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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Teacher and Pupil

By Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897)

From the ‘Life of Edward Irving’

“WHEN Irving first came to Haddington,” writes one of his pupils, “he was a tall, ruddy, robust, handsome youth, cheerful and kindly disposed; he soon won the confidence of his advanced pupils, and was admitted into the best society in the town and neighborhood.” Into one house at least he went with a more genial introduction, and under circumstances equally interesting and amusing. This was the house of Dr. Welsh, the principal medical man of the district; whose family consisted of one little daughter, for whose training he entertained more ambitious views than little girls are generally the subjects of. This little girl, however, was as unique in mind as in circumstances. She heard, with eager childish wonder, a perennial discussion carried on between her father and mother about her education: both were naturally anxious to secure the special sympathy and companionship of their only child. The doctor, recovering from his disappointment that she was a girl, was bent upon educating her like a boy, to make up as far as possible for the unfortunate drawback of sex; while her mother, on the contrary, hoped for nothing higher in her daughter than the sweet domestic companion most congenial to herself.

The child, who was not supposed to understand, listened eagerly, as children invariably do listen to all that is intended to be spoken over their heads. Her ambition was roused; to be educated like a boy became the object of her entire thoughts, and set her little mind working with independent projects of its own. She resolved to take the first step in this awful but fascinating course on her own responsibility. Having already divined that Latin was the first grand point of distinction, she made up her mind to settle the matter by learning Latin. A copy of the ‘Rudiments’ was quickly found in the lumber-room of the house, and a tutor not much farther off in a humble student of the neighborhood. The little scholar had a dramatic instinct: she did not pour forth her first lesson as soon as it was acquired, or rashly betray her secret. She waited the fitting place and moment. It was evening, when dinner had softened out the asperities of the day; the doctor sat in luxurious leisure in his dressing-gown and slippers, sipping his coffee, and all the cheerful accessories of the fireside picture were complete. The little heroine had arranged herself under the table, under the crimson folds of the cover, which concealed her small person. All was still; the moment had arrived;—“Penna, pennæ, pennam!” burst forth the little voice in breathless steadiness. The result may be imagined: the doctor smothered his child with kisses, and even the mother herself had not a word to say; the victory was complete.

After this pretty scene, the proud doctor asked Sir John Leslie to send him a tutor for the little pupil who had made so promising a beginning. Sir John recommended the youthful teacher who was already in Haddington, and Edward Irving became the teacher of the little girl. Their hours of study were from six to eight in the morning,—which inclines one to imagine that in spite of his fondness, the excellent doctor must have held his household under Spartan discipline,—and again in the evening after school hours. When the young tutor arrived in the dark of the winter mornings, and found his little pupil, scarcely dressed, peeping out of her room, he used to snatch her up in his arms and carry her to the door, to name to her the stars shining in the cold firmament hours before dawn; and when the lessons were over, he set the child up on the table at which they had been pursuing their studies, and taught her logic, to the great tribulation of the household in which the little philosopher pushed her inquiries into the puzzling metaphysics of life. The greatest affection sprang up, as was natural, between the child and her young teacher, whose heart at all times of his life was always open to children. After the lapse of all these years, their companionship looks both pathetic and amusing. A lifelong friendship sprang out of that early connection. The pupil, with all the enthusiasm of childhood, believed everything possible to the mind which gave its first impulse to her own; and the teacher never lost the affectionate, indulgent love with which the little woman, thus confided to his boyish care, inspired him. Their intercourse did not have the romantic conclusion it might have been supposed likely to end in; but as a friendship, existed unbroken through all kinds of vicissitudes, and even through entire separation, disapproval, and outward estrangement, to the end of Irving’s life.

When the lessons were over, it was a rule that the young teacher should leave a daily report of his pupil’s progress; when, alas! that report was pessima, the little girl was punished. One day he paused long before putting his sentence upon paper. The culprit sat on the table, small, downcast, and conscious of failure. The preceptor lingered remorsefully over his verdict, wavering between justice and mercy. At last he looked up at her with pitiful looks: “Jane, my heart is broken!” cried the sympathetic tutor; “but I must tell the truth:” and with reluctant pen he wrote the dread deliverance, pessima! The small offender doubtless forgot the penalty that followed, but she has not yet forgotten the compassionate dilemma in which truth was the unwilling conqueror.

The youth who entered his house under such circumstances soon became a favorite guest at the fireside of the doctor; who, himself a man of education and intelligence, and of that disposition which makes men beloved, was not slow to find out the great qualities of his young visitor. There are some men who seem born to the inalienable good fortune of lighting upon the best people,—“the most worthy,” according to Irving’s own expression long afterward,—wherever they go. Irving’s happiness in this way began at Haddington. The doctor’s wife seems to have been one of those fair, sweet women whose remembrance lasts longer than greatness. There is no charm of beauty more delightful than that fragrance of it which lingers for generations in the place where it has been an unconsciously refining and tender influence. The Annandale youth came into a little world of humanizing graces when he entered that atmosphere, and it was only natural that he should retain the warmest recollection of it throughout his life. It must have been of countless benefit to him in this early stage of his career. The main quality in himself which struck observers was—in strong and strange contradiction to the extreme devotion of belief manifested in his latter years—the critical and almost skeptical tendency of his mind, impatient of superficial “received truths,” and eager for proof and demonstration of everything. Perhaps mathematics, which then reigned paramount in his mind, was to blame: he was as anxious to discuss, to prove and disprove, as a Scotch student fresh from college is naturally disposed to be. It was a peculiarity natural to his age and condition; and as his language was always inclined to the superlative, and his feelings invariably took part in every matter which commended itself to his mind, it is probable that this inclination showed with a certain exaggeration to surrounding eyes. “This youth will scrape a hole in everything he is called on to believe,” said the doctor; a strange prophecy, looking at it by the light of events.