James Kendall Hosmer.

The Last Leaf Observations, during Seventy-Five Years, of Men and Events in America and Europe online

. (page 17 of 20)
Online LibraryJames Kendall HosmerThe Last Leaf Observations, during Seventy-Five Years, of Men and Events in America and Europe → online text (page 17 of 20)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


this acceptance Asa Gray helped powerfully, a champion always bold,
humane, broad-minded. We used to laugh about the prompter he seemed to
have at the top of the light-well in the sky-light in Holden Chapel.
In a deeper sense than we knew the good man received his prompting
from the clear upper sky.

A naturalist who sixty years ago had, and perhaps still has, a much
wider fame than Asa Gray was Louis Agassiz. He had come a few
years before from Europe, a man in his prime, of great fame. He was
strikingly handsome, with a dome-like head under flowing black locks,
large dark, mobile eyes set in features strong and comely, and with
a well-proportioned stalwart frame. At the moment his prestige was
greater, perhaps, than that of any other Harvard professor. His
knowledge seemed almost boundless. His glacial theory had put him
among the geological chiefs, and as to animated nature he had ordered
and systematised, from the lowest plant-forms up to the crown of
creation, the human being. Abroad we knew he was held to be an adept
in the most difficult fields and now in his new environment he was
pushing his investigations with passionate zeal. But the boys found in
him points on which a laugh could be hung. As he strode homeward from
his walks in the outer fields or marshes, we eyed him gingerly, for
who could tell what he might have in his pockets? Turtles, tadpoles,
snakes, any old monster might be there, and queer stories prevailed
of the menagerie which, hung up, and forgotten in the professor's
dressing-room, crept out and sought asylum in the beds, shoes, and
hats of the household. Before the resulting consternation, masculine
and feminine, he was always apologetic. He was on the friendliest
terms with things ill-reputed, even abhorrent, and could not
understand the qualms of the delicate. He was said to have held up
once, in all innocence, before a class of school-girls a wriggling
snake. The shrieks and confusion brought him to a sense of what he had
done. He apologised elaborately, the foreign peculiarity he never lost
running through his confusion. "Poor girls, I vill not do it again.
Next time I vill bring in a nice, clean leetle feesh." Agassiz took no
pleasure in shocking his class; on the contrary he was most anxious to
engage and hold them. So too, if his audience was made up from people
of the simplest. In fact, for each he exerted his powers as generously
as when addressing a company of savants. He always kindled as he
spoke, and with a marvellous magnetism communicated his glow to those
who listened. I have seen him stand before his class holding in his
hand the claw of a crustacean. In his earnestness it seemed to be for
him the centre of the creation, and he made us all share his belief.
Indeed, he convinced us. Running back from it in an almost infinite
series was the many-ordered life adhering at last and scarcely
distinguishable from the inorganic matter to which it clung. Forward
from it again ran the series not less long and complicated which
fulfilled itself at last in the brain and soul of man. What he held in
his hand was a central link. His colour came and went, his eye danced
and his tones grew deep and tremulous, as he dwelt on the illimitable
chain of being. With a few strokes on the blackboard, he presented
graphically the most intricate variations. He felt the sublimity of
what he was contemplating, and we glowed with him from the contagion
of his fervour. I have never heard his equal as an expounder of the
deep things of nature. He gloried in the exercise of his power, though
hampered by poverty. "I have no time to make money," he cried. He
sought no title but that of teacher. To do anything else was only to
misuse his gift. In his desk he was an inspirer, but hardly more so
than in private talk. I recall walks we took with him to study natural
objects and especially the striated rocks, which, as he had detected,
bore plain evidence that the configuration of the region had been
shaped by glaciers. He was charmingly affable, encouraging our
questions, and unwearied in his demonstration. "Professor," I said
once, "you teach us that in creation things rise from high to higher
in the vast series until at last we come to man. Why stop with man?
why not conclude that as man surpasses what went before, so he in turn
will be surpassed and supplanted by a being still superior; - and so on
and on?" I well recall the solemnity of his face as he replied that
I was touching upon the deepest things, not to be dealt with in an
afternoon ramble. He would only say then that there could be nothing
higher than a man with his spirit.

Whether Agassiz was as broad-minded as he was high-minded may be
argued. The story ran that when the foundations of the Museum of
Comparative Zoölogy were going on in Divinity Avenue, a theological
professor encountering the scientist among the shadows the latter was
invading, courteously bade him welcome. He hoped the old Divinity Hall
would be a good neighbour to the pile rising opposite. "Yes," was the
bluff reply, "and I hope to see the time when it will be turned into
a dormitory for my scientific students." They were quickly spoken,
unmeditated words without intention of rudeness, but wrapped in his
specialty he was rather careless as to what he might shoulder out.
Again, we had in our company a delicate, nervous fellow who turned
out to be a spiritualistic medium, and who was soon subjected to an
investigation in which professors took part, which was certainly rough
and ready. Agassiz speedily came to the conclusion that the young
man was an impostor and deserved no mercy. Some of us felt that
the determination was hasty. There was a possibility of honest
self-deception; and then who could say that the mysteries had been
fathomed that involved the play of the psychic forces? Possibly a
calmer and more candid mood might have befitted the investigation.
At any rate in these later days such a mood has been maintained by
inquirers like William James and the Society for Psychical Research.
These are straws, but it is hardly a straw that when Darwinism emerged
upon the world, winning such speedy and almost universal adherence
among scientific men and revolutionising in general the thought of
the world as to the method of creation, Agassiz stood almost solitary
among authorities rejecting evolution and clinging to the doctrine of
a special calling into being of each species. His stand against the
new teaching was definite and bold, but can it be called broad-minded?
This is but the limitation that makes human a greatness which the
world regards with thorough and affectionate reverence. Fortunate
are those in whose memories live the voice and countenance of Louis
Agassiz.

Those whose privilege it was to know both father and son will be slow
to admit that the elder Agassiz was the greater man. Alexander (to
his intimates he was always, affectionately, Alex), was a teacher only
transiently, and I believe never before a class showed the enkindling
power which in the father was so marked a gift. His attainments,
however, were probably not less great, and it remains to be seen
whether his discoveries were not as epoch-making. He possessed,
moreover, a versatility which his father never showed (perhaps because
he never took time to show it), standing as a brilliant figure
among financiers and captains of industry. Finally, in a high sense,
Alexander was a philanthropist, and his benefactions were no more
munificent than they were wisely applied; for he watched well his
generous hand, guiding the flow into channels where it might most
effectually revive and enrich. While possibly in the case of the elder
Agassiz, the recognition of truth was sometimes unduly circumscribed,
that could never be said of Alexander. He was eminently broad-minded,
estimating with just candour whatever might be advanced in his own
field, and outside of his field, entering with sympathetic interest
into all that life might present.

I recall him first on a day soon after our entrance into college in
1851. A civic celebration was to take place in Boston, and the Harvard
students were to march in the procession. That day I first heard
_Fair Harvard_, sonorously rendered by the band at the head of
our column, as we formed on the Beacon Street mall before the State
House. A boy of sixteen, dressed in gray, came down the steps to
take his place in our class - a handsome fellow, brown-eyed, and
dark-haired, trimly built, and well-grown for his years. His face had
a foreign air, and when he spoke a peculiarity marked his speech. This
he never lost, but it was no imperfection. Rather it gave distinction
to his otherwise perfect English. In the years of our course, we met
daily. He was a good general scholar but with a preference from the
first for natural science and mathematics. He matured into handsome
manhood, and as an athlete was among the best. He was a master of the
oar, not dropping it on graduation, but long a familiar figure on the
Charles. Here incidentally he left upon the University a curious and
lasting mark. The crew one day were exercising bare-headed on the Back
Bay, when encountering stress of weather, Agassiz was sent up into
the city to find some proper head-gear. He presently returned with
a package of handkerchiefs of crimson, which so demonstrated their
convenience and played a part on so many famous occasions, that
crimson became the Harvard colour.

Alexander was soon absorbed in the whirl of life, and to what purpose
he worked I need not here detail. The story of the Calumet and Hecla
Company is a kind of commercial romance which the harshest critics
of American business life may read with pleasure. At the same time
Agassiz was only partially and transiently a business-man, returning
always with haste from the mine and the counting-room to the
protracted scientific researches in which his heart mainly lay. His
voyages in the interest of science were many and long. He studied
not so much the shores as the sea itself. Oceanographer is the term
perhaps by which he may best be designated. By deep sea soundings
he mapped the vast beds over which the waters roll and reached an
intimacy with the life of its most profound abysses. Sitting next him
at a class dinner, an affair of dress-suits, baked meats, and cigars
at the finish, I found his talk took one far away from the prose of
the thing. He was charming in conversation, and he set forth at length
his theory as to the work of the coral insects, formed after long
study of the barrier reefs and atolls of remote seas. His ideas were
subversive of those of Darwin, with whom he disputed the matter before
Darwin died. They are now well-known and I think accepted, though
unfortunately he died before setting them forth in due order. They are
revolutionary in their character as to the origin of formations that
enter largely into the crust of the earth. In this field he stood as
originator and chief. He gave me glimpses of the wonderful indeed,
as we cracked our almonds and sipped the sherbet, his rich voice and
slightly foreign accent running at my ear as we sat under the banquet
lights.

Though oceanography was his special field, his tastes and attainments
were comprehensive and he was a man of repute in many ways. He was a
trained and skilled engineer and mathematician, and an adept in the
most various branches of natural science. At another class dinner,
when I was so fortunate as to sit beside him, his interest in botany
came out as he spoke of the enjoyment he took in surveying from the
roof of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy the trees of Cambridge, the
masses of foliage here and there appearing from that point in special
beauty. I spoke of the paper just read by Francis Darwin, the son of
Charles, before the British Association, emphasising the idea that
the life of plants and animals differs not in kind but only in degree.
Plants may have memory, perhaps show passion, predatory instincts, or
rudimentary intelligence. The plant-world is therefore part and parcel
of animated nature. Agassiz announced with real fervour his adherence
to that belief and cited interesting facts in its support. Subtle
links binding plant and animal reveal themselves everywhere to
investigation. In evolution from the primeval monads, or whatever
starting-points there were, the fittest always survived as the
outpoured life flowed abundantly along the million lines of
development. There was a brotherhood between man and not only the
zoöphyte, but still further down, even with the ultimate cell in which
organisation can first be traced, only faintly distinguishable from
the azoic rock on which it hangs.

As he talked I thought of the ample spaces of his Museum where the
whole great scheme is made manifest to the eye, the structure of man,
then the slow gradation downward, the immense series of flowers and
plants counterfeited in glass continuing the line unbroken, down to
the ultimate lichen, all but part and parcel of the ledge to which it
clings.

My tastes were not in the direction of mathematics or natural science,
and it was not until our later years that we came into close touch. In
the hospice of the Grimsel, in the heart of the Alps, as I sat down
to dinner after a day of hard walking, I saw my classmate in a remote
part of the room with his wife and children and a group of Swiss
friends. I determined not to intrude, but as the dinner ended, coming
from his place he sought me out. "I heard your voice," he said, "and
knew you were here before I saw you." We chatted genially. That
day, he said, he had visited the site of his father's hut on the
Aar glacier, where the observations were made on which was based the
glacial theory. On that visit he had, as a small boy, been carried up
in a basket on the back of a guide. He had not been there since until
that day. He was that night in the environment into which he had been
born, and assumed toward me the attitude of a host making at home
a stranger guest. To my question as to how a transient passer like
myself could best see a great ice river, he replied, "Climb to-morrow
the Aeggisch-horn, and look down from there upon the Aletsch glacier.
You will have under your eye all the more interesting and important
phenomena relating to the matter." We parted next morning. I had
enjoyed a great privilege, for he was the man of all men to meet in
such a place, - a feeling deepened a day or two later, when I looked
down from the peak he had indicated upon this wide-stretching glacier
below.

As age drew on he mellowed well. Perhaps sympathy with men and things
outside his special walk was no stronger than in earlier years, but
it had readier expression. I heard from him this good story. President
Eliot was once showing about the university a multimillionaire and his
wife who had the good purpose to endow a great school of learning in
the West. Having made the survey, they stood in Memorial Hall, about
to say good-bye. "Well, Mr. Eliot," said the wife, "How much money
have you invested?" Mr. Eliot stated to her the estimated value of the
university assets. The lady turning to her husband, exclaimed, with a
touch of the feeling that money will buy everything, "Oh, husband,
we can do better than that." Said Mr. Eliot, with a wave of the hand
toward the ancient portraits on the walls: "Madame, we have one thing
which money cannot buy, - nearly three centuries of devotedness!" There
is fine appreciation of a precious possession in this remark. In other
ways Harvard may be surpassed. Other institutions may easily have more
money, more students. As able men may be in other faculties possibly
(I will admit even this) there may be elsewhere better football. But
that through eight generations there has been in the hearts of the
best men, a constant all-absorbing devotion to the institution, is
a thing for America unique, and which cannot be taken away. How
stimulating is this to a noble loyalty in these later generations!
The old college is a thing to be watchfully and tenderly shielded. As
Alexander told me the story, I felt in his manner and intonation that
the three centuries of devotedness had had great influence with him.
As John Harvard had been the first of the liberal givers, so he was
the last, and I suppose the greatest. The money value of his gifts
is very large, but who will put a value upon the labour, the
watchfulness, the expert guidance exercised by such a man, unrequited
and almost without intermission throughout a long life! His fine
nature, no doubt, prompted the consecration, but the old devotedness
spurred him to emulation of those who had gone before.

In 1909 I enjoyed through Agassiz a great pleasure. He invited me to
his house where I found gathered a company of his friends, many of
them men of eminence. He had just returned from his journey in East
Africa, during which he had penetrated far into the interior, studying
with his usual diligence the natural history of the regions. He
entertained us with an informal talk beautifully and profusely
illustrated by photographs. I have said that he did not possess, or at
any rate, never showed his father's power of kindling speech. So far
as I know he never addressed large popular audiences. Nevertheless to
a circle of scientific specialists, or people intelligent in a general
way, he could present a subject charmingly, in clear, calm, fluent
speech. On this occasion he was at his best, and it was a pleasure
indeed to have the marvels of that freshly-opened land described to
us by the man who of all men perhaps was best able to cope with the
story. I listened with delight and awe. He was an old man crowned with
the highest distinctions. I thought of the young handsome boy I had
seen coming down in his grey suit into the Beacon Street mall, while
the band played Fair Harvard. On the threshold I shook his hand and
looked into his dark, kindly eyes. I turned away in the darkness and
saw him no more.




CHAPTER X


AT HAPHAZARD

In 1887, in pleasant June weather I left St. Louis with my family on
the capacious river-packet _Saint Paul_, for a trip up-stream to
the city for which the boat was named. The flood was at the full as we
ploughed on, stopping at landings on either side, the reaches between
presenting long perspectives of summer beauty. We paused in due course
at a little Iowa town, and among the passengers who took the boat here
were two men who excited our attention at the landing. One was a
tall handsome fellow in early manhood, well-dressed and mannered,
completely blind. The other was his companion, a rather dishevelled
figure with neglected beard and hair setting off a face that looked
out somewhat helplessly into a world strange to it, an attire of loose
white wool, plainly made by some tailor who knew nothing of recent
fashion-plates. A close-fitting cap of the same material surmounted
his head. The attire was whole and neat, but the air of the man was
slouchy and bespoke one who must have lately come from the outskirts
into the life of America. The young blindman at once aroused earnest
sympathy. Of the other some one remarked, "Plainly a globe-trotting
Englishman, who has lost his Baedeker and by chance got in here."

Presently the boat was on its way, and as I sat facing the changing
scene, I heard a shuffling, hesitating step behind, and a drawling
somewhat uncertain voice asked me about the country. I replied that it
was my first trip and I was ignorant. Turning full upon the querist,
no other than the globe-trotter, I said: "You are an Englishman I see.
I was in England last year. I have spent some time in London, and I
know other parts of your country." A conversation followed which soon
became to me interesting. My companion had education and intelligence,
and before the afternoon ended we were agreeably in touch. He handed
me his card on which was engraved the name, "Mr. William Grey." I told
him I was a Harvard man, a professor in Washington University, St.
Louis. He was of Exeter College, Oxford, and for some years had been a
professor in Codrington College, Barbadoes, in the West Indies, whence
he had lately come. To my natural surprise that he should be so far
astray, he said he had been visiting a fellow Exeter man, a clergyman
of the English Church, who was the rector of an Iowa parish. It
further developed that his young blind companion belonged to a family
in the parish, and that Mr. Grey had good-heartedly assumed the care
of him during an outing on the river.

A trip from St. Louis to St. Paul by river is longer now than a trip
across the Atlantic. I was nearly a week in my new companionship, and
acquaintance grew and deepened fast. The young blindman, whose manners
were agreeable, became a general favourite, and Mr. Grey and I found
we had much in common. I mentioned to him that my errand in England
the year before had been to find material for a life of Young Sir
Henry Vane, the statesman and martyr of the English Commonwealth, and
in his young days a governor of the province of Massachusetts Bay.
This touched in him a responsive chord. He was familiar with the
period and the character. He was a friend of Shorthouse whose novel,
_John Inglesant_ was a widely-read book of those days. He had
helped Shorthouse in his researches for the book, and knew well
the story of Charles I., and his friends and foes. He was himself
a staunch Churchman, but mentioned with some pleasure that his name
appeared among the Non-conformists. A sturdy noble of those days was
Lord Grey of Groby, who opposed the King to the last, standing at the
right hand of the redoubtable Colonel Pride at the famous "Pride's
Purge," pointing out to him the Presbyterians whom the Ironside was to
turn out of Parliament, in the thick of the crisis. To my inquiry as
to whether Lord Grey of Groby was an ancestor, he was reticent, merely
saying that the name was the same. I had begun to surmise that my new
friend was allied with the Greys who in so many periods of English
history have borne a famous part. Some years before, while sojourning
in a little town on the Ohio River, a stroll carried me to a coal-mine
in the neighbourhood. As I peered down two hundred feet into the dark
shaft, a bluff, peremptory voice called to me to look out for my head.
I drew back in time to escape the cage as it descended with a group
of miners from a higher plane to the lower deeps. I thanked my bluff
friend, who had saved my head from a bump. A pleasant acquaintance
followed which led to his taking me down into the mine, a thrilling
experience. He was an adventurous Englishman who had put money into a
far-away enterprise, and come with his wife and children to take care
of it. His wife was a lady well-born, a sister of Sir George Grey,
twice governor of New Zealand, and at the time High Commissioner and
governor of Cape Colony, one of the most interesting of the great
English nation-makers of the South Seas. I came to know the lady,
and naturally followed the career of her brother, who earned a noble
reputation. Later I corresponded with him, and received from him his
portrait and books. Referring to Sir George Grey in my talk with Mr.
William Grey, I found that he knew him well and not long before, in
a voyage of which he had made many into many seas, had visited New
Zealand, and been a guest of Sir George Grey at his island-home in
the harbour of Auckland. Was he related to Sir George? was my natural
query. Again there was reticence. The name was the same, but the Greys
were numerous.

The journey wore on. The resource of the steamer's company was to sit
on the upper deck, watch the swollen river with its waifs of uprooted
trees and the banks green with the summer, chatting ourselves
into intimacy. The young blindman made good and very good, and
his guardian, while keeping a lookout on his charge from under his
well-worn traveller's cap, which I now knew had sheltered its owner
in tropic hurricanes and icy Arctic blasts, discussed with me matters
various and widely related. Nearing our journey's end, we sat in the
moonlight, the Mississippi opening placidly before us between hazy
hills. We had grown to be chums, and next morning we were to part. It
was a time for confidences. "Well," said Mr. Grey, "I am going to
get a good look at America, then I mean to return home and go into
Parliament." I suggested there might be difficulties about that.
English elections were uncertain, and how could he be at all sure that
any constituency would want him. "Ah," said he, this time no longer
reticent. "I am going into the House of Lords." "Indeed," said I in


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 17 19 20

Online LibraryJames Kendall HosmerThe Last Leaf Observations, during Seventy-Five Years, of Men and Events in America and Europe → online text (page 17 of 20)