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The Life of Hugh Miller
Chapter IV


Hugh Miller obtains access to a good library-Commences his geological studies—Studies the art of war—His naval persuits—The gunpowder plot.

About this time he formed an acquaintanceship with a queer eccentric sort of man, who was of no evident use in this world. He had picked up in his peregrinations through the world—for he was a travelled personage—and in his unmethodical raids into Bookdom, a great deal of curious and valuable information. He had a better collection of books than many men with whom the uncles of our hero were intimate, and although he was not a book lender, he gave the use of his library freely to Hugh Miller. Among these books were some in black letter, on astrology, and on the planetary influences, and there was one ancient book on medicine in the collection, which recommended as a cure for toothache, a bit of the jaw of a suicide ground into a powder, and as an infalible remedy for failing sickness, an ounce or two of the brains of a young man carefully dried over the fire. A book containing such recipes must have been exceedingly entertaining, but as Hugh had no predilection for the occult sciences, and as his friend had a tolerable complete edition of the British "Essayists," from Addison to Mackenzie, with the "Essays" and "Citizen of the World" of Goldsmith, several interesting works of travels and voyages translated from the French, and translations from the German of Lavater, Zimmerman, and Klopstock, young Miller devoted much of his time to the study of these, to the neglect of the more mysterious authors which his friend possessed. He was at the same time going on with another department of his education outside the school. The sea shore had a deep interest for him, more especially after a storm, when the water rolled fragments of the primary rocks with which the sea shore was strewed, were shaken up. He soon made himself acquainted with the components of those pebble beds; and although he wanted a vocabulary, he learned to distinguish the various kinds of rock and to form tolerable definite conceptions of the generic character of the porphyries, granites, gneisses, quartz rocks, clay slates, and mica-schists, which everywhere strewed the beach. It is vastly interesting to look at this boy, hammer in hand (a hammer which, by the way, belonged to old John Fiddes), wandering along that surf-beaten shore, deciphering for himself the first principles of geology. A world's wonder he was to all his companions, who could see no "fun" whatever in these solitary walks and stone breaking of his. Even the parents of the boys entertained a belief that no good could come of those departures from the path of duty which he made from time to time, in order to persue his favourite studies, indulge in his delicious boy dreams, and to make discoveries, simple enough in themselves, but wonderful at the time to him, of a beautiful black mica, which, when split exceedingly thin, and placed between slips of mica of the ordinary kind, make eye-glasses, which converted the landscape into richly-toned drawings in sepia, or of crystals of garnets, which reminded him of the gems of Aladdin's cavern, or of Sinbad's valley of diamonds. There was a wooded hill on which Uncle Sandy, who was a sawyer, planted his saw-pit, to which the boy frequently fled even during school hours, and studied its botanical and geological treasures. The master never said anything. He probably thought that the lad was the best judge of the tract of study which best suited him, and allowed him to take his own way.

In this outer school, where he was free to range at will from task to task furnished him by the great instructress nature,—an older dame than she of the antiquated alphabet,—he acquired that faculty of minute observation which, in after life, was so eminently conspicuous in all his works, and we have no doubt that the schoolmaster did quite right in allowing him to ramble without reproof or question.

In the course of his specially miscellaneous reading, our student stumbled upon two old-fashioned military treatises, part of the small library of a retired officer, lately deceased, of which the one, entitled "Military Medley," discussed the whole art of marshalling troops, and Hugh Miller gave up for a time his devotion to natural history and the fine arts and directed his whole attention to the art of war. The sea shore was an excellent field on which to carry forward his operations. The sea sand, when moistened by the receeding tide, was formed into towers, bastions, and long rows of ramparts, and, on the same field, he found abundance of materials with which to represent soldiers to execute all the evolutions described in the "Medley." The only drawback to this amusement was, that when seen from a distance, it greatly resembled the dirt-pie operations of the younger children of the place, and it was evident from some remarks which came to his ears, that many of his own companions, as well as their parents, looked upon the two sets of pastimes as identical. The elders predicted anything but a successful future for a boy who could put off his time in such a persuit; while his immediate contemporaries, although they did not trouble themselves with futurity, made the present as dissagreeable as possible, by hooting him from a safe distance. His young military student, however, could afford to treat the pity of the one, and the jeers of the other, with contempt, for "neither the big folk nor the little folk could bring a battalion of troops across a bridge of boats in the face of an enemy, or knew that a regular fortification could be constructed on only a regular polygon." As he proceeded in his military studies, he discovered that the sea beach could not, although ever so well fortified, stand a regular seige. Being low, it could of course be commanded by batteries placed upon the higher ground, and, like a skilful General, the moment he found that his position was untenable, he looked about him for more eligible ground. Among the woods, in the immediate neighbourhood, there was a lofty grassy knoll in the vicinity of a scaur of "boulder clay, capped by a thick stratum of sand." Taking possession of this promising site, he conveyed to it large quantities of sand from the scaur, and in due time a magnificent system of fortifications was elaborated. First, an ancient castle built upon a rectangular base, and consisting of four towers, was constructed. The towers were connected by straight curtains, embrasured a-top. This central castle was surrounded by strong outworks, flanked by numerous bastions, bristling with cannon of huge calibre, made of the jointed stalks of hemlock. In advance, ravelinfes, horn-works and tenailles were laid down, and the engineer was proud of his work. It would, he was certain, be no easy task to take such a fortress; but observing an eminence in-the neighbourhood from which it might be possible to annoy him, he was deliberating how he might best take possession of it by a redoubt, when the works were surprised by an enemy which he had not calculated on. The unexpected assault came from no less a personage than the factor of the estate on which our friends fortifications were situated, and, without any respect to their beauty, or deference to the scientific principles upon which they were constructed, the irate functionary ordered the engineer to desist, as his operations interfered with the development of the surrounding grass! "Horn-work and half-moon, tower and bastion, proved of no manner of effect in repelling an attack of a kind so little anticipated," says the discomfited engineer. There was nothing for it but capitulation, pure and simple— an immediate march off in short, without being allowed the honours of war. This unexpected repulse put a period to our hero's military studies, and we next find him engaged in naval parsuits. Most boys imitate what they see; the peculiarity of this boy is, that we find him endeavouring to imitate whatever he found described in his books. A friend lent him a quarto edition oŁ Anson's voyages containing the original prints—among others an elaborate delineation of "that strangest of vessels, a proa of the Ladrone Islands." The peculiarity of this craft is, that while the head and stern are exactly alike, the sides differ totally. The lad's ambition, since he was driven so ruthlessly from his fortifications, was to produce a Ladrone proa; and having procured tools and timber from Uncle Sandy, in due time he produced a very strange proa indeed. "Its lee side was perpendicular as a wall; but its windward side, to which an outrigger was attached, resembled that of a flat bottomed boat." A strange out-landish looking craft it was assuredly; and when its owner and captain made his appearance with it at a pond where mimic navies were navigated, it was received with a universal shout of derision, and fairly pelted out of the water! The pelters, of course, were unacquainted with the craft of the Ladrone Islands, and poor Hugh Miller had to bear the consequence of his superior learning as he best could. It was evident, however, to all the wise people of the town, that the boy was doomed to an unfortunate future. No good could come of any one with ideas so different from those of his contemporaries; and the parents of the lender of Anson were anxious to break up the intimacy which subsisted between the two boys. Their object was ultimately effected by an accident which might have had very serious consequences. The father of Miller's friend was the master of a trading smack, and the boy had contrived to appropriate a quantity of powder from the sloop's magazine. The two friends had a glorious day's sport with the powder. At night it was garnered up in a safe corner of the garret, but its owner was seized with an irresistable desire to view it by candle light. In bending over his treasure a spark fell from the candle and ignited the explosive heap. The boy was much burnt; and as he was unable to meet his friend as usual in consequence, and as the latter, for fear of being rated as participator in that gunpowder plot could not muster up courage to go and see him for a week, poor Miller was received coldly when he did call by both mother and son, and after some epistolary correspondence of the sentimental sort, the intimacy was broken up for a season.


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