An Edinburgh Eleven by James Matthew Barrie
An Edinburgh Eleven : I. Lord Rosebery
An Edinburgh Eleven : II. Professor Masson
An Edinburgh Eleven : III. Professor Blackie
An Edinburgh Eleven : IV. Professor Calderwood
An Edinburgh Eleven : V. Professor Tait
An Edinburgh Eleven : VI. Professor Fraser
An Edinburgh Eleven : VII. Professor Chrystal
An Edinburgh Eleven : VIII. Professor Sellar
An Edinburgh Eleven : IX. Mr. Joseph Thomson
An Edinburgh Eleven : X. Robert Louis Stevenson
An Edinburgh Eleven : XI. Rev. Walter C. Smith, D.D.

An Edinburgh Eleven : VIII. Professor Sellar

When one of the distinguished hunting ladies who chase celebrities captured Mr. Mark Pattison, he gave anxious consideration to the quotation which he was asked to write above his name. “Fancy,” he said with a shudder, “going down to posterity arm in arm with carpe diem!” Remembering this, I forbear tying Sellar to odi profanum vulgus. Yet the name opens the door to the quotation. Sellar is a Roman senator. He stood very high at Oxford, and took a prize for boxing. If you watch him in the class, you will sometimes see his mind murmuring that Edinburgh students do not take their play like Oxford men. The difference is in manner. A courteous fellow-student of Sellar once showed his relatives over Balliol. “You have now, I think,” he said at last, “seen everything of interest except the master.” He flung a stone at a window, at which the master’s head appeared immediately, menacing, wrathful. “And now,” concluded the polite youth, “you have seen him also.”

Mr. James Payn, who never forgave the Scottish people for pulling down their blinds on Sundays, was annoyed by the halo they have woven around the name “professor.” He knew an Edinburgh lady who was scandalized because that mere poet, Alexander Smith, coolly addressed professors by their surnames. Mr. Payn might have known what it is to walk in the shadow of a Senatus Academicus could he have met such specimens as Sellar, Fraser, Tait, and Sir Alexander Grant marching down the Bridges abreast. I have seen them: an inspiriting sight. The pavement only held three. You could have shaken hands with them from an upper window.

Sellar’s treatment of his students was always that of a fine gentleman. Few got near him; all respected him. At times he was addressed in an unknown tongue, but he kept his countenance. He was particular about students keeping to their proper benches, and once thought he had caught a swarthy north countryman straying. “You are in your wrong seat, Mr. Orr.” “Na, am richt eneuch.” “You should be in the seat in front. That is bench 12, and you are entered on bench 10.” “Eh? This is no bench twal, [counting] twa, fower, sax, aucht, ten.” “There is something wrong.” “Oh-h-h, [with sudden enlightenment] ye’ve been coontin’ the first dask; we dinna coont the first dask.” The professor knew the men he had to deal with too well to scorn this one, who turned out to be a fine fellow. He was the only man I ever knew who ran his medical and arts classes together, and so many lectures had he to attend daily that he mixed them up. He graduated, however, in both faculties in five years, and the last I heard of him was that, when applying for a medical assistantship, he sent his father’s photograph because he did not have one of himself. He was a man of brains as well as sinew, and dined briskly on a shilling a week.

There was a little fellow in the class who was a puzzle to Sellar, because he was higher sitting than standing: when the professor asked him to stand up, he stood down. “Is Mr. Blank not present?” Sellar would ask. “Here, sir,” cried Blank. “Then, will you stand up, Mr. Blank?” (Agony of Blank, and a demonstration of many feet.) “Are you not prepared, Mr. Blank?” “Yes, sir. Pastor quum traharet——” “I insist on your standing up, Mr. Blank.” Several students rise to their feet to explain, but subside. “Yes, sir. Pastor quum traharet per——” “I shall mark you ‘Not prepared,’ Mr. Blank.” (Further demonstration, and then an indignant squeak from Blank.) “If you please, sir, I am standing.” “But, in that case, how is it? Ah, oh, ah, yes; proceed, Mr. Blank.” As one man was only called upon for exhibition five or six times in a year, the professor had always forgotten the circumstances when he asked Blank to stand up again. Blank was looked upon by his fellow-students as a practical jest, and his name was always received with the prolonged applause which greets the end of an after-dinner speech.

Sellar never showed resentment to the students who addressed him as Professor Sellars.

One day the professor was giving out some English to be translated into Latin prose. He read on—”and fiercely lifting the axe with both hands——” when a cheer from the top bench made him pause. The cheer spread over the room like an uncorked gas. Sellar frowned, but proceeded—”lifting the axe——” when again the class became demented. “What does this mean?” he demanded, looking as if he, too, could lift the axe. “Axe!” shouted a student in explanation. Still Sellar could not solve the riddle. Another student rose to his assistance. “Axe—Gladstone!” he cried. Sellar sat back in his chair. “Really, gentlemen,” he said, “I take the most elaborate precautions against touching upon politics in this class, but sometimes you are beyond me. Let us continue—’and fiercely lifting his weapon with both hands——'”

The duxes from the schools suffered a little during their first year, from a feeling that they and Sellar understood each other. He liked to undeceive them. We had one, all head, who went about wondering at himself. He lost his bursary on the way home with it, and still he strutted. Sellar asked if we saw anything peculiar in a certain line from Horace. We did not. We were accustomed to trust to Horace’s reputation, all but the dandy. “Eh—ah! professor,” he lisped; “it ought to have been so and so.” Sellar looked at this promising plant from the schools, and watered him without a rose on the pan. “Depend upon it, Mr.—ah, I did not catch your name, if it ought to have been so and so, Horace would have made it so and so.”

Sellar’s face was proof against wit. It did not relax till he gave it liberty. You could never tell from it what was going on inside. He read without a twitch a notice on his door: “Found in this class a gold-headed pencil case; if not claimed within three days will be sold to defray expenses.” He even withstood the battering-ram on the day of the publication of his “Augustan Poets.” The students could not let this opportunity pass. They assailed him with frantic applause; every bench was a drum to thump upon. His countenance said nothing. The drums had it in the end, though, and he dismissed the class with what is believed to have verged on a smile. Like the lover who has got his lady’s glance, they at once tried for more, but no.

Most of us had Humanity our first year, which is the year for experimenting. Then is the time to join the university library. The pound, which makes you a member, has never had its poet. You can withdraw your pound when you please. There are far-seeing men who work the whole thing out by mathematics. Put simply, this is the notion. In the beginning of the session you join the library, and soon you forget about your pound; you reckon without it. As the winter closes in, and the coal-bunk empties; or you find that five shillings a week for lodgings is a dream that cannot be kept up; or your coat assumes more and more the color identified with spring; or you would feast your friends for once right gloriously; or next Wednesday is your little sister’s birthday; you cower, despairing, over a sulky fire. Suddenly you are on your feet, all aglow once more. What is this thought that sends the blood to your head? That library pound! You had forgotten that you had a bank. Next morning you are at the university in time to help the library door to open. You ask for your pound; you get it. Your hand mounts guard over the pocket in which it rustles. So they say. I took their advice and paid in my money; then waited exultingly to forget about it. In vain. I always allowed for that pound, in my thoughts. I saw it as plainly, I knew its every feature as a schoolboy remembers his first trout. Not to be hasty, I gave my pound two months, and then brought it home again. I had a fellow-student who lived across the way from me. We railed at the library-pound theory at open windows over the life of the street; a beautiful dream, but mad, mad.

He was an enthusiast, and therefore happy, whom I have seen in the Humanity class-room on an examination day, his pen racing with time, himself seated in the contents of an ink bottle. Some stories of exams. have even a blacker ending. I write in tears of him who, estimating his memory as a leaky vessel, did with care and forethought draw up a crib that was more condensed than a pocket cyclopædia, a very Liebig’s essence of the classics, tinned meat for students in the eleventh hour. Bridegrooms have been known to forget the ring; this student forgot his crib. In the middle of the examination came a nervous knocking at the door. A lady wanted to see the professor at once. The student looked up, to see his mother handing the professor his crib. Her son had forgotten it; she was sure that it was important, so she had brought it herself.

Jump the body of this poor victim. There was no M.A. for him that year; but in our gowns and sashes we could not mourn for a might-have-been. Soldiers talk of the Victoria cross, statesmen of the Cabinet, ladies of a pearl set in diamonds. These are pretty baubles, but who has thrilled as the student that with bumping heart strolls into Middlemass’ to order his graduate’s gown? He hires it—five shillings—but the photograph to follow makes it as good as his for life. Look at him, young ladies, as he struts to the Synod Hall to have M.A. tacked to his name. Dogs do not dare bark at him. His gait is springy; in Princes Street he is as one who walks upstairs. Gone to me are those student days forever, but I can still put a photograph before me of a ghost in gown and cape, the hair straggling under the cap as tobacco may straggle over the side of a tin when there is difficulty in squeezing down the lid. How well the little black jacket looks, how vividly the wearer remembers putting it on. He should have worn a dress-coat, but he had none. The little jacket resembled one with the tails off, and, as he artfully donned his gown, he backed against the wall so that no one might know.

To turn up the light on old college days is not always the signal for the dance. You are back in the dusty little lodging, with its battered sofa, its slippery tablecloth, the prim array of books, the picture of the death of Nelson, the peeling walls, the broken clock; you are again in the quadrangle with him who has been dead this many a year. There are tragedies in a college course. Dr. Walter Smith has told in a poem mentioned elsewhere of the brilliant scholar who forgot his dominie; some, alas! forget their mother. There are men—I know it—who go mad from loneliness; and medallists ere now have crept home to die. The capping-day was the end of our springtide, and for some of us the summer was to be brief. Sir Alexander, gone into the night since then, flung “I mekemae” at us as we trooped past him, all in bud, some small flower to blossom in time, let us hope, here and there.

An Edinburgh Eleven : IX. Mr. Joseph Thomson

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