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My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

by Robert Roberts


CHAPTER FIFTEEN:  Birmingham:  The Fowler and Wells Company.


After a stay of fourteen days or so, the next move of the travelling company, of which I had now become a member, was to Birmingham.  The company was not a large one, consisting of only six members – Mr. Fowler, Mr. Wells, and their four shorthand-writers.  It was as pleasant a company of natural men as one is ever likely to be associated with in this evil state of things.  They were thoroughly  American, exhibiting the two leading traits of the American people to perfection – humour and independence, tempered with kindness.  There was none of the austere standoffness that is liable to be shown by British officialism: they were frank and ready to serve.  At the same time, there were no deferences or reverences.  They took every man at what he was in himself, with respect to the social caste-distinctions that weigh so much with English people.


They differed in their individual peculiarities, of course.  The soul of the concern was Mr. Fowler, -- a thick set, silver-haired man of middle stature, who did nearly all the lecturing at night, and most of the private examining of heads during the day.  He was a man of no great calibre, intellectually considered, but he had a thorough command of phrenology and physiology, and could read men off like a book.  He was a good example of an average man developed to the best advantage, climbing to prominence by excelling in one thing.  He was a humble, kindly, sensible, fatherly man, with just enough dry humour to make him agreeable; without this, he would have been tame.  As a lecturer, he had a good voice, with a strong American nasalism which had a certain fascination with a British audience.  His lecturing was interesting, but delivered without gesture and with some monotony of voice.  It would probably not have been so interesting without the extensive display of life-size portraits and busts behind him on the platform, and the free admixture of telling stories.  His forte lay in delineating character.  His examinations of heads chosen promiscuously from the audience at the close of the lecture were always successful.  Though not a man of the highest finish, there was no charlatanism with him.  He had a sound grasp of his subject on scientific principles, and did phrenology a great service in pointing out and always keeping to the front the connection between the body and brain in their mutual action.  Privately, he was a thoroughly pleasant man – humane and true and blithesome, though never profound.


Mr. Wells was a different sort of man, but equally excellent in his way.  He was tall, and dark, and spectacled, and would have been mistaken for an Englishman on a superficial acquaintance.  He looked of the schoolmaster type.  He was a man of business talent, and had the commercial department of the enterprise in charge.  He had also a  thorough knowledge of the science, and could both lecture and examine in case of need, but never with the acceptability of his partner.  There was a little emulation between them on this score, which was sometimes amusingly manifested.  He was a man of gentleness and worth, and partook of the sunny humour common to all superior Americans.  He had a respect for the Scriptures, but no thorough acquaintance with them.


One day, he and Mr. Fowler were having a private tussle on the question of whether it was the duty of parents to provide for the children, or children for the parents.  Mr. Fowler was contending for the latter view.  Mr. Wells was sure the Bible was on his side, but could not quote.  I referred him to II Cor. 12:14.  One reading it, he perfectly crowed over his partner, and confessed they did not know the Scriptures as they ought to do.  On a subsequent occasion, on evening, while the lecture was going on, and there was nothing to do, he and I had a long conversation in the anteroom, in which he expressed his unfeigned sorrow that they were so far away from spiritual things, and his unqualfied admiration of my application in that direction.  He admitted that nothing else would matter at last.  Poor fellow!  He is now among the unnumbered dead.


Then there was the sub-manager, Mr. Wilson, the sharp, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, and eagle-nosed pioneer of the concern – a lithe, intelligent, bright, friendly young man, whose business it was to go before to the next town and make arrangements in advance, engaging halls, getting out bills, etc.  He was the only one that I succeeded in interesting in the truth, though I tried with them all; but the interest was not of the fervid or abiding order.  What became of him at last I do not know.  I think he filled some military post in the Civil War that was fermenting in America at the time I joined them.


Burnham was the most unpromising, yet the most naturally capable of the company.  He was sallow, taciturn, and heedless.  He could not be stirred up to take an interest in anything.  Yet he had a splendid forehead, and showed great capacity whenever he did or said anything.  His shorthand writing and his caligraphy were like copperplate.  He used to ask jocosely when the kingdom was coming, and said he could wait.  I never heard how he turned out till on board the Gillia (I think), in one of my recent journey to America.  And then I did not “hear” but stumbled on the knowledge in quite a striking manner.  I was looking over some books that were spread out on the saloon table of the vessel, and picked out a high-class, thick American monthly magazine, profusely illustrated.  Turning over its pages, my eye caught a woodcut portrait of a man apparently between 40 and 50, whose features seemed familiar.  Underneath the woodcut was the name “Burnham,” etc.  And the subject of the article “Burnham, the astronomer.”  “Burnham!” said I to myself, several times, “Burnham! Burnham! Why surely this is never Burnham of the Fowler and Wells Company.”  I read the article; so it was.  It appeared that while following the occupation of shorthand writer to one of the American Law Courts, he had turned his attention to astronomy, and risen to fame as a great astronomical discoverer.  It gave an account of his discoveries, and of his correspondence with the various learned societies of the European capitals, with whom at least he ranked as an authority in a special department.  His leading discoveries relate to previously unknown binary stars, or stars composed of two that revolve round each other.  It was quite a pleasant surprise to find that our taciturn friend had so distinguished himself, even if on the march to the universal grave.


The other young man (Andem) – light complexion, regular, decidedly British intellectual face, rose to high place in the American naval service during the war.  He was a pleasant, educated friendly young man, with all the wit, and harum-scarum dash that belong to the Americans.  He used to amuse us by playing on an instrument and asking us what we would have next and always playing the same tune (“Yankee- Doodle,” I think).  He also displayed a mock enthusiasm over ruins and relics.  There are no ruins in America, and intelligent Americans are always interested in this feature of British scenery, but this breezy young man would gravely call Mr. Fowler’s attention (as we went along in the train) to railway gates and farm houses, and go into raptures at their supposed age and historical associations.  It was the effervescence of a moment.  It is all gone now.


This was our first visit to Birmingham.  We were struck with its great, wide-spreading, glass case railway station – which has since been doubled and improved in many ways.  The town itself seemed a dreary waste of brick streets with uncomfortable pebble footways.  It also has wonderfully altered within the last 30 years.  We were complete strangers in the town, and could therefore look at it without bias.  We (that is my companion and I) had to walk through a good many streets before we selected apartments.  (The arrangements made by the pioneer aforesaid did not include provision for us, which was entirely to our mind, as we should not have found ourselves at home in close association.)



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