A gold thread running through a sombre stuff, a streak of sunlight in a lurid sky,––something like these is the fitful appearance of young Crossjay in that rather dreary study wherein a 'Patterne' English gentleman is exhibited, resting, fold upon fold, upon himself, every serpentine movement, stealthy, sudden, even vindictive, betraying the wiles and ways of the Egoist. But it is not as a mere foil to Sir Willoughby that Crossjay is introduced. He, with his frank outgoing boy nature, does, indeed, show up by sharp contrast the unhappy, self-involved, self-concerned, and self-adoring man. But Mr. Meredith is a profound student of that one of the 'mysteries' which we call education. He has made a study of boys and of the way to handle them; and has set forth in big letters so that they who run may read, in more than one book, how not to handle them.
But we take no heed; we discuss the plot of this novel or that, allow the author to be a master of style, quote him against persons who say we have no great novelists now, have remarks to make about the characters. What we do not perceive is, that philosophy as found written in books of philosophy to-day has become more or less academic; she no longer "cries at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors, Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of men."
She has become an affair of the Schools. Men meet with her there, not to their souls' profit so much as for the joy of intellectual gymnastic.
But philosophy keeps to herself still two or three resorts from which we may hear her voice, 'Unto you, O men, I call.' The poets entertain her; through them she still calls to men; but her message is often implicit, and only the attentive ear may hear. Those who do hearken at the coming in of this door get oracles of price, luminous words for the interpretation of their days.
In the novel, however, she is explicit, takes up every one of the functions which we have seen Plutarch assign her; unfolds ourselves to us as poor things, most likely, and flashes a search-light upon our innocent little ways, our much-to-be-condoned moods. Also, as philosophy is for our instruction in life, and as our chief business is the bringing up of the generation to follow, the great novelists offer us a key to the vexed problem of education.
Young Crossjay is an example of this. We are told that a 'real and sunny pleasure befell Laetitia' when young Crossjay Patterne came to live with her. The phrase is delightfully just, as of course, seeing whose phrase it is. A real and sunny pleasure gleams out of every page on which Crossjay appears. The reader smiles at the mention of him as we do when a charming child crosses our path. This is how it came about. Sir Willoughby was, as we know, a mighty orb, environed by satellites, and with the gift of drawing into his sphere and causing to revolve round him whatsoever body chances to pass his way. Such a body is his cousin Lieutenant Patterne of the Marines: that he should not be of the regular Services was a mere eccentricity of English blood and ways, quite a pleasant thing to talk about, when he had distinguished the name of Patterne by an heroic action. So he is duly invited to Patterne Hall, and on a day when Sir Willoughby was spreading his glorious tail of many eyes upon the lawn before an admiring audience, and more, before the lady of his choice, he spies in the distance a rather common-looking thickset man carrying a valise, whom he discovers, by quick intuition of the folded creature, to be that cousin of his in the Marines. 'Not at home' is the answer when the footman produced the Lieutenant's card. And upon this answer turns the fiery trial between young Crossjay's lower and his higher nature, upon which much of the story hangs.
'Charming' is not at all the epithet most people would apply to Crossjay. "He was a boy of twelve, with the sprights of twelve boys in him"; and again "a rosy-cheeked, round-bodied rogue of a boy, who fell upon meats and puddings and defeated them with the captivating simplicity of his confession that he had never had enough to eat in his life." And he told of his four sisters and three brothers, 'all hungry!' How he came to live with Laetitia must be recalled to the reader. This lady was one of several persons who had been drained of their vitality by the absorbing egoist, who drew his sustenance from the vital forces of those about him. Vernon Whitford, as the reader will remember, was a cousin of Sir Willoughby's, who declined to be absorbed, and who received a small salary from him for his help in managing the estates; and it seems that this man, as outgoing a person as Crossjay himself, had heard of Captain Patterne's large family, knew, no doubt, of that 'not at home,' and felt it a shame which he must obliterate. So he went off to Devonport and brought back Crossjay, because, we are told, "Vernon was one of your men that had no occupation for their money, no bills to pay for repair of their property, and an insane desire to spend!" He had thought to have the boy at the Hall that he might prepare him for the Navy, but he counted without his host. Sir Willoughby would run no such risk. The boy's hair would be red, he said, his skin eruptive. So Vernon arranged for him to live at the Dales' cottage, and that was how this 'sunny pleasure' came to Laetitia. "The pranks of the little fellow and his revel in a country life, and muddy wildness in it, amused Laetitia from morning to night." She taught him in the morning when she could catch him, and Vernon in the afternoon if he could catch him, but there was the if. The boy was not only idle, but he hated knowledge as it was to be got out of books; and 'but I don't want to' was his answer to all persuasions. He had to be dug out of the earth, with a good deal of it upon him, when his lesson-hours arrived.
This steady hatred of books would seem rather a bad symptom in young Crossjay, only we get a key to it later on. When Clara Middleton, that 'dainty rogue in porcelain,' arrives on the scene, she and the boy become great friends, and she takes his idleness seriously to heart. Like a wise pedagogue, she set herself to find out what he did like. Having raced him and beaten him without panting, to his vast surprise, she was in a position to bring him to his bearings. He is asked to own that girls are better than boys, that they can run faster, that they learn their lessons, and so on. 'But,' says be, 'You can't make soldiers or sailors of them, though.' But she quotes Mary Ambree to him, and Mistress Hannah Snell of Pondicherry, and other little-known heroines, to say nothing of Joan of Arc and Boadicea; and it all ends up in a serious talk. "'Somebody spoils you: Miss Dale or Mr. Whitford?' 'Do they?' was the answer. 'Sir Willoughby does?' 'l don't know about spoil; I can come round him."' Here we have the secret many a child discovers about Father or Mother, master or governess; and we ask ourselves––'How is it the young urchins can come round us?'
We pat ourselves on the back and say––'Oh, I'm a good-natured fellow, I know; I can't be hard on the young monkeys.' Now, it seems to me, Crossjay has been evoked just that we may not deceive ourselves in this matter. It is not because of some amiable trait in us that children can come round us, but because we are tarred with the same brush as that most fatiguing and intolerable person in all fiction––Sir Willoughby Patterne. It would be a wholesome and rather solemn exercise for those of us who have to deal with young folk to get by heart all the 'Willoughby and Crossjay' scenes in the novel. Who knows but the best of us might cry 'Lord, is it I?' before he is half-way through. By such light touches as this talk with Clara are the grave problems of education brought up for solution and––this is the point––offered with a key.
A few pages back we have been told that Crossjay was steadily "opposed to the acquisition of knowledge by means of books." But a few questions about Nelson, and he produces knowledge got out of books promptly, ready as the guns of a good ship. He has not been told or taught the knowledge of naval history he shows; 'he' (that is, Vernon) 'bought me the books' is all the account he gives of it. There are, then, two sorts of knowledge to be had out of books, that which he is 'opposed to' and that which he takes to; and here, in what seems no more than a pretty, gracefully told incident, we have the rock indicated upon which our good ship, National Education, comes to grief. We offer children in books the knowledge they are 'opposed to,' and not that which they take to.
'It does not do to make education too interesting,' we say; 'they must learn to grind, to work against the grain'; but we forget about that horse who won't be made to drink; and the boy never takes into him that knowledge which, according to Crossjay, 'l don't want to.' He certainly does get it into that Lethe of the mind we call the verbal memory, out of which it can shortly be reproduced on call without having under-one any 'mind-change,' untouched by ideas, unwarmed by imagination, mere dead matter, an excretion of the mind. This is what we gain for our pains in getting into a boy that knowledge which he 'does not want to' learn. No wonder he throws it all up as soon as he can, and has a sick distaste for more of the kind.
But is there any knowledge he does want to know? Plainly, Crossjay anyway found such knowledge in books, and had it pat, telling, and to the point as gunnery practice. He was being coached for the Navy entrance examination, so probably the two sorts of books dealt with the same subjects. It is not the subjects a boy hates. He wants to know about other lands and other times, about great persons, and, in fact, about everything we want to teach him. He would rather get his knowledge out of books than have it poured into him by speech; the book is more terse, graphic, satisfying to the mind than the talk of any but very rare people. The boy has really an immense appetite for knowledge, and when he does not want to learn, it is because he does not get the right books.
We give children a diet of facts, either condensed or diluted, unaware that the mind has really no use for facts uninformed by intelligence. It takes ideas to evoke ideas, intelligence to awaken intelligence, and the heavy compendiums of the schoolroom are of no use in education. An encyclopedia is another matter, because it is when our intelligence has been awakened, our curiosity excited, that we consult it, and no school (or family) should be without a good encyclopedia, which every scholar is free to use. If we could awake to the right use of the right books in education, we should find that, as Goethe said, 'a day is infinitely long,' and we should cease to hear of an overcrowded curriculum. By the way, Nemesis is upon us: we have brought up children so long on a diet of facts that we have come to believe what we teach. We travel with Baedeker instead of the old, red, Murray's handbooks , and are becoming informed and bored rather than intelligent and alert travelers. Our notion of history is––ordered facts; though the narrations of three persons who have seen the same thing happen round the corner might show us that there is nothing so little to be depended upon as circumstantial evidence, whether historical or other. Books are a weariness to us, and no wonder, seeing the manner of books we elect.
But there's a good time coming. Crossjay would have been a good candidate as the entrance examination for the Navy is conducted to-day. He liked and knew how to get knowledge of a sort of which the world is learning the value. He knew the habits of birds, where to look for their eggs; all about fish, and how to catch them; how to manage rabbits. He had soon tramped the country about for an extraordinary number of miles. Someone had shown him a collection of stuffed birds of every English kind, and after once seeing, he could describe "goat-sucker owls, more mouth than head, with dusky dark-spotted wings like moths, all very circumstantial." We are awaking to the use of nature-knowledge, but how we spoil things by teaching them! We are not content that children should know the things of nature as we know our friends, by their looks and ways, an unconscious comprehensive knowledge which sinks in by dint of much looking, but we set them to fragmentary scraps of scientific research. They intend investigation, and lose the joy of seeing. Their attention is concentrated upon this or that, and they lose the all-round alertness which is the chief equipment of the nature-student. We shall awake some day and find that nature-study, as we have taught it, adds not at all to the joy of life. The child of the future will feel no thrill at the disclosure of the red under the tail of a little brown bird; now, every small boy likes to know such things, and it will be a weary day when we have 'nature-studied' such knowledge out of existences.
Crossjay has his loyalties, as what boy has not? He has a passion for our Naval Service, and can be even got through the lesson-grind for the sake of it. Then, 'my father's the one to lead an army'; and here comes in a problem which he pondered, boy-fashion, bringing it out again and again, to the dismay of his friends, always in the same words, always leading up to the same climax ('ten miles in the rain'), never apparently coming to a conclusion, but turning the thing over in his mind, it seems, until some day the conclusion should arrive. That, too, is the way of young people: they observe, they retain, they hold moral questions in solution, so to say, until some crisis or some slight event precipitates a conclusion, which remains from henceforth part of their moral outfit, for better, for worse. Here is Crossjay's moral problem:––"My father's the one to lead an army! . . . I say, Mr. Whitford, Sir Willoughby's kind to me, and gives me crown-pieces; why wouldn't he see my father, and my father came here ten miles in the rain to see him, and had to walk ten miles back and sleep at an inn?"
But we may postpone the consideration of Sir Willoughby; for the present, it is enough to see why he was not among Crosssjay's loyalties. Vernon Whitford, however, was, notwithstanding all his cousin's gay attempts to present him as a dour taskmaster.
Crossjay tells Clara Middleton that he would go to the bottom of the river for him. The boy is shrewd, too; all boys are; he believes that Whitford is paying for him by way of making up for that grievous sending of his father back in the rain. How that offense rankled, and how justly angry the boy was! Then, as for Clara, why, he was her knight, chivalric in his obedience (to the loss of his dinner!), giving her unbounded love, admiration, and reverence, along with a gay comradeship which she encouraged. They both loved wild-flowers, and games and open dealings, birds and all living things. Here was foundation enough for friendship!
We get, in connection with this friendship, a peep into boy nature that it behooves us to regard. Clara was reclining on the grass, with half-closed eyes, as she talked to him. We are told that had she been sitting up he would have sprung at her and kissed her.
Here we get a nice boy's unconscious reverence for the holy mystery of sex; and few things are more offensive and more likely to be disastrous than the way we set ourselves to dissipate this heaven-implanted reverence in our rash attempts to give knowledge of matters which are not for the mind. Chivalry, honor, delicacy and obedience, impassioned obedience, to the divine law, these are the chords to play upon if we are to have pure youths and maidens. But we must believe that chivalry and chastity are there, and are not foreign ideas to be introduced by our talk; and this is where many a parent fails. He is aware of evil in his child, and makes deadly allowance for it; and his suspicions create the very evils he dreads. We know how Helen Pendennis believed the worst of her son when the worst was not there, in order, one would think, that she might make occasion for self-sacrifice. It is well we should understand that suspicion also is sin, and begets mistrust and offense.
I think we should have the Utopia our hearts desire if we realized what springs of good are in our children waiting the right touch. Crossjay, who is no more than an ordinary, nice boy, has, we observe, everything he wants for noble living excepting knowledge, and certain habits of mind and body. How like a man of honor he behaves after the talk he overhears when he awakes under the sofa-rug: with a burning sense of the wrong done to his lady, he has the shrewdness and delicacy of a gentleman. He knew that this offer made to another lady was a matter not to be talked about, a matter requiring action, too, beyond his own powers. Here we get a hint as to why it is so good for boys to go to school. They get freer play for common-sense, shrewdness, discrimination, gentlemanly feeling, in the school democracy than they can find under the home autocracy, be it ever so benign.
Thus we get Crossjay presented to us with consummate art, a 'human boy,' to quote the immortal Mr. Chadband. We find the 'human boy' delightful, and perceive all that he is as a person; and we see also the safeguards he needs that he may have room for due development.
We have hardly made Crossjay's acquaintance before he comes to a parting of the ways––a moral crisis, which we watch with some anxiety. Because we are studying a lesson set by a master, the temptation is one we are not at all prepared for, and yet it is a very common one, and perhaps more 'golden lads and girls' are spoiled through this than through any other cause. Here we have it in a nutshell. Willoughby, we know, declined to receive the boy into his house, but, all the same, took upon him the airs of a patron––naturally, inevitably. It is good to see him with young Crossjay. A casual observer would think him perfect with the boy––'amused, indulgent, almost frolicsome.' He has ever a joke and a jibe for him, catches him by the elbows and gives him a leap in the air, laughs at his idleness and mischief, is altogether in fine contrast with Mr. Whitford's 'tutorly sharpness.' "He had the English father's tone of a liberal allowance for boys' tastes and pranks, and he ministered to the partiality of the genus for pocket-money." And, again, he was in contrast to Vernon Whitford: "he did not play the schoolmaster like hookworms who get poor little lads in their grasp." Willoughby poses, and his pose is admirable, one which all who have the bringing up of youth are tempted to affect; and still more those, be they fathers or schoolmasters, who wash their hands of responsibility and play to a gallery in the good-natured ways they adopt towards the young folk. It is surprising that Crossjay was not taken in; he liked it all, 'tis human nature so to do; he would run to his patron, take jumps, jokes, and tips with genuine delight,––"half-a-crown generally, but he had had a sovereign,"––and yet––was it always that question of his father being sent back to walk ten miles in the rain, or was it that he was constantly reminded of this treatment of his father by other slight circumstances which he hardly knew he observed? The latter seems to be the way in which we remember or forget the failings of those about us; faults are forgiven and forgotten until we are reminded of them by some new evidence of the same defect. But Willoughby would have been too much for the boy if his friends had not come to his aid. Crossjay wanted to be a gentleman; to shirk work, to play, ride, and generally to take life easily. He could not do these things and go into the Navy; and Willoughby, simply for the glorification of having one more hanger-on, deliberately chose that the boy should not work, but should depend upon him for all his chance preferments and pleasures. The title of the novel tells us why: was he not The Egoist, and therefore were not all his actions and intentions designed for his own magnification? Crossjay, we know, went to the crammer at last and was saved; but only at the cost of a veritable earthquake at Patterne Hall, a bouleversement of all the views of all the persons who revolved about the Patterne gentleman. But the lesson remains for us.
There are many ways of playing the egoist with the young people about us, but this of 'the English father's tone of a liberal allowance for boys' tastes and pranks' is distinctly the most fatal. For the sake of popularity we make our appeal to a boy's lower nature; and because he has that lower nature also our appeal is very seldom in vain. If we trust him as a creature who is to be won by tips and toffee, we find him as we treat him, and in the end it will be our turn as well as his to reap as we sowed. Egotism is a subtle snare, hard to be aware of; but the single eye will save us. If we regard children for themselves and as themselves, without any reflex thought as to what we do for them, what they think of us, what other people think of what we are to the children, and so on through the endless chain of self-involved motives; if we look out upon the children, and not in upon ourselves, we shall see them as they are––with the great possibilities proper to them as persons, and with the fearful hazards which it is our part to steer them through.
But we all have need of instruction in the fine art of bringing up children, and are therefore grateful to the philosopher to whom we owe 'young Crossjay.'