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When the mind is full of any one subject, that subject seems to recur with extraordinary frequency--it appears to pursue or to meet us at every turn: in every conversation that we hear, in every book we open, in every newspaper we take up, the reigning idea recurs; and then we are surprised, and exclaim at these wonderful coincidences. Probably such happen every day, but pass unobserved when the mind is not intent upon similar ideas, or excited by any strong analogous feeling.
When the learned Sir Thomas Browne was writing his Essay on the Gardens of Cyrus, his imagination was so possessed by the idea of a quincunx, that he is said to have seen a quincunx in every object in nature. In the same manner, after a Jew had once made an impression on my imagination, a Jew appeared wherever I went.
As I was on my road to Cambridge, travelling in a stagecoach, whilst we were slowly going up a steep hill, I looked out of the window, and saw a man sitting under a hawthorn-bush, reading very intently. There was a pedlar's box beside him; I thought I knew the box. I called out as we were passing, and asked the man, "What's the mile-stone?" He looked up. It was poor Jacob. The beams of the morning sun dazzled him; but he recognized me immediately, as I saw by the look of joy which instantly spread over his countenance. I jumped out of the carriage, saying that I would walk up the hill, and Jacob, putting his book in his pocket, took up his well-known box, and walked along with me. I began, not by asking any question about his father, though curiosity was not quite dead within me, but by observing that he was grown very studious since we parted; and I asked what book he had been reading so intently. He showed it to me; but I could make nothing of it, for it was German. He told me that it was the Life of the celebrated Mendelssohn, the Jew. I had never heard of this celebrated man. He said that if I had any curiosity about it, he could lend me a translation which he had in his pack; and with all the alacrity of good-will, he set down the box to look for the book.
"No, don't trouble yourself--don't open it," said I, putting my hand on the box. Instantly a smile, and a sigh, and a look of ineffable kindness and gratitude from Jacob, showed me that all the past rushed upon his heart.
"Not trouble myself! Oh, Master Harrington," said he, "poor Jacob is not so ungrateful as that would come to."
"You're only too grateful," said I; "but walk on--keep up with me, and tell me how your affairs are going on in the world, for I am much more interested about them than about the life of the celebrated Mendelssohn."
Is that possible! said his looks of genuine surprised simplicity. He thanked me, and told me that he was much better in the world than formerly; that a good friend of his, a London jeweller of his own tribe, who had employed him as a pedlar, and had been satisfied with his conduct, had assisted him through his difficulties. This was the last time he should go his rounds in England as a pedlar; he said he was going into another and a much better way of business. His friend, the London jeweller, had recommended him to his brother, a rich Israelite, who had a valuable store in Gibraltar, and who wanted a young man to assist him, on whom he could entirely depend. Jacob was going out to Gibraltar in the course of the next week. "And now, Mr. Harrington," said he, changing his tone and speaking with effort, as if he were conquering some inward feeling, "now it is all over, Mr. Harrington, and that I am leaving England, and perhaps may never see you again; I wish before I take leave of you, to tell you, sir, who my father was--was, for he is no more. I did not make a mystery of his name merely to excite curiosity, as some of the young gentlemen thought, nor because I was ashamed of my low birth. My father was Simon the old clothes-man. I knew you would start, Mr. Harrington, at hearing his name. I knew all that you suffered in your childhood about him, and I once heard you say to Lord Mowbray who was taunting you with something about old Simon, that you would not have that known, upon any account, to your school-fellows, for that they would plague you for ever. From that moment I was determined that I would never be the cause of recalling or publishing what would be so disagreeable to you. This was the reason why I persisted in refusing to tell my father's name, when Lord Mowbray pressed me so to declare it before all your school-fellows. And now, I hope," concluded he, "that Mr. Harrington will not hate poor Jacob, though he is the son of--"
He paused. I assured him of my regard: I assured him that I had long since got rid of all the foolish prejudices of my childhood. I thanked him for the kindness and generosity he had shown in bearing Mowbray's persecution for my sake, and in giving up his own situation, rather than say or do what might have exposed me to ridicule.
Thanking me again for taking, as he said, such a kind interest in the concerns of a poor Jew like him, he added, with tears in his eyes, that he wished he might some time see me again: that he should to the last day of his life remember me, and should pray for my health and happiness, and that he was sorry he had no way of showing me his gratitude. Again he recurred to his box, and would open it to show me the translation of Mendelssohn's Life; or, if that did not interest me, he begged of me to take my choice from among a few books he had with him; perhaps one of them might amuse me on my journey, for he knew I was a reading young gentleman.
I could not refuse him. As he opened the packet of books, I saw one directed to Mr. Israel Lyons, Cambridge. I told Jacob that I was going to Cambridge. He said he should be there in a few days, for that he took Cambridge in his road; and he rejoiced that he should see me again. I gave him a direction to my college, and for his gratification, in truth, more than for my own, I borrowed the magazine containing the life of Mendelssohn, which he was so anxious to lend me. We had now reached the coach at the top of the hill; I got in, and saw Jacob trudging after me for some time; but, at the first turn of the road, I lost sight of him, and then, as my two companions in the coach were not very entertaining, one of them, a great fat man, being fast asleep and snoring, the other, a pale spare woman, being very sick and very cross, I betook myself to my magazine. I soon perceived why the life of Mendelssohn had so deeply interested poor Jacob. Mendelssohn was a Jew, born like himself in abject poverty, but, by perseverance, he made his way through incredible difficulties to the highest literary reputation among the most eminent men of his country and of his age; and obtained the name of the Jewish Socrates. In consequence of his early, intense, and misapplied application in his first Jewish school, he was seized at ten years old with some dreadful nervous disease; this interested me, and I went on with his history. Of his life I should probably have remembered nothing, except what related to the nervous disorder; but it so happened, that, soon after I had read this life, I had occasion to speak of it, and it was of considerable advantage in introducing me to good company at Cambridge. A few days after I arrived there, Jacob called on me: I returned his book, assuring him that it had interested me very much. "Then, sir," said he, "since you are so fond of learning and learned men, and so kind to the Jews, there is a countryman of mine now at Cambridge, whom it will be well worth your while to be acquainted with; and who, if I may be bold enough to say so, has been prepossessed in your favour, by hearing of your humanity to poor Jacob."
Touched as I was by his eagerness to be of use to me, I could not help smiling at Jacob's simplicity and enthusiasm, when he proceeded to explain, that this person with whom he was so anxious to make me acquainted was a learned rabbi, who at this time taught Hebrew to several of the gownsmen of Cambridge. He was the son of a Polish Jew, who had written a Hebrew grammar, and was himself author of a treatise on fluxions (since presented to, and accepted by the university), and moreover the author of a celebrated work on botany. At the moment Jacob was speaking, certainly my fancy was bent on a phaeton and horses, rather than on Hebrew or fluxions, and the contrast was striking, between what he conceived my first objects at Cambridge would be, and what they really were. However, I thanked him for his good opinion, and promised to make myself acquainted with his learned countryman. To make the matter secure, as Jacob was to leave Cambridge the next day, and as the rabbi was at the house of one of his scholars in the country, and was not to return to Cambridge till the ensuing week, Jacob left with me a letter for him, and the very parcel which I had seen directed to Mr. Israel Lyons: these I engaged to deliver with my own hands. Jacob departed satisfied--happy in the hope that he had done me a service; and so in fact it proved. Every father, and every son, who has been at the university, knows how much depends upon the college companions with whom a young man first associates. There are usually two sets: if he should join the dissipated set, it is all over with him, he learns nothing; but if he should get into the set with whom science and literature are in fashion, he acquires knowledge, and a taste for knowledge; with all the ardour inspired by sympathy and emulation, with all the facility afforded by public libraries and public lectures--the collected and combined information of the living and the dead--he pursues his studies. He then fully enjoys the peculiar benefits of a university education, the union of many minds intent upon the same object, working, with all the advantages of the scientific division of labour, in a literary manufactory.
When I went to deliver my packet to Mr. Lyons, I was surprised by seeing in him a man as different as possible from my preconceived notion of a Jewish rabbi; I never should have guessed him to be either a rabbi, or a Jew. I expected to have seen a man nearly as old as Methuselah, with a reverend beard, dirty and shabby, and with a blue pocket handkerchief. Instead of which I saw a gay looking man, of middle age, with quick sparkling black eyes, and altogether a person of modern appearance, both in dress and address. I thought I must have made a mistake, and presented my packet with some hesitation, reading aloud the direction to Mr. Israel Lyons--"I am the man, sir," said he; "our honest friend Jacob has described you so well, Mr. Harrington--Mr. William Harrington Harrington (you perceive that I am well informed)--that I feel as if I had had the pleasure of being acquainted with you for some time. I am very much obliged by this visit; I should have done myself the honour to wait upon you, but I returned only yesterday from the country, and my necessary engagements do not leave as much time for my pleasures as I could wish."
I perceived by the tone of his address, that, though he was a Hebrew teacher, he was proud of showing himself to be a man of the world. I found him in the midst of his Hebrew scholars, and moreover with some of the best mathematicians, and some of the first literary men in Cambridge. I was awe-struck, and should have been utterly at a loss, had it not been for a print of Mendelssohn over the chimney-piece, which recalled to my mind the life of this great man; by the help of that I had happily some ideas in common with the learned Jew, and we; entered immediately into conversation, much to our mutual relief and delight. Dr. Johnson, in one of his letters, speaking of a first visit from a young gentleman who had been recommended to his acquaintance, says, that "the initiatory conversation of two strangers is seldom pleasing or instructive;" but I am sure that I was both pleased and instructed during this initiatory conversation, and Mr. Lyons did not appear to be oppressed or encumbered by my visit. I found by his conversation, that though he was the son of a great Hebrew grammarian, and himself a great Hebrew scholar, and though he had written a treatise on fluxions, and a work on botany, yet he was not a mere mathematician, a mere grammarian, or a mere botanist, nor yet a dull pedant. In despite of the assertion, that
"----Hebrew roots are always found
To flourish best on barren ground,"
this Hebrew scholar was a man of a remarkably fertile genius. This visit determined my course, and decided me as to the society which I kept during the three happy and profitable years I afterwards spent at Cambridge.
Mr. Israel Lyons is now no more. I hope it is no disrespect to his memory to say that he had his foibles. It was no secret among our contemporaries at Cambridge that he was like too many other men of genius, a little deficient in economy--shall I say it? a little extravagant. The difficulties into which he brought himself by his improvidence were, however, always to him matters of jest and raillery; and often, indeed, proved subjects of triumph, for he was sure to extricate himself, by some of his many talents, or by some of his many friends.
I should be very sorry, however, to support the dangerous doctrine, that men of genius are privileged to have certain faults. I record with quite a different intention these facts, to mark the effect of circumstances in changing my own prepossessions.
The faults of Israel Lyons were not of that species which I expected to find in a Jew. Perhaps he was aware that the Hebrew nation is in general supposed to be too careful, and he might, therefore, be a little vain of his own carelessness about money matters. Be this as it may, I confess that, at the time, I rather liked him the better for it. His disregard, on all occasions, of pecuniary interest, gave me a conviction of his liberal spirit. I was never fond of money, or remarkably careful of it myself; but I always kept out of debt; and my father gave me such a liberal allowance, that I had it in my power to assist a friend. Mr. Lyons' lively disposition and manners took off all that awe which I might have felt for his learning and genius. I may truly say, that these three years, which I spent at Cambridge, fixed my character, and the whole tone and colour of my future life. I do not pretend to say that I had not, during my time at the university, and afterwards in London, my follies and imprudences; but my soul did not, like many other souls of my acquaintance, "embody and embrute." When the time for my quitting Cambridge arrived, I went to take leave of my learned friend Mr. Israel Lyons, and to offer him my grateful acknowledgments. In the course of the conversation I mentioned the childish terror and aversion with which I had been early taught to look upon a Jew. I rejoiced that, even while a schoolboy, I had conquered this foolish prejudice; and that at the university, during those years which often decide our subsequent opinions in life, it had been my good fortune to become acquainted with one, whose superior abilities and kindness of disposition, had formed in my mind associations of quite an opposite nature. Pleased with this just tribute to his merit, and with the disposition I showed to think candidly of persons of his persuasion, Mr. Lyons wished to confirm me in these sentiments, and for this purpose gave me a letter of introduction to a friend, with whom he was in constant correspondence, Mr. Montenero, a Jewish gentleman born in Spain, who had early in life quitted that country, in consequence of his horror of tyranny and persecution. He had been fortunate enough to carry his wealth, which was very considerable, safely out of Spain, and had settled in America, where he had enjoyed perfect toleration and freedom of religious opinion; and as, according to Mr. Lyons' description of him, this Spanish Jew must, I thought, be a most accomplished and amiable person, I eagerly accepted the offered letter of introduction, and resolved that it should be my first business and pleasure, on arriving in London, to find and make myself acquainted with Mr. Montenero.
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