Lately I was told that Blackie—one does not say Mr. Cromwell—is no longer professor of Greek in Edinburgh University. What nonsense some people talk! As if Blackie were not part of the building! In his class one day he spoke touchingly of the time when he would have to join Socrates in the Elysian fields. A student cheered—no one knows why. "It won't be for some time yet," added John Stuart.
Blackie takes his ease at home, in a dressing-gown and straw hat. This shows that his plaid really does come off. "My occupation nowadays," he said to me recently, "is business, blethers, bothers, beggars, and backgammon." He has also started a profession of going to public meetings, and hurrying home to write letters to the newspapers about them. When the editor shakes the manuscript, a sonnet falls out. I think I remember the professor's saying that he had never made five shillings by his verses. To my mind they are worth more than that.
Though he has explained them frequently, there is still confusion about Blackie's politics. At Manchester they thought he was a Tory, and invited him to address them, on that understanding. "I fancy I astonished them," the professor said to me. This is quite possible. Then he was mistaken for a Liberal. The fact is that Blackie is a philosopher, who follows the golden mean. He sees this himself. A philosopher who follows the golden mean is thus a man who runs zig-zag between two extremes. You will observe that he who does this is some time before he arrives anywhere.
The professor has said that he has the strongest lungs in Scotland. Of the many compliments that might well be paid him, not the least worthy would be this: that he is as healthy mentally as physically. Mrs. Norton begins a novel with the remark that one of the finest sights conceivable is a well-preserved gentleman of middle age. It will be some time yet before Blackie reaches middle age, but there must be something wrong with you if you can look at him without feeling refreshed. Did you ever watch him marching along Princes Street on a warm day, when every other person was broiling in the sun? His head is well thrown back, the staff, grasped in the middle, jerks back and forward like a weaver's shuttle, and the plaid flies in the breeze. Other people's clothes are hanging limp. Blackie carries his breeze with him.
A year or two ago Mr. Gladstone, when at Dalmeny, pointed out that he had the advantage over Blackie in being of both Highland and Lowland extraction. The professor, however, is as Scotch as the thistle or his native hills, and Mr. Gladstone, quite justifiably, considers him the most outstanding of living Scotsmen. Blackie is not quite sure himself. Not long ago I heard him read a preface to a life of Mr. Gladstone that was being printed at Smyrna in modern Greek. He told his readers to remember that Mr. Gladstone was a great scholar and an upright statesman. They would find it easy to do this if they first remembered that he was Scottish.
The World included Blackie in its list of "Celebrities at Home." It said that the door was opened by a red-headed lassie. That was probably meant for local color, and it amused every one who knew Mrs. Blackie. The professor is one of the most genial of men, and will show you to your room himself, talking six languages. This tends to make the conversation one-sided, but he does not mind that. He still writes a good deal, spending several hours in his library daily, and his talk is as brilliant as ever. His writing nowadays is less sustained than it was, and he prefers flitting from one subject to another, to evolving a great work. When he dips his pen into an ink-pot, it at once writes a sonnet—so strong is the force of habit. Recently he wrote a page about Carlyle in a little book issued by the Edinburgh students' bazaar committee. In this he reproved Carlyle for having "bias." Blackie wonders why people should have bias.
Some readers of this may in their student days have been invited to the Greek professor's house to breakfast, without knowing why they were selected from among so many. It was not, as they are probably aware, because of their classical attainments, for they were too thoughtful to be in the prize-list; nor was it because of the charm of their manners or the fascination of their conversation. When the professor noticed any physical peculiarity about a student, such as a lisp, or a glass eye, or one leg longer than the other, or a broken nose, he was at once struck by it, and asked him to breakfast. They were very lively breakfasts, the eggs being served in tureens; but sometimes it was a collection of the maimed and crooked, and one person at the table—not the host himself—used to tremble lest, making mirrors of each other, the guests should see why they were invited.
Sometimes, instead of asking a student to breakfast, Blackie would instruct another student to request his company to tea. Then the two students were told to talk about paulo-post futures in the cool of the evening, and to read their Greek Testament and to go to the pantomime. The professor never tired of giving his students advice about the preservation of their bodily health. He strongly recommended a cold bath at six o'clock every morning. In winter, he remarked genially, you can break the ice with a hammer. According to himself, only one enthusiast seems to have followed his advice, and he died.
In Blackie's class-room there used to be a demonstration every time he mentioned the name of a distinguished politician. Whether the demonstration took the professor by surprise or whether he waited for it, will never perhaps be known. But Blackie at least put out the gleam in his eye, and looked as if he were angry. "I will say Beaconsfield," he would exclaim (cheers and hisses). "Beaconsfield" (uproar). Then he would stride forward, and, seizing the railing, announce his intention of saying Beaconsfield until every goose in the room was tired of cackling. ("Question.") "Beaconsfield." ("No, no.") "Beaconsfield." ("Hear, hear," and shouts of "Gladstone.") "Beaconsfield." ("Three cheers for Dizzy.") Eventually the class would be dismissed as—(1) idiots, (2) a bear garden, (3) a flock of sheep, (4) a pack of numskulls, (5) hissing serpents. The professor would retire, apparently fuming, to his anteroom, and five minutes afterward he would be playing himself down the North Bridge on imaginary bagpipes. This sort of thing added a sauce to all academic sessions. There was a notebook also, which appeared year after year. It contained the professor's jokes of a former session, carefully classified by an admiring student. It was handed down from one year's men to the next; and thus, if Blackie began to make a joke about haggis, the possessor of the book had only swiftly to turn to the H's, find what the joke was, and send it along the class quicker than the professor could speak it.
In the old days the Greek professor recited a poem in honor of the end of the session. He composed it himself, and, as known to me, it took the form of a graduate's farewell to his alma mater. Sometimes he would knock a map down as if overcome with emotion, and at critical moments a student in the back benches would accompany him on a penny trumpet. Now, I believe, the Hellenic Club takes the place of the class-room. All the eminent persons in Edinburgh attend its meetings, and Blackie, the Athenian, is in the chair. The policeman in Douglas Crescent looks skeered when you ask him what takes place on these occasions. It is generally understood that toward the end of the meeting they agree to read Greek next time.