« ZurückWeiter »
BY THE AUTHOR OF 'MONA MACLEAN.'
They were days of grinding poverty. .SIS
I don't mean to say that, as a rule, we were short of food, or that our shabby homespun garments were actually out of repair; I don't mean to say that we did not have outbursts of wild extravagance when we indulged in adventures the cost of which would have scared our betters; but many a time it was all we could do to buy stamps singly and bootlaces by the pair; and indeed our life in those halcyon days was a life of grinding sordid poverty.
Sordid, did I say? No, thank God; not sordid; never that! As well apply the word to the inhabitants of Dove Cottage when great-souled Dorothy made the tea in the tiny spotless kitchen. We were not great at all, my brother and I; but what the insight of genius did for the Wordsworths, exuberant youth did for him and me—raised us on the sweep of its pinions, till
"—was una AUe bdmligt, das Gemeine,"
dropt into its true perspective, and then was lost in the mists below.
Were we not heirs of the universe 1 And had life ever before been such a treasure cavern as it was then 1 Wherever we struck the rock, living water poured forth; wherever we dug, lay a vein of gold. Our "poverty was such a kingship "! Having nothing, we perforce took hold of all things. Was not Shakespere ours, and Carlyle, and Browning? Who could rob us of Wagner and Berlioz, Turner and Ruskin, Hegel and
Kant 1 And was not our firmament aglow with lesser lights,— some of which have long since found their way into the text-books as stars, while others—and not always the least brilliant—have gone out with a flicker into the darkness.
And all this about a Highland boy and girl who came from their moors to a college life in Glasgow!
It was odd, was it not, that the girl was allowed to come 1 But there never was such a brother as Ian. Most boys, brought up in a narrow groove, would have been only too glad to shake off all fetters when the momentous day arrived; but he, with all his faults, had a strong theoretical sense of justice, which he was fain to see extended to women,—even to his own sister. He had not many pretty ways such as some boys have; I often had to carry a parcel myself, and even sometimes to walk humbly into a railway carriage at his heels; but in all essentials what a giant of chivalry he was!
I remember one day—before we left our moorland home—we had been tramping over the heather, discussing all things in heaven and earth with the fervent zeal of budding adolescence, and when evening came we sat together in the rose-scented, candle-lit manse parlour, he deep in a stray volume of Fors while I bent toilsomely over the mighty darning basket. He had an irritating habit of chuckling over the good things he read, and at last I said quietly in real desperation,
"Isn't it the irony of fate that you should be eatingthebreadof life while I am darning your socks 1"
I had to repeat the remark before he looked up with laughing eyes.
"It is," he said frankly. "Shall I try my hand, and give you a shot at John the divine?"
I nodded placidly. "No: so long as you see the point, it is all right."
That little incident was the keynote of our relations to each other; and when the time came for him to go to college he grasped with quick insight my unspoken aspirations, and insisted that I should go too.
I shall never forget the day when the momentous question was decided. I hope my eyes expressed something of what I felt, for my shy Scotch lips refused. Seizing my battered hat from its peg in the hall, I strode up the peaty flank of the hill behind the manse at a pace that made a friendly shepherd pause and stare. Arrived at the summit, I looked beyond the carpet of heather and cotton grass at my feet, away to the great billowy stretch of hills on every side. Mother Nature meant something much finer, more reposeful, than I did that afternoon, but of course I refused to give ear, and made her hearken to my voice. Dear patient Mother Nature! What was it to her that another of her children meant to conquer the world? She had heard that story so often before!
The feeling of intense exhilaration comes back to me now as I write. The sunshine and wind seemed to course in my veins. A brace of grouse flew past with a flutter and swirr; a lark, quivering with song, bored its way steadily into the blue; and my whole being vibrated too with the intoxicating dreams and ambitions of youth.
I fought very shy of Ian for
the next few days, dreading lest he should regret his magnanimity now that his point had been gained; but, if this was the case, he concealed his feelings like a man; and a week later we stood on the platform of the great grimy station in Glasgow, a shy shabby boy and girl, with a tiny portmanteau of clothes apiece and a great box of books between them.
The rain was falling heavily of course, and it took all our enthusiasm to withstand the dreariness of that long afternoon spent in a hunt for cheap lodgings.
We were not accustomed to luxury, and I don't know that we even objected much to honest dirt; but the darkness of some of those houses,—the dinginess, the squalor, the smells! To this day, when I feel discontented with my lot, I have only to think of some of those rooms, and, thinking, I thank God and take courage.
A hotel for the night was out of the question, of course. Some arrangement must be made before bedtime. But our unaccustomed feet were sore with tramping the flags, and the lights of the city were peeping out one by one, when we arrived at the last house on our list.
"Third floor," said Ian. "Cheer up! A stout heart to a stey brae!"
Home at last! We knew that before we had exchanged half a dozen words with the shrewd, kindly landlady. The well-scoured rooms were shabby and poorly furnished; but, standing at the window, we seemed to be perched on the brow of a mighty cliff, looking out on the surging sea of human life that stretched for miles and miles, away down below. The noise that had stupefied us all day long rose softened and mellowed now to our spellbound ears; smoke rose from countless hearths, and from many a mighty furnace; and light after light pierced its clean-cut way through the gathering dark. What untold secrets, what wealth of experience, what clue to all the philosophies lay shrouded down below!
"Ours, Ian," I cried exultingly, "our own inheritance! That whole cauldron of human life is seething and simmering there for you and me! We have only to stoop and drink."
"Don't scorch your lips in the process!" he said. "The long spoon of the proverb might chance to come in handy."
He was standing behind me, and now he put his arms with rough affection round my waist, as his manner was, and laid his chin on my shoulder with a chuckle of boyish triumph. Then he lifted me off my feet with a sweep of his muscular arms. "' But I, mein Werther, sit above it all. I am alone with the stars.' Heigho, Minerva, I wish Teufelsdrockh had told us how he got his book-box up the stair!"
Next day was Sunday. In the morning we went to the kirk, and dutifully thought of home; in the evening, with an awful sense of adventure, and almost of wrongdoing, we strayed into the outstretched arms of an episcopal church a few yards from our eyrie. We both considered ourselves fairly emancipated; but the lights, the flowers, the rich notes of the organ pealing up among the arches, the rising of the whole congregation to meet the white-robed procession —all these caught us suddenly in the region of the emotions, as I have seen Ian's little sailing-boat caught in an unexpected squall. Was it possible that this was a church?
Then, with a comfortable sense of getting ballast on board, we bent to read the noble words of the prayer-book, and so were enabled to square our shoulders with something of Presbyterian defiance in preparation for the sermon.
I have long since forgotten the preacher's argument, his doctrine, his creed. There lingers only in my memory the ascetic frame, the earnest eyes, the gradually deepening ilush on the cheek-bones. Before two minutes had passed, we realised with a thrill that the preacher spoke as one who sees the invisible, and then we contentedly dropped anchor, and the wind whistling through the rigging disturbed our souls no more.
We walked home silently in a glow of catholicity,—were we not from henceforth the champions of poor persecuted episcopalianism? —and one of us at least lay awake for hours in eager imaginary argument with one of the dour old elders at home.
Of course we lived to learn that all the spiritual insight of the city was not confined to a single edifice, and many a time our hearts glowed with pride in the church of our fathers as we watched Robertson Smith doggedly produce his nugget of solid research, or heard Marcus Dods relentlessly hammer out his categorical imperative, or listened spellbound to the Principal when his ponderous eloquence went thundering over our heads like a mighty Walkurenritt.
A grand man Ursa major I What a feeling of reserve force he gave one at a huge meeting of riotous students! As a rule he had simply to rise to his feet in order to quell the most boisterous: if he went the length of a dignified "Gentlemen!" one's heart stood still: and when his rare, restrained "Order, gentlemen!" vibrated through the Bute Hall, one felt that if this failed to meet the emergency, there was nothing left to fall back upon, save fire from heaven.
But, if Ursa 'major was grand, what shall we say of Ursa minor? Ay de mi! I wonder whether the clever cultured Oxford folk appreciate his teaching as did we Scotch boys and girls 1 After the first few months, I used to assert with girlish arrogance that I never needed to ask Ian's friends whether they had "taken out" Caird's class. Indeed in the eyrie the cult went dangerously near a breach of the second commandment, for two dear little Berne bears on our barren mantelshelf occupied that proud position in honour of our heroes.
But I am running far ahead of that eventful Sunday. On Monday morning Ian went in for his bursary examination. He has won all sorts of collegiate honours since then; there lies before me as I write the thin shabby postcard on which he inscribed the magic words "Cara, Caro non careo !"1 but not even when he came out first in his Tripos has my heart taken quite so exultant a leap as it did at that first success. It was no dream after all! We were going to conquer the world, Ian and I!
And then the great gates rolled back, and we stood on the threshold of the University.
The conscientious critic will remind me at this point that—being a woman—I must have remained on the threshold. Away with the carping critic! Even as regards the letter of the fact he is wrong. It is true that for most of my classes I had to go to a room in St Andrew's Halls and "eat of the crumbs "; but it was not only in
the spirit that I entered the sacred precincts of (! ilmorehill, for in those days Professor Nichol held his class for women within the gates. So two or three times a week I trudged up the broad gravel walk, watching the autumn leaves as they flashed into fire and fell, and I met perchance a chattering crowd of first year's men in the scarlet gowns that brightened the grey mists of Kelvinside, like poppies on a waste bit of land.
"You must find your women students very quiet and unresponsive after the men," some one said to Professor Nichol that winter.
He smiled. "Unresponsive? There are other forms of response than the thumping of feet and the clapping of hands. My class speaks back to me as the organ does to the musician. I have my hands on the keys."
I think we did respond; and he, in his turn, how he used to single out a scrap of bona-fide appreciation—a flash of poetic insight! The absence of the dominie element in him was almost staggering at first; but one soon learned to appreciate, first the subtle flattery, and then the education, the mental uplifting, involved in his tacit assumption that we shared his lofty and cultured standpoint.
Of course it was incumbent on Ian, as a man, to temper admiration with criticism.
"Nichol misses greatness," he remarked oracularly one day. "He is afraid of not being thought an atheist."
I did not ask his grounds for the remark, knowing that he had spent the evening before with one of the Professor's subs.
"The Lord deliver us from subs!" I remarked sententiously one evening at a University conversazione. "I hope I shall live long enough to deliver my soul in an article on Fact versus Formula. These young men have learnt the formula as pat as possible. Nay, they condense and improve it. But what a gulf between them and the men who discovered the fact! Where do great men grow?"
i Referring to the Cams prize.
Professor Caird strolled past to the refreshment - room with Mrs Craik on his arm, and at the same moment my eye was caught by a protegd of the Professor's, brilliant, bilious, neurotic,—I suppress the less flattering adjectives that would flow unbidden from my pen,—who was leaning idly against the wall. "Must the Mrs Craik of the future be content to be taken in to supper by a man like that?" I murmured.
Ian drew himself up and tapped his broad chest with his finger. "You forget," he said with quiet humour; "there will also be men like this!"
But no indiscreet sub could really destroy his admiration for a great chief; and it was Ian who —regardless of the wolf on our threshold—strode home in triumph with a nice damp copy of 'Theocritus and other Poems' on the day of publication. I can see him still, pacing up and down in the dusk, declaiming,
"Then the solemn glooms and glories
of the dim transition days, Vestals chanting Roman anthems, Covenanters, Hebrew laysBroken fragments of thy meaning, simple Faith's impatient gleaning— Held me in religious rapture, till thy Presence broke the maze:
Donna Vera, Donna Vera!
Stern the call to quit our homesteads, put away all childish things;
Hence the weak world fears thee,clinging to long-cherished leading-strings.
Let me sing thy praises only,—whatsoever summit lonely
Bear thee skyward—saved and sheltered in the shadow of thy wings; Donna Vera, Donna Vera!"
Ah me! was not that battle music for awakening souls 1
Ian was really working for his B.Sc.; but, regardless of what Professor Young used to call "limited liability," he plunged into every subject that interested him, and not unnaturally gave his friends the impression that he was taking out every class in the University. In addition to all this, he spent a great part of the day in "Sir Billy's" laboratory in "conscientious self-sacrificing labour," as the great man said when he presented the prizes at the Graduation Ceremony.
It is difficult to believe that I did not work in that laboratory too, did not lay myself open to Professor Young's stiletto thrusts, and sit at the feet of Professor Caird. Indeed I may almost say of Caird's class-room that, like the kingdom of heaven, it suffered violence, and that the violent took it by force; for I made Ian's life a burden to him until he had got his lecture notes into readable form, and together we pored over the exercises that had passed through the master's annotating hands, like baser metals through the crucible of the alchemist.
In the evenings, of course, we worked insanely, as conscientious students will, until they learn something of Nature's laws. The one book we both had to "get up" was the Areopagitica, and as that — according to Ian—was "easy," we resolved to read it aloud the last thing at night, or rather the last thing before we fell asleep in the morning.
The plan was as follows. No. 1