A GENIUS AT ‘SCHOOL’
“The more I was allowed to work in this way the more I wanted to, and even my leisure hours were spent in all sorts of wonderful occupations. Already, since my earliest days, I had felt a strong impulse towards finding out about natural objects.
“I remember that as a child I often picked flowers to pieces to see how the petals were fixed in the cup, and even plucked birds to see how the feathers were fastened into the wings. Children should not be
blamed for this, for even naturalists often think they will learn more from rending and parting than from connecting and uniting, from the dead than from the living.
“An armed loadstone, sewn up daintily in a piece of scarlet cloth, must needs one day experience the result of such desire for discovery. For the secret attractive power which it not only exercised on the little iron bar attached to it, but had this further quality that it increased in strength, could daily bear a heavier weight,—this secret virtue filled me with delight, so that I spent a long time in merely wondering at this power. At last I thought I should make a closer acquaintance with it if I took away the outer covering. This was done without making me any wiser, for the naked iron taught me nothing further. I took this off also and held the bare stone in my hands with which I was never weary of experimenting with filings and needles, experiments from which my young mind drew no advantage but a manifold experience. I did not know how to put the arrangement together again, the parts got destroyed, and I lost the striking phenomena as well as the apparatus.”
An electric machine, too, the property of a friend, was a source of much interest to the children, and a further means of awakening the boy’s scientific imagination.
Two occupations laid upon them by their father fell as hardships upon the young people. The one was the care of silkworms, to the rearing of which a room was appropriated; but it was difficult to keep the worms in health under such artificial conditions, thousands died, and the removal of these and the efforts to keep the rest cleanly and in good condition fell to the children. The other task which they did
not love was connected with the views of Rome, the source of so many early impressions. The engravings which had been so long exposed on the walls of the old house were no longer in a condition to decorate the new one, and the task which fell to the children was to keep the sheet, to which a copperplate was attached constantly moist for a considerable time, until it could be easily removed from that which was mounted upon it. As there were a good many engravings, this was not a slight labour, and the reader hails with pleasure a mention of tiresome tasks which must be performed. That such tasks were rare is evident enough; but the meaning of must can only be learned by means of a duty which it would be agreeable to shirk.
“Lest we children should lack anything of all that life and learning have to give, it happened at that time that an English language master presented himself, who undertook to teach English to anyone not quite raw to language study in four weeks—enough, that is, to enable him to continue his study by himself. He asked a moderate fee; the number of pupils for the lesson was of no consequence.
“My father resolved on the spot to make the attempt, and took lessons with me and my sister from this expeditious master.
“The lessons were faithfully given and there was no lack of repetition, and for the four weeks some other studies were laid by. The master parted from us and we from him with satisfaction. As he stayed in the town and found plenty of employment, he came to see and help us from time to time, thankful that we were among the first who had trusted him, and proud to show us as models to the others.”
It would be pleasant to know if this unnamed English teacher anticipated the conversational methods of to-day.
But new acquisitions were new responsibilities, for the father was anxious that the newly acquired English should he kept up as fully as the other languages at which the children had worked; and now we get from ‘the Boy,’ weary of many grammars, each with many lists of expectations, a scheme which, though we had not the wit to originate, we might at any rate follow with advantage.
“Thereupon the thought occurred to me of settling the matter once and for all, and I invented a story about six or seven brothers and sisters who, scattered over the world at some distance from each other, mutually exchange news of their various conditions and sentiments.” The eldest brother gives in good German news of all the circumstances and events of his journey. The sister, in a feminine manner, with full stops and short sentences, tells now him, now the others of the family, what she has to say as to her domestic life, as well as of her love affairs. One brother studies Latin, and writes very formal Latin, adding occasionally a postscript in Greek. Another brother, an agent in Hamburg, had to manage the English correspondence; a younger brother, in Marseilles, the French. As for Italian, one brother, a musician, was making his first essay in the world; and the youngest, cut off from the other languages, had taken refuge in Juden-Deutsch, and with his fearful lingo threw the others into despair. “The idea made my parents laugh. For this extraordinary arrangement I had to find a format, and I studied the geography of the places where
my creations lived, and invented for these bare localities all sorts of human interests, in fact whatever had any relation to the character and business of my people. In this way my exercises became much more voluminous, my father was more contented, and I perceived much more quickly what was necessary in the way of revision and completion.”