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My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

by Robert Roberts



CHAPTER FOURTEEN:  Leeds: Fowler and Wells.


I aimed to get away from Huddersfield before my month’s notice was expired, because my new employers (Fowler and Wells) were under a great pressure of work, and desired my services as soon as possible.  The editor of The Huddersfield Examiner therefore communicated with his Edinburgh acquaintance, on whose nomination I had come in the first instance; and, on his recommendation, a man came from Edinburgh to take my place.  I could not go, however, until it was certain the new man was competent.  Poor fellow!  I never look back to him without feeling sorrow stirred.  He was a sort of half-finished, harmless Scotchman, with boundless admiration for literary capacity, but just one peg short of the level of ability to sustain himself in the sphere he admired.  His enthusiastic appreciation of others, and his inability to see when others were making fun of him, made it difficult for people to be impatient with him.


When introduced to the editor of the paper on which he was to serve, he struck an attitude of admiration which would have been embarrassing to a less good-natured man than that gentleman.  “Is this Mr. W-------?  Is this Mr. W--------?” he twice exclaimed in dramatic style, but sincerely enough, eyeing the object of his enquiry as if he were an object in a museum, displayed under a glass.  Then, turning to me, he continued, “Man, have you been sunnin’ yourself in the eyes of this man all this time?”  We had to get over the awkward situation with as pleasant a smile as possible.  The eccentricity of our new friend would have suggested the proverbial loose slate, only that there was along with it a grit of Scotch sense in matters that made us at least hope all would turn out well.  He was very free and original in his personal comments on everyone with whom he came closely in contact.  The proprietor of the hotel in which he temporarily lodged was not a fool, but he was not to be mistaken for a genius except by such as our friend, who discovered in his shaggy eye-brows and somnorific countenance the tokens of strength in repose!  Our friend estimated the probable capacity of every one by one rule – whether or not he could “write a leader.”  “Man, he could write a leader,” was the highest encomium he could bestow on some historic acquaintance, or the highest opinion he could express of some one to whom he might be introduced.  The expression was so frequently and so ardently on his lips as to become a proverb in Israel: “Man, he could write a leader.”


Poor fellow, when it came to the humdrum work of writing an ordinary report, his attainments were found of a very superficial order.  Men smitten with the idea of reporting but of no ability as reporters, or smitten with the idea of writing leaders but unable to write passable paragraphs, are not unknown in the literary corners of the wide desert of human life as it now unhappily is.  Our friend was of this class, but withal so good-natured, so earnest and so enthusiastic that it was really a painful matter to deal with his case as it required.  Before it had been quite decided that he must go, the editor and a few of his political friends came to take a farewell private cup of tea with me and my companion in the hotel to which we had transferred ourselves after parting with our furniture.  In this hotel was my intended successor, and he made one of the company during the evening.  Our friend’s presence saved the evening from what I fear would have been a dreadful flatness; for my visiting friends were interested in the present world thoroughly, and I not at all, except as a traveller may be interested in a road through which he must go to get to a country desired.  In this respect, the Bible had spoiled me, as was alleged, and as I freely admitted.  The incongruity of the situation lay in this, that my friends professed to believe the same Bible, and yet made submission to its teachings a matter of regret. However, our friend saved us from all flatness on this head.  The company had found out he was a character, and drew him on.  They gravely plied him with the most absurd propositions in literature and politics, and roared like to split their sides at his answers, which were given in all simplicity.


A more hilarious evening I never spent.  It was boisterous mirth without buffoonery except of a certain high sort; and it was all on nothing stronger than tea.  It was a sort of intellectual treat in its way.  I think our friend began at last to find out he was being fooled, and sadly retired into his shell.  In the end, he had to leave the town and make way for another man.  When I last heard of him, he was in London, doing some very poorly paid literary hack work, or canvassing for some philanthropic society.  His earnest simplicity haunts me to this day.  I wish I could have the opportunity of doing him a good turn.  Perhaps he is no longer in the land of the living.  The painful tangled web of human life will one day be straightened out.


In a day or two after this peculiar farewell séance, we left Huddersfield and went to Leeds.  The truth had a friend or two in that town, and apartments had been engaged for us in a part of the town called North Town End.  The town impressed us as being a gloomy, dirty town after a neat clean place like Huddersfield.  It seems much improved in this respect nowadays – perhaps owing to the enforcement of the law compelling the consumption of smoke.  At that time, there were smoke-flecks in the air, and everything looked begrimed.  Just then, too, the weather was intensely cold, for it was mid-winter (January 1861), which would help the unfavorable impression made upon us.  We were located in the neighbourhood of a remarkable friend who has long since found the rest that waits us all in the ordinary course, inside the quiet gates of the flower-ornamented City of the Dead.  He was a character in quite a different way from our “write-a-leader” friend.  To begin with, he was a professor of the truth and a great admirer of Dr. Thomas’s works, but taken up rather with the political than the spiritual side of the gospel.  He was a butcher by trade, but as unlike his trade as possible.  He was neat and clean, and trim as a lady’s lap dog.  Away from his business, you would have imagined him some town magnate, with his erect and dignified walk, and his scrupulously well-dressed appearance.  He was not a fop, but he was nearer than far away from that line of things, with well-brushed and ringleted hair, and gold watch chain in due visibility.  He was a friendly, loud-spoken man, with a certain amount of dry humour that attracted friends and customers to him.


But with this, there was a towering self-satisfaction and even self-importance that made him nearly harsh and domineering, and even quite so in the presence of the least opposition.  His intellectual capacity was not very great, but he was a keen observer, and had a thorough capacity for enjoyment.  He was a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable man, so long as you were in harmony with him.  His very self-complacency was amusing without being offensive.  I did not know at first it was so easy to get on his wrong side.  I put my foot in the first hole by taking exception to an opinion he had expressed as to the meaning of a certain prophecy.  I was quite unprepared for the ebullition of resentment which my remarks evoked.  It seemed to me merely a matter of argument, but he treated it as an affair of personal insult which he could in no wise look over.  It was my first disillusionment with regard to men professing the truth.  I acted on the assumption that all who embraced the truth, understood it clearly and loved it disinterestedly without any mixture of self-love, which the nature of the case seemed to exclude (seeing that one of the effects of the truth rightly seen is to make us hate ourselves, and one of its first demands, that we humble ourselves).  It was not my last, I am sorry to say, but it was more painful than the last because acting on a sensibility undeadened as yet by the rude frictions of a rough world which at first seems fit and beautiful, but at last appears as it is.


My next offence was unpardonable.  He had gathered round him some four or half-dozen simple-minded men who were thankful for his leadership up to a certain point, but at last they became weary of his domineering treatment, and rebelled in the case of a certain grievance.  In this matter, they came over to me, and asked whether they had done rightly in complaining.  It seemed to me reason was on their side (I utterly forgot now what the affair was about), but the fact of my thinking they were in the right, was a capital offence in the eyes of our interesting friend, whom no friendly advance could afterwards appease.  The last time I called upon him, at the close of one such unsuccessful effort, he bade me a final adieu in dramatic style.  He was standing at one end of the room, and I with my hand on the door-knob at the other.  I said I wished him to fare well, intending the primary meaning of those terms, but he took me up wrongly, and waving his hand, said “Farewell! Farewell! (with great emphasis) Any time you are passing through Leeds, be sure and not call on me.”  I never saw him afterwards.  This finish distressed me exceedingly, for having gleaned my social etiquette from the Bible alone, I could not help feeling there was something wrong in such a state of feeling, and until I had done my utmost to end it I could feel no rest.  I have since come to realise that the world is one wide waste of spiritual desolation, and that we get through it acceptably in the sight of God if we faithfully do our own part, whatever may be the part performed by others.


On the first working night after our arrival in Leeds, I found myself as a doorkeeper in a large hall – (I forget the name now) – into which crowds of people were streaming by ticket to hear a lecture on some phase of phrenology by the world-famed American phrenologist, Mr. L.N. Fowler.  It was a novel and not particularly congenial position, but it was a stepping stone to better things. One never knows the meaning of what he may be doing for the time.  It may be a lane into a larger road that may lead you to a harbour that may take you out into the ocean; or it may be a lane ending in a waste heap, though lanes don’t generally end there, if a man have eyes.  Whether waste heap or the ocean, you must take the step before you.  If God be your guide, you may go ahead without fear: but He will not guide if you don’t go.  Do not lie down, for that is death.  Do no go ahead with recklessness, for that is tempting God.  In modesty commit your way to Him, exercising your best judgment in the steps you pick in the labyrinth; and if you don’t get to the ocean, you will at all events get to some wholesome highway where life will be tolerable during the present evil.


This phrenological association was useful afterwards.  It was not the beginning of my knowledge of such things, but it was an improvement and a consolidation of knowledge previously possessed.  I made my first acquaintance with phrenology in Elpis Israel, and through the popular allusions that were flying about when I was between ten and twelve.  After this I got a closer view when I was thirteen, through the reading of Dr. Thomas’s Herald of the Kingdom, and through these, I was led at the age of fifteen to the perusal of Combe’s Constitution of Man.  When I removed to Edinburgh at eighteen, there was a good deal of talk about phrenology then, which helped to establish the knowledge I had acquired.  My connection with Fowler and Wells was a finishing touch.  I have often been thankful that I was so early put in possession of the key to human nature, which phrenology undoubtedly presents, jointly with the key to human history and futurity which the Bible contains, as distinguished from orthodox religion.  The two blend together, and give much guidance in a world that is a distracted world from a merely intellectual point of view.


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