"Be sure you call at Mrs. Milner's, Fred, for the address of her laundress."
"All right, mother!" And Fred was half-way down the path before his mother had time to add a second injunction. A second? Nay, a seventh, for this was already the sixth time of asking; and Mrs. Bruce's half-troubled expression showed she placed little faith in her son's "All right."
"I don't know what to do with Fred, doctor; I am not in the least sure he will do my message. Indeed, to speak honestly, I am sure he will not. This is a trifling matter; but when the same thing happens twenty times a day––when his rule is to forget everything he is desired to remember––it makes us anxious about the boy's future."
Dr Maclehose drummed meditatively on the table, and put his lips into form for a whistle. This remark of Mrs. Bruce's was "nuts" to him. He had assisted, professionally, at the appearance of the nine young Bruces, and the family had no more esteemed friend and general confidant. For his part, he liked the Bruces. Who could help it? The parents, intelligent and genial, the young folk well looking, well grown, and open-hearted, they were just the family to make friends. All the same, the doctor found in the Bruces occasion to mount his pet hobby:––"My Utopia is the land where the family doctor has leave to play schoolmaster to the parents. To think of a fine brood like the young Bruces running to waste in half-a-dozen different ways through the invincible ignorance of father and mother! Nice people, too!"
For seventeen years, Dr Maclehose had been deep in the family counsels, yet never till now had he seen the way to put in his oar anent any question of the bringing up of the children. Wherefore he drummed on the table, and pondered:––"Fair and softly, my good fellow; fair and softly! Make a mess of it now, and it's your last chance; hit the nail on the head, and, who knows?"
"Does the same sort of thing go on about his school work?"
"Precisely; he is always in arrears. He has forgotten to take a book, or to write an exercise, or learn a lesson; in fact, his school life is a record of forgets and penalties."
"Worse than that Dean of Canterbury, whose wife would make him keep account of his expenditure; and thus stood the entries for one week:––'Gloves, 5s.; Forgets, £4, 15s.' His writing was none too legible, so his wife, looking over his shoulder, cried, 'Faggots! Faggots! What in the world! Have you been buying wood?' 'No, my dear; those are forgets:'––his wife gave it up."
"A capital story; but what is amusing in a Dean won't help a boy to get through the world, and we are both uneasy about Fred."
"He is one of the 'School Eleven,' isn't he?" "Oh yes, and is wild about it: and there, I grant you, he never forgets. It's, 'Mother, get cook to give us an early dinner: we must be on the field by two!' 'Don't forget to have my flannels clean for Friday, will you, mumsy?' he knows when to coax. 'Subscription is due on Thursday, mother!' and this, every day till he gets the money."
"I congratulate you, my dear friend; there's nothing seriously amiss with the boy's brain."
"Good heavens, doctor! Whoever thought there was? You take my breath away!"
"Well, well, I didn't mean to frighten you, but, don't you see, it comes to this: either it's a case of chronic disease, open only to medical treatment, if to any; or it is just a case of defective education, a piece of mischief bred of allowance which his parents cannot too soon set themselves to cure."
Mrs. Bruce was the least in the world nettled at this serious view of the case. It was one thing for her to write down hard things of her eldest boy, the pride of her heart, but a different matter for another to take her au sérieux.
"But, my dear doctor, are you not taking a common fault of youth too seriously? It's tiresome that he should forget so, but give him a year or two, and he will grow out of it, you'll see. Time will steady him. It's just the volatility of youth, and for my part I don't like to see a boy with a man's head on his shoulders." The doctor resumed his drumming on the table. He had put his foot in it already, and confounded his own foolhardiness.
"Well, I daresay you are right in allowing something on the score of youthful volatility; but we old doctors, whose business it is to study the close connection between mind and matter, see our way to only one conclusion, that any failing of mind or body, left to itself, can do no other than strengthen."
"Have another cup of tea, doctor? I am not sure I understand. I know nothing about science. You mean that Fred will become more forgetful and less dependable the older he gets?"
"I don't know that I should have ventured to put it so baldly, but that's about the fact. But, of course, circumstances may give him a bent in the other direction, and Fred may develop into such a careful old sobersides that his mother will be ashamed of him."
"Don't laugh at me, doctor; you make the whole thing too serious for a laughing matter." To which there was no answer, and there was silence in the room for the space of fully three minutes, while the two pondered.
"You say," in an imperious tone, "that 'a fault left to itself must strengthen.' What are we to do? His father and I wish, at any rate, to do our duty." Her ruffled maternal plumage notwithstanding, Mrs. Bruce was in earnest, all her wits on the alert. "Come, I've scored one!" thought the doctor; and then, with respectful gravity, which should soothe any woman's amour propre,––
"You ask a question not quite easy to answer. But allow me, first, to try and make the principle plain to you: that done, the question of what to do settles itself. Fred never forgets his cricket or other pleasure engagements? No? And why not? Because his interest is excited; therefore his whole attention is fixed on the fact to be remembered. Now, as a matter of fact, what you have regarded with full attention, it is next to impossible to forget. First, get Fred to fix his attention on the matter in hand, and you may be sure he won't forget it."
"That may be very true; but how can I make a message to Mrs. Milner as interesting to him as the affairs of his club?"
"Ah! There you have me. Had you begun with Fred at a year old the thing would have settled itself. The habit would have been formed."
To the rescue, Mrs. Bruce's woman's wit:––"I see; he must have the habit of paying attention, so that he will naturally take heed to what he is told, whether he cares about the matter or not."
"My dear madam, you've hit it; all except the word 'naturally.' At present Fred is in a delightful state of nature in this and a few other respects. But the educational use of habit is to correct nature. If parents would only see this fact, the world would become a huge reformatory, and the next generation, or, at any rate, the third, would dwell in the kingdom of heaven as a regular thing, and not by fits and starts, and here and there, which is the best that happens to us."
"I'm not sure I see what you mean; but," said this persistent woman, "to return to this habit of attention which is to reform my Fred––do try and tell me what to do. You gentlemen are so fond of going off into general principles, while we poor women can grasp no more than a practical hint or two to go on with. My boy would be cut up to know how little his fast friend, 'the doctor,' thinks of him!"
"'Poor women,' truly! and already you have thrown me with two staggering buffets. My theories have no practical outcome, and I think little of Fred, who has been my choice chum ever since he left off draperies! It remains for the vanquished to 'behave pretty.' Pray, ma'am, what would you like me to say next?"
"To 'habit,' doctor, to 'habit'; and don't talk nonsense while the precious time is going. We'll suppose that Fred is just twelve months old today. Now, if you please, tell me how I'm to make him begin to pay attention. And, by the way, why in the world didn't you talk to me about it when the child really was young?"
"I don't remember that you asked me; and who would be pert enough to think of schooling a young mother? Not I, at any rate. Don't I know that every mother of a first child is infallible, and knows more about children than all the old doctors in creation? But, supposing you had asked me, I should have said––Get him each day to occupy himself a little longer with one plaything than he did the day before. He plucks a daisy, gurgles over it with glee, and then in an instant it drops from the nerveless grasp. Then you take it up, and with the sweet coaxings you mothers know how to employ, get him to examine it, in his infant fashion, for a minute, two minutes, three whole minutes at a time."
"I see; fix his thoughts on one thing at a time, and for as long as you can, whether on what he sees or what he hears. You think if you go on with that sort of thing with a child from his infancy he gets accustomed to pay attention?"
"Not a doubt of it; and you may rely on it that what is called ability––a different thing from genius, mind you, or even talent––ability is simply the power of fixing the attention steadily on the matter in hand, and success in life turns upon this cultivated power far more than on any natural faculty. Lay a case before a successful barrister, an able man of business, notice how he absorbs all you say; tell your tale as ill as you like, he keeps the thread, straightens the tangle, and by the time you have finished, has the whole matter spread out in order under his mind's eye. Now comes in talent, or genius, or what you will, to deal with the facts he has taken in. But attention is the attribute of the trained intellect, without which genius makes shots in the dark."
"But, don't you think attention itself is a natural faculty, or talent, or whatever we should call it?"
"Not a bit of it; it is entirely the result of training. A man may be born with some faculty or talent for figures, or drawing, or music, but attention is a different matter; it is simply the power of bending such powers as one has to the work in hand; it is a key to success within the reach of every one, but the skill to turn it comes of training. Circumstances may compel a man to train himself, but he does so at the cost of great effort, and the chances are ten to one against his making the effort. For the child, on the other hand, who has been trained by his parents to fix his thoughts, all is plain sailing. He will succeed, not a doubt of it."
"But I thought school-work, Latin and mathematics, and that sort of thing, should give this kind of intellectual training? "
"They should; but it's the merest chance whether the right spring is touched, and from what you say of Fred's school-work, I should say it has not been touched in his case. It is incredible how much solid learning a boy will contrive to let slip by him instead of into him! No; I'm afraid you must tackle the difficulty yourself. It would be a thousand pities to let a fine fellow like Fred run to waste."
"What can I do?"
"Well, we must begin where we are; Fred can attend, and therefore remember: and he remembers what interests him. Now, to return to your question. How are you to make a message to Mrs. Milner as interesting to him as the affairs of his cricket club? There is no interest in the thing itself; you must put interest into it from without. There are a hundred ways of doing this: try one, and when that is used up, turn to another. Only, with a boy of Fred's age, you cannot form the habit of attention as you could with a child. You can only aid and abet; give the impulse; the training he must do for himself."
"Make it a little plainer, doctor; I have not yet reduced your remarks to the practical level of something I can do."
"No? Well, Fred must train himself, and you must feed him with motives. Run over with him what we have been saying about attention. Let him know how the land lies; that you cannot help him, but that if he wants to make a man of himself he must make himself attend and remember. Tell him it will be a stand-up fight, for this habit is contrary to nature. He will like that; it is boy nature to show fight, and the bigger and blacker you make the other side, the more will he like to pitch in. When I was a boy I had to fight this very battle for myself, and I'll tell you what I did. I stuck up a card every week, divided down the middle. One side was for 'Remembers'; the other side for 'Forgets.' I took myself to task every night––the very effort was a help––and put a stroke for every 'Remember' and 'Forget' of the day. I scored for every 'Remember,' and t'other fellow' for every 'Forget.' You don't know how exciting it got. If by Thursday I had thirty-three 'Remembers' and he thirty-six 'Forgets,' it behoved me to look alive; it was not only that 'Forget' might win the game, which was up on Saturday night, but unless 'Remember' scored ten in advance, the game was 'drawn'––hardly a remove from lost."
"That's delightful! But I wish, doctor, you would speak to Fred yourself. A word from you would go a long way."
"I'll look out for a chance, but an outsider cannot do much; everything rests with the boy himself, and his parents."