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Ch. 2 - Some College Memories

I AM asked to write something (it is not specifically stated what)
to the profit and glory of my ALMA MATER; and the fact is I seem to
be in very nearly the same case with those who addressed me, for
while I am willing enough to write something, I know not what to
write. Only one point I see, that if I am to write at all, it
should be of the University itself and my own days under its
shadow; of the things that are still the same and of those that are
already changed: such talk, in short, as would pass naturally
between a student of to-day and one of yesterday, supposing them to
meet and grow confidential.

The generations pass away swiftly enough on the high seas of life;
more swiftly still in the little bubbling back-water of the
quadrangle; so that we see there, on a scale startlingly
diminished, the flight of time and the succession of men. I looked
for my name the other day in last year's case-book of the
Speculative. Naturally enough I looked for it near the end; it was
not there, nor yet in the next column, so that I began to think it
had been dropped at press; and when at last I found it, mounted on
the shoulders of so many successors, and looking in that posture
like the name of a man of ninety, I was conscious of some of the
dignity of years. This kind of dignity of temporal precession is
likely, with prolonged life, to become more familiar, possibly less
welcome; but I felt it strongly then, it is strongly on me now, and
I am the more emboldened to speak with my successors in the tone of
a parent and a praiser of things past.

For, indeed, that which they attend is but a fallen University; it
has doubtless some remains of good, for human institutions decline
by gradual stages; but decline, in spite of all seeming
embellishments, it does; and what is perhaps more singular, began
to do so when I ceased to be a student. Thus, by an odd chance, I
had the very last of the very best of ALMA MATER; the same thing, I
hear (which makes it the more strange), had previously happened to
my father; and if they are good and do not die, something not at
all unsimilar will be found in time to have befallen my successors
of to-day. Of the specific points of change, of advantage in the
past, of shortcoming in the present, I must own that, on a near
examination, they look wondrous cloudy. The chief and far the most
lamentable change is the absence of a certain lean, ugly, idle,
unpopular student, whose presence was for me the gist and heart of
the whole matter; whose changing humours, fine occasional purposes
of good, flinching acceptance of evil, shiverings on wet, east-
windy, morning journeys up to class, infinite yawnings during
lecture and unquenchable gusto in the delights of truantry, made up
the sunshine and shadow of my college life. You cannot fancy what
you missed in missing him; his virtues, I make sure, are
inconceivable to his successors, just as they were apparently
concealed from his contemporaries, for I was practically alone in
the pleasure I had in his society. Poor soul, I remember how much
he was cast down at times, and how life (which had not yet begun)
seemed to be already at an end, and hope quite dead, and misfortune
and dishonour, like physical presences, dogging him as he went.
And it may be worth while to add that these clouds rolled away in
their season, and that all clouds roll away at last, and the
troubles of youth in particular are things but of a moment. So
this student, whom I have in my eye, took his full share of these
concerns, and that very largely by his own fault; but he still
clung to his fortune, and in the midst of much misconduct, kept on
in his own way learning how to work; and at last, to his wonder,
escaped out of the stage of studentship not openly shamed; leaving
behind him the University of Edinburgh shorn of a good deal of its
interest for myself.

But while he is (in more senses than one) the first person, he is
by no means the only one whom I regret, or whom the students of to-
day, if they knew what they had lost, would regret also. They have
still Tait, to be sure - long may they have him! - and they have
still Tait's class-room, cupola and all; but think of what a
different place it was when this youth of mine (at least on roll
days) would be present on the benches, and, at the near end of the
platform, Lindsay senior (3) was airing his robust old age. It is
possible my successors may have never even heard of Old Lindsay;
but when he went, a link snapped with the last century. He had
something of a rustic air, sturdy and fresh and plain; he spoke
with a ripe east-country accent, which I used to admire; his
reminiscences were all of journeys on foot or highways busy with
post-chaises - a Scotland before steam; he had seen the coal fire
on the Isle of May, and he regaled me with tales of my own
grandfather. Thus he was for me a mirror of things perished; it
was only in his memory that I could see the huge shock of flames of
the May beacon stream to leeward, and the watchers, as they fed the
fire, lay hold unscorched of the windward bars of the furnace; it
was only thus that I could see my grandfather driving swiftly in a
gig along the seaboard road from Pittenweem to Crail, and for all
his business hurry, drawing up to speak good-humouredly with those
he met. And now, in his turn, Lindsay is gone also; inhabits only
the memories of other men, till these shall follow him; and figures
in my reminiscences as my grandfather figured in his.

To-day, again, they have Professor Butcher, and I hear he has a
prodigious deal of Greek; and they have Professor Chrystal, who is
a man filled with the mathematics. And doubtless these are set-
offs. But they cannot change the fact that Professor Blackie has
retired, and that Professor Kelland is dead. No man's education is
complete or truly liberal who knew not Kelland. There were
unutterable lessons in the mere sight of that frail old clerical
gentleman, lively as a boy, kind like a fairy godfather, and
keeping perfect order in his class by the spell of that very
kindness. I have heard him drift into reminiscences in class time,
though not for long, and give us glimpses of old-world life in out-
of-the-way English parishes when he was young; thus playing the
same part as Lindsay - the part of the surviving memory, signalling
out of the dark backward and abysm of time the images of perished
things. But it was a part that scarce became him; he somehow
lacked the means: for all his silver hair and worn face, he was not
truly old; and he had too much of the unrest and petulant fire of
youth, and too much invincible innocence of mind, to play the
veteran well. The time to measure him best, to taste (in the old
phrase) his gracious nature, was when he received his class at
home. What a pretty simplicity would he then show, trying to amuse
us like children with toys; and what an engaging nervousness of
manner, as fearing that his efforts might not succeed! Truly he
made us all feel like children, and like children embarrassed, but
at the same time filled with sympathy for the conscientious,
troubled elder-boy who was working so hard to entertain us. A
theorist has held the view that there is no feature in man so tell-
tale as his spectacles; that the mouth may be compressed and the
brow smoothed artificially, but the sheen of the barnacles is
diagnostic. And truly it must have been thus with Kelland; for as
I still fancy I behold him frisking actively about the platform,
pointer in hand, that which I seem to see most clearly is the way
his glasses glittered with affection. I never knew but one other
man who had (if you will permit the phrase) so kind a spectacle;
and that was Dr. Appleton. But the light in his case was tempered
and passive; in Kelland's it danced, and changed, and flashed
vivaciously among the students, like a perpetual challenge to
goodwill.

I cannot say so much about Professor Blackie, for a good reason.
Kelland's class I attended, once even gained there a certificate of
merit, the only distinction of my University career. But although
I am the holder of a certificate of attendance in the professor's
own hand, I cannot remember to have been present in the Greek class
above a dozen times. Professor Blackie was even kind enough to
remark (more than once) while in the very act of writing the
document above referred to, that he did not know my face. Indeed,
I denied myself many opportunities; acting upon an extensive and
highly rational system of truantry, which cost me a great deal of
trouble to put in exercise - perhaps as much as would have taught
me Greek - and sent me forth into the world and the profession of
letters with the merest shadow of an education. But they say it is
always a good thing to have taken pains, and that success is its
own reward, whatever be its nature; so that, perhaps, even upon
this I should plume myself, that no one ever played the truant with
more deliberate care, and none ever had more certificates for less
education. One consequence, however, of my system is that I have
much less to say of Professor Blackie than I had of Professor
Kelland; and as he is still alive, and will long, I hope, continue
to be so, it will not surprise you very much that I have no
intention of saying it.

Meanwhile, how many others have gone - Jenkin, Hodgson, and I know
not who besides; and of that tide of students that used to throng
the arch and blacken the quadrangle, how many are scattered into
the remotest parts of the earth, and how many more have lain down
beside their fathers in their "resting-graves"! And again, how
many of these last have not found their way there, all too early,
through the stress of education! That was one thing, at least,
from which my truantry protected me. I am sorry indeed that I have
no Greek, but I should be sorrier still if I were dead; nor do I
know the name of that branch of knowledge which is worth acquiring
at the price of a brain fever. There are many sordid tragedies in
the life of the student, above all if he be poor, or drunken, or
both; but nothing more moves a wise man's pity than the case of the
lad who is in too much hurry to be learned. And so, for the sake
of a moral at the end, I will call up one more figure, and have
done. A student, ambitious of success by that hot, intemperate
manner of study that now grows so common, read night and day for an
examination. As he went on, the task became more easy to him,
sleep was more easily banished, his brain grew hot and clear and
more capacious, the necessary knowledge daily fuller and more
orderly. It came to the eve of the trial and he watched all night
in his high chamber, reviewing what he knew, and already secure of
success. His window looked eastward, and being (as I said) high
up, and the house itself standing on a hill, commanded a view over
dwindling suburbs to a country horizon. At last my student drew up
his blind, and still in quite a jocund humour, looked abroad. Day
was breaking, the cast was tinging with strange fires, the clouds
breaking up for the coming of the sun; and at the sight, nameless
terror seized upon his mind. He was sane, his senses were
undisturbed; he saw clearly, and knew what he was seeing, and knew
that it was normal; but he could neither bear to see it nor find
the strength to look away, and fled in panic from his chamber into
the enclosure of the street. In the cool air and silence, and
among the sleeping houses, his strength was renewed. Nothing
troubled him but the memory of what had passed, and an abject fear
of its return.

"Gallo canente, spes redit,
Aegris salus refunditur,
Lapsis fides revertitur,"

as they sang of old in Portugal in the Morning Office. But to him
that good hour of cockcrow, and the changes of the dawn, had
brought panic, and lasting doubt, and such terror as he still shook
to think of. He dared not return to his lodging; he could not eat;
he sat down, he rose up, he wandered; the city woke about him with
its cheerful bustle, the sun climbed overhead; and still he grew
but the more absorbed in the distress of his recollection and the
fear of his past fear. At the appointed hour, he came to the door
of the place of examination; but when he was asked, he had
forgotten his name. Seeing him so disordered, they had not the
heart to send him away, but gave him a paper and admitted him,
still nameless, to the Hall. Vain kindness, vain efforts. He
could only sit in a still growing horror, writing nothing, ignorant
of all, his mind filled with a single memory of the breaking day
and his own intolerable fear. And that same night he was tossing
in a brain fever.

People are afraid of war and wounds and dentists, all with
excellent reason; but these are not to be compared with such
chaotic terrors of the mind as fell on this young man, and made him
cover his eyes from the innocent morning. We all have by our
bedsides the box of the Merchant Abudah, thank God, securely enough
shut; but when a young man sacrifices sleep to labour, let him have
a care, for he is playing with the lock.

Robert Louis Stevenson