my adventure was a firm resolution that I would learn to swim, and not only that, but become really a good swimmer. I never attempted anything that seemed so hopelessly difficult for me, or in which my progress was so slow; but in course of time I did swim, and many years afterwards, from daily practice in the longer and warmer summers of France, I became an expert, able to read a book aloud in deep water whilst holding it up with both hands, or to swim with all my clothes on and a pair of heavy boots, using one hand only and carrying a paddle in the other, whilst I drew a small boat after me. The perseverance that led to this ultimate result is entirely due to that early misadventure at Doncaster. I have learned one or two other things in consequence of being stung with shame in a like manner, and am convinced that there is nothing better for a boy than to be roused to perseverance in that way.
I never felt the least shame, however, in not being able to play cricket in a manner to please connoisseurs. I hated the game from the very beginning, and it was pure slavery to me, and I never had the faintest desire to excel in it or even to learn it. This dislike was a misfortune, as not to love cricket is a cause of isolation for an English boy.
A kind of exercise that I was fond of was ordinary walking. We often took long walks on half-holidays that were delightful, and I have escaped very early on the summer mornings and taken a walk round the race-course, being back in time for the usual hour of rising. This, however, was found out in course of time and put an end to; but I had occasional headaches, so the doctor (who was a very kind friend of mine and invited me to his house) told Mr. Cape that he must send me out for a walk when I had a headache. "But how am I to know that his head really aches?" inquired the head-master. I heard the reply and took note of it. The doctor said it would usually be accompanied with flushing; so whenever I thought I was sufficiently red in the face I applied for leave to go to the race-course.
The doctor had a son who was a good-natured, pleasant boy about my own age. There never was the slightest ill-feeling between us, but quite the contrary; and yet we fought many a hard battle simply because the elder boys backed us and set us on. They enjoyed the sport as they would have enjoyed cock-fighting, though perhaps not quite so much, as it was not quite so bloody and barbarous. This fighting was of no practical use; but if I had been able to thrash the bully who took my telescope that would have been of some use. Unfortunately he was my senior, and considerably my superior in strength, so prudence forbade the combat.
Early interest in theology.—Reports of sermons.—Quiet influence of Mr. Cape.—Failure of Mr. Cape's health.—His death.
During the time of my life at Doncaster I was extremely religious, having a firm belief in providential interferences on my behalf, even in trifling matters, such as being asked to stay from Saturday to Monday in the country. My prayers had especial reference to a country house that belonged to an old lady who was grandmother to a friend of mine, and extended a sort of grandmotherly kindness to myself also. [Footnote: She was a very remarkable and peculiar old lady. The house was very large; but she would only use a few small rooms. She never would travel by railway, but made long journeys, as well as short ones, in an old carriage drawn by a pair of farm-horses. She had a much handsomer carriage in the coach-house, a state affair, that was never used.]
At Doncaster we were always obliged to take notes of the sermons, and write them out afterwards in an abridged form. As I had a theological turn, I sometimes inserted passages of my own in these reports which made the masters declare that they did not remember hearing the preacher say that; and on one occasion, being full of ideas of my own about the text which had effectually supplanted those of the preacher, I produced a complete original sermon, which cost me a reprimand, but evidently excited the interest of the master. Dr. Sharpe was Vicar of Doncaster in those days, but after forty years I may be excused if I do not remember much about what he preached. The pulpit was arranged in the old-fashioned three stages, for preacher, reader, and clerk, and on one occasion the highest of these was occupied by the famous Dr. Wolff, the missionary to Bokhara. He was a most energetic preacher, who thumped and pushed his cushion in a restless way, so that at last he fairly pushed it off its desk. He was quick enough to catch it by the tassel, but he did not catch his Bible, which fell on Dr. Sharpe's head or shoulder, and thence to the floor of the church. It was impossible to keep quite grave under the circumstances. Even the clergy smiled, the clerk sought refuge in fetching the fallen volume, and a thrill of humorous feeling ran through the congregation.
Mr. Cape did not say much to us about religion. He read prayers every morning and evening, and once or twice I heard him preach when he took duty in a village church not far from the famous castle of Conisborough. There is an advantage to an active-minded boy in being with a quiet routine-clergyman like Mr. Cape, who proposes no exciting questions. I came under a very different influence afterwards, which plunged me into the stormy ocean of theological controversies at a time of life when it would have been better for me not to concern myself about such matters. The religion of a boy should be quiet and practical, and his theology should be as simple as possible, and quite uncontroversial in its temper. That was my case at Doncaster; I was a very firm believer, but simply a Christian not belonging to any party in the Church of England, and hardly, indeed, in any but an accidental way to the Church of England herself. Nothing could have been better. A boy is not answerable for the doctrines which are imposed upon him by his elders, and if they have a beneficial effect upon his conduct he need not, whilst he remains a boy, trouble himself to inquire further.
Mr. Cape's health was gradually failing during the time of my stay at Doncaster School, and on the beginning of my fourth half-year after a holiday I found the house managed by his sister, and Mr. Cape himself confined to his room with hopeless disease. Very shortly afterwards the few boys who had come were sent home again, and Mr. Cape died. His sister was a kind old maid, who at once conceived a sort of aunt-like affection for me, and I remember that when I left she gave me a kiss on the forehead. I was grieved to part with her, and showed some real sympathy with her sorrow about her dying brother. I felt some grief on my own account for Mr. Cape, though he had thrashed me many a time with his ever-ready cane. Altogether the three half-years at Doncaster had been well spent, and I had got well on with my work.
Mr. Cape's brother kept a good school at Peterborough, and wanted to have me for a pupil, but as he was especially strong in mathematics, and prepared young men for Cambridge, it was thought that, as I was to go to Oxford, it would be better that I should study under an Oxford man. I never had the slightest natural bent for mathematics, though I did the tasks that were imposed upon me in a perfunctory manner, and with sufficient accuracy just to satisfy my masters.
My education becomes less satisfactory.—My guardian's state of health. —I pursue my studies at Burnley.—Dr. Butler.—He encourages me to write English.—Extract from a prize poem.—Public discussions in Burnley School.—A debate on Queen Elizabeth.
The story of my education becomes less satisfactory for me to write as I proceed with it. At thirteen I was a well-educated boy for my age, at fifteen or sixteen I had fallen behind, and if I have now any claim to be considered a fairly well-educated man, it is due to efforts made since youth was past.
The main cause of this retardation may be told before proceeding further. I have already said what a strong affection I had for my guardian. It was a well-placed affection, as she was one of the noblest and best women who ever lived, and all my gratitude to her, though it filled my heart like a religion, was not half what she deserved or what my maturer judgment now feels towards her memory; but like all strong affections, it carried its own penalty along with it. About the time of Mr. Cape's death, I happened to be staying with some near relations, and one of them made a casual allusion to my guardian's heart-disease. I had never heard of this, and was inexpressibly affected by the news. My informant said that the disease was absolutely incurable, and might at any time cause sudden death. This was unhappily the exact truth, and from that moment I looked upon my dear guardian with other eyes. The doctors could not say how long she might live; there was no especial immediate danger, and with care, by incurring no risks, her life might be prolonged for years. After the first shock produced by this terrible news, I quickly resolved that as Death would probably soon separate us, and might separate us at any moment, I would keep as much as possible near my guardian during her life. She may have been tempted to keep me near her by the same consideration, but she was not a woman to allow her feelings to get the better of her sense of duty, and if I had not persistently done all in my power to remain at Burnley, she would have sent me elsewhere. Some reviewer will say that these are trifling matters, but in writing a biography it is necessary to take note of trifles when they affect the whole future existence of the subject. The simple fact of my remaining at Burnley for some years made me turn out an indifferent classical scholar, but at the time left my mind more at liberty to grow in its own way.
It is time to give some account of Dr. Butler, the headmaster of Burnley Grammar School, who now became my master, and some time afterwards my private tutor. He was a most liberal-minded, kind-hearted clergyman, and a good scholar, but his too great tenderness of heart made him not exactly the kind of master who would have pushed me on most rapidly.
I had a great affection for him, which he could not help perceiving, and this completely disarmed him, so that he never could find in his heart to say anything disagreeable to me, and on the contrary would often caress me, as it were, with little compliments that I did not always deserve. One tendency of his exactly fell in with my own tastes. He did not think that education should be confined to the two dead languages, but incited the boys to learn French and German, and even chemistry. I worked at French regularly; German I learned just enough to read one thin volume, and went no further. [Footnote: I resumed German many years afterwards, and had a Bavarian for my master; but he was unfortunately obliged to go back to his own country, and I stopped again, having many other things to do. All my literary friends who know German say it is of great use to them; but I never felt the natural taste for it that I have for French and Italian.] As for the chemistry, I acquired some elementary knowledge which afterwards had some influence in directing my attention to etching; indeed, I etched my first plate when a boy at Burnley School. It was a portrait of a Jew with a turban, and was frightfully over-bitten.
Mr. Butler (he had not received his D.C.L. degree in those days) was a very handsome man, with most gentlemanly manners, and all the boys respected him. He governed the school far more by his own dignity than by any severity of tone. He always wore his gown in school, and had a desk made for himself which rather resembled a pulpit and was ornamented with two carved crockets, that of the assistant-master (who also wore his gown) being destitute of these ornaments. My progress in classics and mathematics was now not nearly so rapid as it had been under the severer regime at Doncaster, but Mr. Butler thought he discovered in me some sort of literary gift, and encouraged me to write English essays, which he corrected carefully to show me my faults of style. This was really good, as Mr. Butler wrote English well himself, and was a man of cultivated taste. He even encouraged me to write verses,—a practice that I followed almost without intermission between the ages of twelve and twenty-one. I am aware that there are many very wise people in the world who think it quite rational, and laudable even, to write verses in the Latin language to improve their knowledge of that tongue, and who think it is a ridiculous waste of time to do the same thing in English. In my opinion, what holds good for one language holds good equally for another, and I no more regret the time spent on English versification than a Latin scholar would regret his imitations of Virgil. Perhaps the reader may like to see a specimen of my boyish attempts, so I will print an extract from one,—a poem that won a prize at Burnley School in the year 1847.
The subject given us was "Prince Charles Edward after the Battle of Culloden." The poem begins with a wild galloping flight of the Prince from the battlefield of Culloden under the pale moonlight, and then of course we come to the boat voyage with Flora Macdonald. Here my love of boating comes in.
The lovely lamp of Heaven shines brightly o'er The wave cerulean and the yellow shore; As, o'er those waves, a boat like light'ning flies, Slender, and frail in form, and small in size. —Frail though it be, 'tis manned by hearts as brave As e'er have tracked the pathless ocean's wave,— High o'er their heads celestial diamonds grace The jewelled robe of night, and Luna's face Divinely fair! O goddess of the night! Guide thou their bark, do thou their pathway light! —Like sea-bird rising on the ocean's foam, Or like the petrel on its stormy home, Yon gallant bark speeds joyously along; The wild waves roar, and drown the boatmen's song. The sails full-flowing kiss the welcome wind, And leave the screaming sea-gulls far behind! Onward they fly. 'Tis midnight's moonlit hour! When Fairies hold their court and Sprites have power. And now 'tis morn! A fair Isle's distant strand Tempts the tired fugitives again to land. Fiercely repulsed, they dare once more the wave Fired with undying zeal their Prince to save; And when night flings her sable mantle o'er The giant crags where sea-hawks idly soar, They unmolested gain the wished-for land, And soon with rapid steps bestride the strand. To Kingsburgh's noble halls the path they gain And leave afar the ever-murmuring main.
[Footnote: In the printed copies of the poem, the age of the writer was given as thirteen, but I was only in my thirteenth year.]
Very likely this extract will be as much as the reader will have patience for. I think the verses are tolerably good for a boy not yet thirteen years old. The versification is, perhaps, as correct as that of most prize poems, and there is some go in the poetry. It cannot, however, lay claim to much originality. Even in the short extract just given I see the influence of three poets, Virgil, Scott, and Byron. The best that can be expected from the poetry of a boy is that he should give evidence of a liking for the great masters, and in my case the liking was sincere.
In later years Mr. Butler made me translate many of the Odes of Horace into English verse. I did that work with pleasure, but have not preserved one of the translations. I have said that he also encouraged me to write essays. He always gave the subject, and criticized my performance very closely. I wrote so many of these essays that I am afraid to give the number that remains in my memory, for fear of unconscious exaggeration.
Besides these exercises we had public discussions in the school on historical subjects, and of these I remember a great one on the character of Queen Elizabeth. I was chosen for the defence, and the attack on Elizabeth's fame was to be made by the Captain of the school, a lad of remarkable ability named Edward Moore, who was greatly my superior in acquirements.
It happened, I remember, that my guardian was staying at a country house (the Holme), which had formerly belonged to Dr. Whitaker, the celebrated historian of Craven, Whalley, and Richmondshire, and this learned man had left a good library, so I went to stay a few days to read up the subject. Those days were very pleasant to me; the house is very beautiful, with carved oak, tapestry, mullioned windows, old portraits, and stained glass, and just the old-world surroundings that I have always loved, and it nestled quietly in an open space in the bottom of a beautiful valley, between steep hills, with miles of walks in the woods. If ever I have been in danger of coveting my neighbor's house, it has been there.
When we came to the debate, it turned out that my materials were so abundant that I spoke for an hour and a half; Moore spoke about forty minutes, and made a most telling personal hit when attacking Elizabeth for her vanity. "She was vain of her complexion, vain even of her hair" ... (here the orator paused and looked at me, then he added, slowly and significantly), "which was red." The point here was, that my hair was red in those days, though it has darkened since. I need not add that the allusion was understood at once by the whole school, and was immensely successful.
After we had spoken, a youth rose to give his opinion, and as his speech was sufficiently laconic, I will repeat it in extenso. The effect would be quite spoiled if I did not add that he was suffering from a very bad cold, which played sad havoc with his consonants. This was his speech, without the slightest curtailment:—
"Id by opidiod Queed Elizabeth was to be blabed, because she was a proud wobad."
My opponent in the debate on Elizabeth was, I believe, all things taken into consideration, the most gifted youth I ever knew during my boyhood. He kept at the head of the school without effort, as if the post belonged to him, and he was remarkable for bodily activity, being the best swimmer in the school, and, I think, the best cricketer also. He afterwards died prematurely, and his brother died in early manhood from exhausting fatigue during an excursion in the Alps.
The school was in those days attended by lads belonging to all classes of society, except the highest aristocracy of the neighborhood, and it did a good deal towards keeping up a friendly feeling between different classes. That is the great use of a good local school. Many of the boys were the sons of rich men, who could easily have sent them to public schools at a distance, and perhaps in the present generation they would do so.
My elder uncle.—We go to live at Hollins.—Description of the place.— My strong attachment to it.—My first experiment in art-criticism.—The stream at Hollins.—My first catamaran.—Similarity of my life at Hollins to my life in France thirty-six years later.
My elder uncle, the owner of my grandfather's house and estate at Hollins, had been educated to the law, as the income of our branch of the family was insufficient, and he had begun to practise as a solicitor in Burnley, where at that time there was an excellent opening; but he had not the kind of tact which enables lawyers to get on in the world, so his professional income diminished, and he went to live in Halifax, and let the house at Hollins.
His family was large, and for some years he did all in his power to live according to his rank in society, for he had married a lady of good family (they had thirty-six quarterings between them), and, like most men in a similar position, he was unwilling to adopt the only safe plan, which is to take boldly a lower place on the ladder. At Halifax he lived in a large house (Hopwood Hall), which belonged to his father-in-law, and there his wife and he received the Halifax society of those days, at what, I believe, were very pleasant entertainments, for they had the natural gift of hospitality, and lacked nothing but a large fortune to be perfect in the eyes of the world.
My uncle's father-in-law was living in retirement at Scarborough when Hollins happened to fall vacant, so he became the tenant; but as the house was too large for him, my uncle divided it into two, and proposed to let the other half to my guardian and her sister.
They accepted, and the consequence was that we went to live in the country,—a most important change for me, as I soon acquired that passion for a country life which afterwards became a second nature, and which, though it may have been beneficial to my health, and perhaps in some degree to the quality of my work, has been in many ways an all but fatal hindrance to my success.
There are, or were, a great many old halls in Lancashire that belonged to the old families, which have now for the most part disappeared. They were of all sizes, some large enough to accommodate a wealthy modern country gentleman (though not arranged according to modern ideas), and others of quite small dimensions, though generally interesting for their architecture,—much more interesting, indeed, than the houses which have succeeded them. Hollins was between the two extremes, and when in its perfection, must have been rather a good specimen, with its mullioned windows, its numerous gables, and its formal front garden, with a straight avenue beyond. Unfortunately, my grandfather found it necessary to rebuild the front, and in doing so altered the character by introducing modern sash windows in the upper story; and though he retained mullioned windows on the ground floor, they were not strictly of the old type. My uncle also carried out other alterations, external and internal, which ended by depriving the house of much of its old character, and still more recent changes have gone farther in the same direction.
However, such as it was in my youth, the place inspired in me one of those intensely strong local attachments which take root in some natures, and in none, I really believe, more powerfully than in mine. Like all strong passions, these local attachments are extremely inconvenient, and it would be better for a man to be without them; but all reasoning on such subjects is superfluous.
Hollins is situated in the middle of a small but very pretty estate, almost entirely bounded by a rocky and picturesque trout-stream, and so pleasantly varied by hill and dale, wood, meadow, and pasture, that it appears much larger than it really is. In my boyhood it seemed an immensity. My cousins and I used to roam about it and play at Robin Hood and his merry men with great satisfaction to ourselves. We fished and bathed in one of the pools, where our ships delivered real broadsides of lead from their little cannons. These boyish recollections, and an early passion for landscape beauty, made Hollins seem a kind of earthly Paradise to me, and the idea of going to live there, instead of in a row of houses in a manufacturing town, filled me with the most delightful anticipations. My uncle put workmen in the house to prepare it, and on every opportunity I walked there to see what they were doing. Even at that age I knew much more about architecture than my elders, being perfectly familiar with the details of the old halls, and so I was constantly losing temper at what seemed to me the evident stupidity of the masons. There was an old master-mason, who did not like me and my criticisms, and he swore at me freely enough, in an explicit Lancashire manner. One day, simply by the eye, I perceived that he was four inches out in a measurement, and told him of it, when he swore frightfully. He then took his two-foot rule, and finding himself in the wrong, swore more frightfully than ever. This was my first experience in the thankless business of art-criticism, and it was the beginning of a false position, in which I often found myself in youth, from knowing more about some subjects than is usual with boys.
The small estate on which Hollins is situated is divided from Towneley Park by a road and a wall, and on the opposite side its boundary, for most of the distance, is the rocky stream that has been already mentioned. The stream had a great influence on my whole life, by giving me a taste for the beauty of wild streams in Scotland and elsewhere. It is called the Brun, and gives its name to Burnley. The rocks are a sandstone sufficiently warm in color to give a very pleasant contrast to the green foliage, and the forms of them are so broken that in sunshine there are plenty of fine accidental lights and shadows. It was one of my greatest pleasures to follow the course of this stream, with a leaping-pole, up to the moors, where it flowed through a wide and desolate valley or hollow in the hills. As the aspect of a stream is continually changing with the seasons and the quantity of water, it is always new. The only regret I have about my residence near the Brun is that I did not learn at the right time to make the most of it in the way of artistic study; but I did as much, perhaps, as was to be expected from a boy who was receiving a literary and not an artistic education.
The defect of the Brun was the absence of pools big enough for swimming and boating, but it gave a tantalizing desire for these pleasures, and I was as aquatic as my opportunities would allow. In June, 1850, my first catamaran was launched on a fish-pond. I built it myself, with an outlay of one pound for the materials. It was composed of two floats or tubes, consisting of a light framework of deal covered with waterproofed canvas. These were kept apart in the water, but joined above by a light open framework that served as a deck, and on which the passengers sat. The thing would carry five people, and was propelled by short oars. Being extremely light, it was easily drawn on a road, and was provided with small wheels for that purpose. This boyish attempt would not have been mentioned had it not been the first of a long series of practical experiments in the construction of catamarans which have continued down to the date of the present writing, and of which the reader will hear more in the sequel. I promise to endeavor not to weary him with the subject.
It is astonishing how very far-reaching in their effects are the tastes and habits that we acquire in early life! The sort of existence that I am leading here at Pre Charmoy, near Autun, in this year 1886, bears a wonderfully close resemblance to my existence at Hollins in 1850. I am living, as I was then, on a pretty estate with woods, meadows, pastures, and a beautiful stream, with hills visible from it in all directions. There is a fish-pond too, about a mile from the house, and I am even now trying catamaran experiments on this pond, as I did on the other in Lancashire. My occupations are exactly the same, and to complete the resemblance it so happens that just now I am reading Latin. The chief difference is that writing has become lucrative and professional, whereas in those earlier days it was a study only.
It is very difficult for me to believe that thirty-six years separate me from a time so like the present in many ways—like and yet unlike,—for I was then in Lancashire and am now in France; but this is a fact that I only realize when I think about it. The real exile for me would be to live in a large town.
Interest in the Middle Ages.—Indifference to the Greeks and Romans.— Love for Sir Walter Scott's writings.—Interest in heraldry and illuminations.—Passion for hawking.—Old books in the school library at Burnley.—Mr. Edward Alexander of Halifax.—Attempts in literary composition.—Contributions to the "Historic Times."—"Rome in 1849."—"Observations on Heraldry."
The last chapter ended by saying that my occupations in early life were the same as they are at present, but I now remember one or two points of difference. In those days I lived, mentally, a great deal in the Middle Ages. This was owing to the influence of Sir Walter Scott, certainly of all authors the one who has most influenced me, and it was also due in some measure to a romantic interest in the history of my own family, and of the other families in the north of England with which mine had been connected in the past. For the Greeks and Romans I cared very little; they seemed too remote from my own country and race, and the English present, in which my lot was cast, seemed too dull and un-picturesque, too prosaic and commonplace. My imagination being saturated with Scott, I had naturally the same taste as my master. I soon learned all about heraldry, and in my leisure time drew and colored all the coats of arms that had been borne by the Hamertons in their numerous alliances, as well as the arms of other families from which our own was descended. I wrote black-letter characters on parchment and made pedigrees, and became so much of a mediaevalist that there was considerable risk of my stopping short in the amateur practice of such arts as wood-carving, illumination, and painting on glass. The same taste for the Middle Ages led me to imitate our forefathers in more active pursuits; amongst others I had such a passion for hawking that at one time I became incapable of opening my lips about anything else. My guardian said it was "hawk, hawk, hawking from morning till night." Not that I ever possessed a living falcon of any species whatever. My uncle resigned to me a corner of the outbuildings, on the ground-floor of which was a loose-box for my horse, and above it a room that I set apart for the falcons when they should arrive; but in spite of many promises from gamekeepers and naturalists and others, no birds ever came! The hoods and jesses were ready, very prettily adorned with red morocco leather and gold thread; the mews were ready too, with partitions in trellis-work of my own making,—everything was ready except the peregrines!
I knew the coats-of-arms of all the families in the neighborhood, and of course that of the Towneleys, who had a chapel in Burnley Church for the interment of their dead, adorned with many hatchments. Those hatchments had a double interest for me, as heraldry in the first place, and also because the Towneleys had a peregrine falcon for their crest! I envied them that crest, and would willingly have exchanged for it our own "greyhound couchant, sable."
Burnley School possesses a library which is rich in old tomes that few people ever read. In my youth these volumes were kept in a room entirely surrounded with dark oak wainscot, that opened on the shelves where these old books reposed. I read some of them, more or less, but have totally forgotten them all except a black-letter Chaucer. That volume delighted me, and I have read in it many an hour. It is much to be regretted that I had not the same affectionate curiosity about the Greek and Latin classics, but it was something to have a taste for the literature of one's own country.
My uncle's brother-in-law, Mr. Edward Alexander, of Halifax, was a lawyer of literary and antiquarian tastes, and a great lover of books,—not to read only, but to have around him in a well-ordered library. He was extremely kind to me, and now, when I know better how very rare such kindness is in the world, I feel perhaps even more grateful for it than I did then.
Mr. Alexander was the father of the young Alexander who was my school-fellow at Doncaster, and I am hardly exaggerating his affection for me when I say that he had a paternal feeling towards myself. He put his library entirely at my disposal, and gave me a room in his house at Heath Field, near Halifax, whenever I felt inclined to avail myself of it, and had liberty to go there.
His library had cost him several thousand pounds, and was rich in archaeological books. Mrs. Alexander was a charming lady, always exquisitely gentle in her way, and gifted with a quiet firmness which enabled her to match very effectually the somewhat irascible disposition of my friend, who had the irritability as well as the kindness of heart which, I have since observed, are often found together in Frenchmen. With all his goodness he was by no means an indulgent judge; he could not endure the slightest failure or forgetfulness in good manners, and most of his young relations were afraid of him. I only offended him once, and that but slightly. He was walking in his own garden with my uncle, when I had to do something that required the use of both hands, and I was encumbered with a book. I dared not lay the book on the ground, as I should have done if it had been my own, so I asked my uncle to hold it. I could see an expression on Mr. Alexander's face which said clearly enough that I had taken a liberty in requesting this little service from a senior, and it only occurred to me as an afterthought that I might have put my hat on the ground and laid the book on the hat. This little incident shows one side of my dear friend's nature, but it was not at all a bad thing for me to be occasionally under the influence of one who was at the same time kind and severe. In early life he had been a dandy, and a local poet had called him,—
"Elegant Extracts, the Halifax fop."
[Footnote: "Elegant Extracts" was the title of a book of miscellaneous reading which had an extensive sale in those days. The couplet related to a public ball,—
"Elegant Extracts, the Halifax fop, With note-book in hand, took coach for the hop."
Mr. Alexander sometimes alluded in a pleasant way to his early foppishness, and told some amusing anecdotes, one of which I remember. He and a young friend having adopted some startling new fashion before anybody else in Halifax, were going to church very proud of themselves, when they heard a girl laughing at them, on which her companion rebuked her, saying, "You shouldn't laugh; you might be struck so!" She thought the dandies were two misshapen idiots.]
In his maturity all that remained of early dandyism was an intolerance of every kind of slovenliness. He rigorously exacted order in his library; I might use any of his books, but must put them all back in their places. Perhaps my present strong love of order may be due in a great measure to Mr. Alexander's teaching and example. Amongst the friends of my youth there are very few whom I look back to with such grateful affection.
Like most boys who have become authors, I made attempts in literary composition independently of those which were directly encouraged by my master. In this way I wrote a number of articles that were accepted by the "Historic Times," a London illustrated journal of those days which was started under the patronage of the Church of England, but had not a great success. My first articles were on the Universities, of which I knew nothing except by hearsay, and on "Civilization, Ancient and Modern," which was rather a vast subject for a boy whose reading had been so limited. However, the editor of the "Historic Times" had not the least suspicion of my age, so I favored him with a long series of articles on Rome in 1849, forming altogether as complete a history of the city for that year as could have been written by one who had never seen it, who did not know Italian, and who had not access to any other sources of information than those which are accessible to everybody in the newspapers.
Under these circumstances, it may seem absurd to have undertaken such a task, but the reader may be reminded that learned historians undertake to tell us what happened long ago from much less ample material. I got no money for these articles (there were twelve of them), and no publisher would reprint them because there was no personal observation in them which publishers always expect in a narrative of contemporary events. The work had, however, been a good exercise for me in the digesting and setting in literary order of a mass of confused material.