Just as I opened my desk to write enthusiastically of Tait, I remembered having recently deciphered a pencil note about him, in my own handwriting, on the cover of Masson's "Chronological List," which I still keep by me. I turned to the note to see if there was life in it yet. "Walls," it says, "got 2s. for T. and T. at Brown's, 16 Walker Street." I don't recall Walls, but T. and T. was short for "Thomson and Tait's Elements of Natural Philosophy" (elements!), better known in my year as the "Student's First Glimpse of Hades." Evidently Walls sold his copy, but why did I take such note of the address? I fear T. and T. is one of the "Books Which Have Helped Me." This somewhat damps my ardor.
When Tait was at Cambridge, it was flung in the face of the mathematicians that they never stood high in Scriptural knowledge. Tait and another were the two of whom one must be first wrangler, and they agreed privately to wipe this stigma from mathematics. They did it by taking year about the prize which was said to hang out of their reach. It is always interesting to know of professors who have done well in Biblical knowledge. All Scottish students at the English universities are not so successful. I knew a Snell man who was sent back from the Oxford entrance exam., and he always held himself that the Biblical questions had done it.
Turner is said by medicals to be the finest lecturer in the university. He will never be that so long as Tait is in the natural philosophy chair. Never, I think, can there have been a more superb demonstrator. I have his burly figure before me. The small twinkling eyes had a fascinating gleam in them; he could concentrate them until they held the object looked at; when they flashed round the room he seemed to have drawn a rapier. I have seen a man fall back in alarm under Tait's eyes, though there were a dozen benches between them. These eyes could be merry as a boy's, though, as when he turned a tube of water on students who would insist on crowding too near an experiment, for Tait's was the humor of high spirits. I could conceive him at marbles still, and feeling annoyed at defeat. He could not fancy anything much funnier than a man missing his chair. Outside his own subject he is not, one feels, a six-footer. When Mr. R. L. Stevenson's memoir of the late Mr. Fleeming Jenkin was published, Tait said at great length that he did not like it; he would have had the sketch by a scientific man. But though scientists may be the only men nowadays who have anything to say, they are also the only men who can't say it. Scientific men out of their sphere know for a fact that novels are not true. So they draw back from novelists who write biography. Professor Tait and Mr. Stevenson are both men of note, who walk different ways, and when they meet neither likes to take the curbstone. If they were tied together for life in a three-legged race, which would suffer the more?
But if Tait's science weighs him to the earth, he has a genius for sticking to his subject, and I am lost in admiration every time I bring back his lectures. It comes as natural to his old students to say when they meet, "What a lecturer Tait was!" as to Englishmen to joke about the bagpipes. It is not possible to draw a perfect circle, Chrystal used to say, after drawing a very fine one. To the same extent it was not possible for Tait never to fail in his experiments. The atmosphere would be too much for him once in a session, or there were other hostile influences at work. Tait warned us of these before proceeding to experiment, but we merely smiled. We believed in him as though he were a Bradshaw announcing that he would not be held responsible for possible errors.
I had forgotten Lindsay—"the mother may forget her child." As I write, he has slipped back into his chair on the professor's right, and I could photograph him now in his brown suit. Lindsay was the imperturbable man who assisted Tait in his experiments, and his father held the post before him. When there were many of us together, we could applaud Lindsay with burlesque exaggeration, and he treated us good-humoredly, as making something considerable between us. But I once had to face Lindsay alone, in quest of my certificate; and suddenly he towered above me, as a waiter may grow tall when you find that you have not money enough to pay the bill. He treated me most kindly; did not reply, of course, but got the certificate, and handed it to me as a cashier contemptuously shovels you your pile of gold. Long ago I pasted up a crack in my window with the certificate, but it said, I remember, that I had behaved respectably—so far as I had come under the eyes of the professor. Tait was always an enthusiast.
We have been keeping Lindsay waiting. When he had nothing special to do, he sat indifferently in his chair, with the face of a precentor after the sermon has begun. But though it was not very likely that Lindsay would pay much attention to talk about such playthings as the laws of nature, his fingers went out in the direction of the professor when the experiments began. Then he was not the precentor; he was a minister in one of the pews. Lindsay was an inscrutable man, and I shall not dare to say that he even half-wished to see Tait fail. He only looked on, ready for any emergency; but if the experiment would not come off, he was as quick to go to the professor's assistance as a member of Parliament is to begin when he has caught the Speaker's eye. Perhaps Tait would have none of his aid, or pushed the mechanism for the experiment from him—an intimation to Lindsay to carry it quickly to the ante-room. Do you think Lindsay read the instructions so? Let me tell you that your mind fails to seize hold of Lindsay. He marched the machine out of Tait's vicinity as a mother may push her erring boy away from his father's arms, to take him to her heart as soon as the door is closed. Lindsay took the machine to his seat, and laid it before him on the desk, with well-concealed apathy. Tait would flash his eye to the right to see what Lindsay was after, and there was Lindsay sitting with his arms folded. The professor's lecture resumed its way, and then out went Lindsay's hands to the machine. Here he tried a wheel; again he turned a screw; in time he had the machine ready for another trial. No one was looking his way, when suddenly there was a whizz—bang, bang. All eyes were turned upon Lindsay, the professor's among them. A cheer broke out as we realized that Lindsay had done the experiment. Was he flushed with triumph? Not a bit of it; he was again sitting with his arms folded. A Glasgow merchant of modest manners, when cross-examined in a law court, stated that he had a considerable monetary interest in a certain concern. "How much do you mean by a 'considerable monetary interest'?" demanded the contemptuous barrister who was cross-examining him. "Oh," said the witness, humbly, "a maiter o' a million an' a half—or, say, twa million." That Glasgow man in the witness-box is the only person I can think of, when looking about me for a parallel to Lindsay. While the professor eyed him and the students deliriously beat the floor, Lindsay quietly gathered the mechanism together and carried it to the ante-room. His head was not flung back nor his chest forward, like one who walked to music. In his hour of triumph he was still imperturbable. I lie back in my chair to-day, after the lapse of years, and ask myself again, How did Lindsay behave after he entered the ante-room, shutting the door behind him? Did he give way? There is no one to say. When he returned to the class-room he wore his familiar face; a man to ponder over.
There is a legend about the natural philosophy class-room, the period long antecedent to Tait. The professor, annoyed by a habit students had got into of leaving their hats on his desk, announced that the next hat placed there would be cut in pieces by him in presence of the class. The warning had its effect, until one day when the professor was called for a few minutes from the room. An undergraduate, to whom the natural sciences, unrelieved, were a monotonous study, slipped into the ante-room, from which he emerged with the professor's hat. This he placed on the desk, and then stole in a panic to his seat. An awe fell upon the class. The professor returned, but when he saw the hat he stopped. He showed no anger. "Gentlemen," he said, "I told you what would happen if you again disobeyed my orders." Quite blandly he took a pen-knife from his pocket, slit the hat into several pieces, and flung them into the sink. While the hat was under the knife, the students forgot to demonstrate; but as it splashed into the sink, they gave forth a true British cheer. The end.
Close to the door of the natural philosophy room is a window that in my memory will ever be sacred to a janitor. The janitors of the university were of varied interest, from the merry one who treated us as if we were his equals, and the soldier who sometimes looked as if he would like to mow us down, to the Head Man of All, whose name I dare not write, though I can whisper it. The janitor at the window, however, sat there through the long evenings while the Debating Society (of which I was a member) looked after affairs of state in an adjoining room. We were the smallest society in the university and the longest-winded, and I was once nearly expelled for not paying my subscription. Our grand debate was, "Is the policy of the government worthy the confidence of this society?" and we also read about six essays yearly on "The Genius of Robert Burns"; but it was on private business that we came out strongest. The question that agitated us most was whether the meetings should be opened with prayer, and the men who thought they should would not so much as look at the men who thought they should not. When the janitor was told that we had begun our private business, he returned to his window and slept. His great day was when we could not form a quorum, which happened now and then.
Gregory was a member of that society—what has become of Gregory? He was one of those men who professors say have a brilliant future before them, and who have not since been heard of. Morton, another member, was of a different stamp. He led in the debate on "Beauty of the Mind v. Beauty of the Body." His writhing contempt for the beauty that is only skin-deep is not to be forgotten. How noble were his rhapsodies on the beauty of the mind! And when he went to Calderwood's to supper, how quick he was to pick out the prettiest girl, who took ten per cent in moral philosophy, and to sit beside her all the evening! Morton had a way of calling on his friends the night before a degree examination to ask them to put him up to as much as would pull him through.
Tait used to get greatly excited over the rectorial elections, and, if he could have disguised himself, would have liked, I think, to join in the fight round the Brewster statue. He would have bled for the Conservative cause, as his utterances on university reform have shown. The reformers have some cause for thinking that Tait is a greater man in his class room than when he addresses the graduates. He has said that the less his students know of his subject when they join his class, the less, probably, they will have to unlearn. Such views are behind the times that feed their children on geographical biscuits in educational nurseries with astronomical ceilings and historical wall-papers.