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The Life of Hugh Miller
Chapter V


Reasons for giving the Foregoing Details—Autumn Journiesto the Highlands—Removal to a New School —Insubordination—Concienciousness in the Choice of a Calling—Hens Bound Apprentice to a Mason— Enters the Quarry where he Recommences the Study of Geology—Character of his Master—Resolves to guard against Intemperance.

Partly because the boy is father to the man, and partly because his boyhood, with its associations, was an eminently interesting boyhood, have we been minute in our details respecting the early years of Hugh Miller. His contemporaries, if we except his sagacious uncles, saw nothing about him probably more than they saw about the majority of boys. If there was any distinction between young Miller, in the eyes of the good folks of Cromarty, and the other children who played with him on the same beach and who were taught with him at the same school, it was, upon the whole, not to the advantage of the sailor's son. He was, even in early youth, a decided nonconformist with the prevailing manners and customs of the boyhood around him, just as, in his maturer years, he was an uncompromising nonconformist with many of the opinions and doctrines popular both in the ignorant and the learned worlds. Like Bums—whom he resembled in almost nothing else, although some have been at considerable pains to establish a general resemblance between the Cromarty mason and the Ayrshire ploughman—he had a "sturdy something" in his disposition from his earliest years which made him give a direct negative to many propositions received by the majority of mankind as true, and regard others with a jealous doubt which were all but universally received as self-evident truths. Such boys are in the main looked upon by society as stubborn little pests, whose wilfulness should be thrashed out of them in the same manner as the African chief, Sechele, the friend of Dr. Livingstone, proposed to that celebrated travaller, to thrash the Paganism out of his people. We, who are not the contemporaries of his boyhood, however, can see that he was a lad of sterling metal. There was an earnestness about his life, even then, which promised great things; and if we have paid proper attention to this period of his career, we shall be better able to understand why in after fife he threw himself heart and soul into the very thick of one of the most important contests of which Great Britain has been the scene lor more than a centuary. If any portion of his latter life seems written in cipher, the key will be found in the careful study of the dawn of that life, and it is because the one period throws so much light upon the other that we have devoted so much space to the pourtraying of it.

We must now hasten forward, however, to the manhood of Mr. Miller, and in order to arrive more speedily at that point, we pass over, with scarcely a single comment, two delicious autumn journies, to the Highlands, to visit and reside with, for some time, a maternal aunt. The grandeur of the Highland scenery as a matter of course, deeply impressed his imagination, as it has done that of many boys before and » since. It was a deep delight to walk in some secluded glen beneath the shadow of a huge mountain, and dream over the stirring traditions of the scene, and investigate, so far as. he could at that period, its geologic peculiarities. There were picturesque streams, too, abounding with trout, and there was a mode of life to be seen widely different from that to which he had been accustomed in populous Cromarty; and accordingly those autumn days were precious at the time to him, but they present too little incident to be of any such exciting interest to us. But the time was fast approaching when those pleasures and adventures were to be exchanged for others of a graver character. He was transferred from the parish to a local subscription school, to see whether a new master might not insure greater progress in the Latin. Unfortunately for the success of the experiment, the new master lost health, and resigned his charge soon after he went to school. After .a long vacation, i another master was appointed, who, so far as Hugh Miller was concerned, was no improvement upon the old parish dominie. He became a wild, insubordinate lad, took any amount of thrashing without winking, and was obstinately averse to all learning. We have an instance or two of his spirit here which may be given. On one occasion he was called up along with another boy with whom he had exchanged blows across the form, as the readiest way of settling a quarrel. Miller bore his share of the stripes with the most provoking stoicism, but his antagonist began to "howl and cry." Miller whispered in his ear, "Ye big, blubbering blockhead, take that for a drubbing from me," a whisper which, unfortunately, reached the master, and cost the whisperer a few extra palmies. Soon after this, he got into a quarrel with a stout and dangerous mulatto boy. The latter, in his battles, used, when sore pressed, to have recourse to his knife, and in his affair with Miller, the knife was produced at a late stage of the engagement. His antagonist, however, instead of running from the weapon, retaliated in the same fashion, and stabbed him in the thigh! This was the crowning catastrophe of his boyhood—the last drop in the measure of his iniquity in the eyes of those who did not love him. He was set down as a dangerous boy, and shunned by all who cared for their good name.

A discussion with the master, on the mode of pronouncing the letters, which ended in the pupil receiving a sound caning, terminated his school career. Had he been able to thrash his teacher, he tells us, he would have done so, but as he was not, he could only take his cap from the peg and march directly out of school, to which he never returned. When he reached home he gave vent to his wounded feelings in a satirical poem entitled, "The Pedagogue," in which the eccentricities of the master were mercilessly criticised.

The school having been left finally in such abrupt fashion, the question for mother and son, uncles and nephew, was, what was to be done next? Uncles advised sticking to the education, with an ultimate view to the bar, the church, or some one of the learned professions. The nephew had no wish to become either a lawyer or a doctor; and as for the church, that was too serious a direction to look for one's bread, unless one could honestly regard one's self as called to the church's proper work. Nephew was conscientious at least; he had no evidence of having received a call; and, therefore, taking a calm view of the whole matter, of a life of brainwork on the one hand, and a life of hand work upon the other, he choose the latter, and decided on becoming a mason, "like cousin George." The uncles were vexed at this decision of the lad, but as it was an honest one, they acquiesced, saying, "better be a poor mason—better be anything honest, however humble—than an uncalled minister," and so it was resolved that he should be a mason. The husband of one of his maternal aunts was a mason, and, in due time, the lad was bound to that worthy man for the usual term of three years. A strong suit of moleskins was got, and a pair of heavy hobnailed shoes-— the appropriate masonic garb—and the young mason waited patiently for the breaking up of the winter's frost to begin work in the Cromarty quarries. It was surely a brave resolve this of the young man to choose for himself a life of hard bodily labour, with its comparitively unworthy remuneration, rather than enter a learned profession for which he had no taste, or a sacred profession which he felt was not his vocation. Well might he become in after years, the foremost champion against the intrusion of an exceptionable minister upon a reclaiming people, when he had thus bravely refused to intrude himself as a labourer into the spiritual vineyard! He had no partiality for the masonic craft, as a craft, more than any other. He did not prefer the building of houses, to the building of ships, but he knew that the mason had a considerable portion of his time at his own disposal. The long winter would be all his own for self improvement, and, with good wages in summer and frugal habits, a sufficient provision might be accumulated to admit of the long winter being spent with pleasure and profit. It was with a heavy heart, however, that he started upon the mission of a worker. Much rather would he have retired to some "lodge, in the vast wilderness" far from the haunts of men, and the cares, difficulties, and miseries which abound in these. But all this, he says, "was but the idle dream of a truant lad, who would fain now, as on former occasions, have avoided going to school—that best and noblest of all schools, save the Christian one, in which honest labour is the teacher. After many lessons in this school, he could pen the apostrophe to the teacher: Noble, upright, self-relying toil. Who that knows thy solid worth and value would be ashamed of thy hard hands and thy soiled vestments, and thy obscure tasks, thy humble cottage, and hard couch, and homely fare? Save for thee and thy lessons, man, in society, would everywhere sink into a sad compound of the fiend and the wild beast, and this fallen world would be as certainly a moral as a natural wilderness. But I little thought of the excellence of thy character and of thy teachings when, with a heavy heart, I set out on a morning in spring, to take my first lessons from thee in a sandstone quarry. "

Previous to this he had a strong attachment to mineralogy; but now at his new work his attention was fairly aroused and his interest awakened with reference to geology. The resolution to be a mason was thus the means of placing him in the true position which had been assigned him in life, and although henceforth, the manual labour might be severe, it was no longer mean but noble. In any of the skilled handicrafts there is a large degree of compensation for the severity of the physical toil, in the exercise of the higher faculties which is afforded. It is no mean pleasure to see the rough block of stone which has been placed before one becoming a polished stone under one's hand, or an elaborate moulding, or portion of an architectural cornice, or some other ornamental part of a noble building; but our apprentice had no work of that stamp to cheer him when he first started work in the Cromarty quarry. There is much tact required by a quarrier, no doubt, but not a high style of art. Tact to use the quarrying tools with proper effect, to know how and where to insert the wedge, or the pinch, or the pick, so as move the largest possible mass of stone, is certainly required, and a large share of prudence, so as to avoid accident to life and limb; but in the quarryman's occupation, per se, we are not to suppose, for one moment, that Hugh Miller took a positive delight. It was as irksome to him as it is to any hard-working quarry-man who may read these sentences; but he had an eye for other things than the mere surface of the stone. The sermons which shakespere, long before Hugh Miller lived, or geology was much thought of, spoke of as being bound up in stones, were, as one would say, "luminous" to this apprentice lad, and deep in the stratified rocks he had glimpses vouchsafed to him of a philosophy which his companions dreamed not of. There was pleasure from this source if from no other, and at meal hours, and after the labour of the day was finished, there were places to be visited, investigations to be made, and problems to be pondered, which lightened toil, and sweetened the life of the toiler. Some of the evils incident to severe toil in early life, before the bones are knit and the muscular power fairly developed, had to be borne by him. Wandering pains in the joints, an oppresive feeling about the chest, fits of extreme depression of spirits, and absence of mind, which resulted, in the first few months of his apprenticeship, in the loss of no fewer than seven of his finger nails. Strength, however, became more confirmed, and, as a consequence, his spirits rose, and those dangerous fits of partial somnambulism disappeared, for that time at least, and <hd not return till years afterwards.

No great promise of excellence in the craft which he had chosen was manifested by him at first, at least so thought the master, a staid, elderly man, who liked to take a good day's work out of his apprentices, and who would suffer none of them, not even his relative, to make "slight wark." Those fits of depression and consequent absence of mind, were by no means good augurs of future excellence as a workman; and the douce master was doubtful whether, eventually, his pupil would do him much credit. We learn that this master was quite a character in a small way. A downright honest man he certainly was, whose walls never on any occasion bulged out or fell, and whose hewing was model workmanship. Though he was not known as a braver man in the common acceptation of the term than other men, he, upon two occasions at least, showed a degree of coolness in the midst of danger, and an insensibility to personal risk which would not have disgraced a hero, whether of ancient or modern time. When on board a boat laden with stones, the boat suddenly sank, leaving him standing on the thwarts submerged to the throat. On seeing his snuff-box floating past, he merely said to his neighbour, "Od, Andrew, man, just rax out your hand and take in my snuff-mull," losing sight, in his desire to save a favourite article, of the fact that the owner stood a great chance of being drowned.

A huge mass of boulder clay fell down into the quarry one day, bending a missive iron lever like a bow, and crashing a wheel-barrow into atoms. The master himself was nearly entangled in the mass; but, instead of being rendered speechless by the narrowness of the personal risk he had just ran, he quietly remarked, "Od, Andrew, man, we've lost our good barrow." Such a remarkably cool customer could not understand the weakness of his apprentice, and, as the easiest way of clearing up what seemed a mystery to him, he attributed his lowness of spirits to distaste for the work, and his mishaps as a hewer and quarrier to his awkwardness as a workman. Holding such a theory he must have been surprised one day when his unpromising apprentice commenced to compete with himself, and actually hewed two feet of pavement for master's one! We can imagine a good deal of ear-scratching and snuff-taking, of head shaking and mental pondering upon this new and curious enigma of the lad's sudden activity and address at his work. Aunt was informed that very night that "her stupid nephew" was to turn out "a grand workman after all." Nothing less than superlative praise would do for a boy who had beat the master at his own work; and as he had been on former occasions liberal in his predictions of failure for his apprentice, he was now as generous with his protestations of his triumphant success. The work was no longer disagreeable drudgery. On the contrary, what with the pleasure arising from the prosecution of the higher kind of work which he now got, and that springing from his geological pursuits, Hugh Miller seems at this time to have been happy. At an early period of his career as a mason, he escaped the vice to which so many workmen succumb. "At a founding pint," he had drunk two fall glasses of whisky; and afterwards, when he opened the pages of a favourite author, he found that the letters danced before his eyes, and that he could not master the sense. He felt that he had degraded himself, and then and there he made a resolution which he kept through life, that he should never sacrifice his capacity of intellectual enjoyment to a drinking usage. It is impossible to say how much of his future success in science and literature he may have been indebted to this wise resolution—wonderful as well as wise, when we remember that it was made by a lad of seventeen! With such a temprament as he possessed, had he been seduced by the habits of his fellow-workman into their .frequent fits of intemperance, it is more than likely that he would speedily have become a confirmed drunkard; but he had wisdom given him to resolve that he should resist temptation, and strength granted him to stand nobly by his resolution. He was never a total abstainer, but he informs us that he has wrought for twelve months together, and did not consume half-a-dozen glasses of ardent spirits, or partake of half-a-dozen draughts of fermented liquors, and he was thus abstemious a£ a period when the body to which he belonged were popularly described as the "drunken masons."


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