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Rab and his Friends
Dr. John Brown


WHEN a school-girl I was standing one afternoon in the lobby at Arthur Lodge, talking to Jane Brown, my newest school friend. No doubt we had much that was important to say to one another, and took small notice of what doors were opened or shut, or what footsteps came near. I remember no approaching sound, when suddenly my arm was firmly grasped from behind, and "What wretch is this" was asked in a quiet, distinctive tone of voice.

The words were sufficiently alarming, but I had no sense of fear, for my upturned eyes looked into a face that told of gentleness as truly as of penetration and fun, and I knew as if by instinct that this was Jane's "Brother John," a doctor whom everybody liked. There was no "Rab and his Friends " as yet. I must have stood quite still, looking up at him, and so making his acquaintance, for I know it was Jane who answered his question, telling him who I was and where I lived. "Ah! " he said, "I know her father; he is a very good man, a great deal better than . .. , in whom he believes." He asked me if I was going into town, and hearing I was said, "I'll drive you in." He took no notice of me as we walked down to the small side gate, and I was plunged in thought at the idea of driving home in a doctor's carriage. We soon reached said carriage, and my foot was on the step, when again my arm was seized, and this time, "Are you a Homeopathist?" was demanded. I stoutly answered "Yes," for I thought I must not sail or drive under false colors. "Indeed! they go outside," was his reply. This was too much for me; so, shaking myself free I said, "No, they don't, they can walk." He smiled, looked me rapidly all over from head to foot, and then said in the same quiet voice, "For that I'II take you in" — and in I went.

He asked me a little about school, but did not talk much, and I remember with a kind of awe, that I saw him lean back and shut his eyes. I did not then know how characteristic of him at times this attitude was, but I felt relieved that no speaking was expected. He brought me home, came in and saw my mother, and before he left had established a friendly footing all around. And so began a friendship — for he allowed me to call it that — the remembrance of which is a possession forever.

Many years after, when one day he spoke of driving with him as if it were only a dull thing to do, I told him that when he asked me I always came most gladly, and that I looked upon it as "a means of grace." He smiled, but shook his head rather sadly, and I was afraid I had ventured too far. We did not refer to it again, but weeks after he came up to me in the dining-room at Rutland Street, and without one introductory remark, said, "Means of grace to-morrow at half-past two."

And means of grace it was then and always. I remember that afternoon distinctly, and could write down recollections of it. But what words can convey any idea of the sense of pleasure that intercourse with him always gave? It brought intensifying of life within and around one, and the feeling of being understood, of being over-estimated, and yet this over-estimation only led to humility and aspiration. His kindly insight seemed to fasten rather on what might yet be, than what already was, and so led one on to hope and strive. "I'll try to be good," must have been the unspoken resolve of many a heart, after being with him, though no one more seldom gave what is called distinctively "good advice," medical excepted.

It was to Colinton House he was going that afternoon. As we drove along, sometimes there were long silences, then gleams of the veriest nonsense and fun, and then perhaps some true words of far-stretching meaning. The day was one of those in late winter that break upon us suddenly without any prelude, deluding us into believing that spring has come, cheering, but saddening too, in their passing brightness. As we neared the Pentlands he spoke of how he knew them in every aspect, and specially noticed the extreme clearness and stillness of the atmosphere, quoting those lines which he liked so much,

"Winter, slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of spring."

and ending with a sigh for "poor Coleridge, so wonderful and so sad." After his visit to the house lie took me to the garden, where he had a quiet, droll talk with the gardener, introducing me to him as the Countess of something or other. The gardener took the Countess's visit very quietly — he seemed to understand the introduction. I remember the interview ended abruptly by Dr. Brown pulling out the gardener's watch instead of his own. Looking at it, lie replaced it carefully, and, without a word said, he walked away. As we were leaving the garden he stopped for a moment opposite a bed of violets, and quoted the lines,

"Violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes;"

then, after a minute, "What a creature he was, beyond all words!"

I think it was the same afternoon that, in driving home, he spoke of the difficulty we had in recalling, so vividly as to hear it once more, the voice of one who is gone. He said, "You can see the face," and, putting out his hand, "you can feel their touch, but to hear the voice is to me most difficult of all." Then, after a pause, he said, "For three months I tried to hear her voice, and could not; but at last it came, — one word brought it back." He was going to say the word, and then he stopped and said, "No, it might spoil it." I told him I could recall very vividly the only time I spoke to Mrs. Brown. He asked me to tell him about it, and I did. The next day I met him out at dinner, and by rare good fortune sat next him. We had only been seated a minute or two when he turned to me and said, "What you told me about her yesterday has been like a silver thread running through the day."

At one time he drove to Colinton two or three times a week, and knew each separate tree on the road or stone in the wall, and on suddenly opening his eyes could tell within a yard or two what part of the road he had reached. For if it were true that he often closed his eyes as if to shut out sad thoughts, or, as in listening to music, to intensify the impression, it was also true that no keener observer ever lived. Nothing escaped him, and to his sensitive nature the merest passing incident on the street became a source of joy or sorrow, while in the same way his keen sense of humor had endless play. Once, when driving, he suddenly stopped in the middle of a sentence, and looked out eagerly at the back of the carriage. "Is it some one you know?" I asked. "No," he said, "it's a dog I don't know." Another day, pointing out a man who was passing, I asked him if he could tell me his name. He merely glanced at him, and then said, "No, I never saw him before, but I can tell you what he is -- a deposed Established Church minister." Soon after I heard that this was an exact description of the man.

He often used to say that he knew every one in Edinburgh except a few new-comers, and to walk Princes Street with him was to realize that this was nearly a literal fact. How he rejoiced in the beauty of Edinburgh! "She is a glorious creature," he said one day, as he looked toward the Castle rock, and then along the beautiful, familiar street shining in the intense, sudden brightness that follows a heavy spring shower; "her sole duty is to let herself be seen." He generally drove, but when he walked it was in leisurely fashion, as if not unwilling to be arrested. To some he spoke for a moment, and, though only for a moment, he seemed to send them on their way rejoicing; to others he nodded, to some he merely gave a smile in passing, but in each case it was a distinctive recognition, and felt to be such. He did not always raise his hat, and sometimes he did not even touch it; and when laughingly accused of this, he would say, "My nods are on the principle that my hat is chronically lifted, at least to all women, and from that I proceed to something more friendly."

Once, on meeting a very ceremonious lady, his hat was undoubtedly raised, and, when she had passed, he said, "I would defy any man in creation to keep his hat near his head at the approach of that Being." He was anything but careless as to small matters of ceremony, but then with hint that ceased to be mere ceremony, and represented something real. His invariable habit of going to the door with each visitor sprang from the true kindliness of his nature. Often the very spirit of exhilaration was thrown into his parting smile, or into the witty saying, shot after the retreating figure, compelling a turning round for a last look — exhilaration to his friend; but any one who knew him well felt sure that, as he gently closed the door, the smile would fade, and be succeeded by that look of meditative pensiveness, so characteristic of him when not actually speaking or listening. He often spoke of "unexpectedness" as having a charm, and he had it himself in a very unusual degree. Anything like genuine spontaneity he hailed with all his heart. "Drive this lady to Muttonhole"—it was an address he often gave — he said to a cabman, late one evening. "Ay, Doctor, I'll dae that," the man answered, as he vigorously closed the door and prepared to mount without waiting for further instructions, knowing well what doctor he had to deal with. "You're a capital fellow," Dr. Brown said; "what's your name?" And doubtless there would be a kindly recognition of the man ever after.

In going to see him, his friends never knew what style of greeting was in store for them, for he had no formal method; each thing he said and did was an exact reflection of the moment's mood, and so it was a true expression of his character. That it would be a hearty greeting, if he were well, they knew; for when able for it, he did enjoy the coming and going of friends. At lunch time he might often be met in the lobby on one of his many expeditions to the door, the ring of the coining guest suggesting to the one in possession that he, or possibly she, must depart; and when encountered there, sometimes a droll introduction of the friends to one another would take place. Often he sat in the dining-room at the foot of the table with his back to the door, and resolutely kept his eyes shut until his outstretched hand was clasped.

But perhaps the time and place his friends will most naturally recall in thinking of him, is a winter afternoon, the gas lighted, the fire burning clearly, and he seated in his own chair in the drawing-room (that room that was so true a reflection of his character), the evening paper in his hand, but not so deeply interested in it as not to be quite willing to lay it down. If he were reading, and you were unannounced, you had almost reached his chair before the adjustment of his spectacles allowed him to recognize who had come; and the bright look, followed by, "It's you, is it?" was something to remember. The summary of the daily news of the town was brought to him at this hour, and the varied characters of those who brought it out put him in possession of all shades of opinion, and enabled him to look at things from every point of view. If there had been a racy lecture, or one with some absurdities in it, or a good concert, a rush would be made to Rutland Street to tell Dr. Brown, and no touch of enthusiasm or humor in the narration was thrown away upon him.

One other time will be remembered. In the evening after dinner, when again seated in his own chair, he would read aloud short passages from the book he was specially interested in (and there was always one that occupied his thoughts chiefly for the time), or would listen to music, or would lead pleasant talk. Or later still, when, the work of the day over, and all interruptions at an end, he went up to the smoking-room (surely he was a very mild smoker!), and giving himself up entirely to the friends who happened to be with him, was — all those who knew him best now gladly and sorrowfully remember, but can never explain, not even to themselves.

In trying to describe any one, it is usual to speak of his manner; but that word applied to Dr. Brown seems almost unnatural, for manner is considered as a thing more or less consciously acquired, but thought of apart from the man. Now in this sense of the word he had no manner, for his manner was himself, the visible and audible expression of his whole nature. One has only to picture the ludicrousness as well as hopelessness of any imitation of it, to know that it was simply his own, and to realize this is to feel in some degree the entire truthfulness of his character: "If, therefore, thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." Perhaps no one who enjoyed mirth so thoroughly, or was so much the cause of it in others, ever had a quieter bearing. He had naturally a low tone of voice, and he seldom raised it. He never shouted any one down, and did not fight for a place in the arena of talk, but his calm, honest tones claimed attention, and way was gladly made for him. "He acts as a magnet in a room," was sometimes said, and it was true; gently, but surely, he became the centre of whatever company he was in.

When one thinks of it, it was by his smile and his smile alone (sometimes a deliberate "Capital!" was added), that he showed his relish for what was told him; and yet how unmistakable that relish was! "I will tell Dr. Brown," was the thought that came first to his friends on hearing anything genuine, pathetic, or queer, and the gleam as of sunlight that shone in his eyes, and played round his sensitive mouth as he listened, acted as an inspiration, so that friends and even strangers he saw at their best, and their best was better than it would have been without him. They brought him of their treasure, figuratively and literally too, for there was not a rare engraving, a copy of an old edition, a valuable autograph, anything that any one in Edinburgh greatly prized, but sooner or later it found its way to Rutland Street, "just that Dr. Brown might see it." It seemed to mean more even to the owner himself when he had looked at it and enjoyed it.

He was so completely free from real egotism that in his writings he uses the pronouns "I" and "our" with perfect fearlessness. His sole aim is to bring himself into sympathy with his readers, and he chooses the form that will do that most directly. The most striking instance of this is in his Letter to Dr. Cairns. In no other way could he so naturally have told what he wishes to tell of his father and his father's friends. In it he is not addressing the public — a thing he never did — but writing to a friend, and in that genial atmosphere thoughts and words flow freely. He says towards the beginning, "Sometimes I have this" (the idea of his father's life) "so vividly in my mind, that I think I have only to sit down and write it off, and so it to the quick." He did sit down and write it off, we know with what result.

Except when clouds darkened his spirit (which, alas! they too often did), and he looked inwards and saw no light, he seemed to have neither time nor occasion to think of himself at all. His whole nature found meat and drink in lovingly watching all mankind, men, women, and children, the lower animals, too — only he seldom spoke of them as lower, he thought of them as complete in themselves. "Look at that creature," he said on a bright, sunny day as a cab-horse passed, prancing considerably and rearing his head; "that's delightful; he's happy in the sunshine, and wishes to be looked at; just like some of us here on the pavement." How many of us on the pavement find delight in the ongoings of a cab-horse? His dog, seated opposite him one day in the carriage, suddenly made a bolt and disappeared at the open window. "An acquaintance must have passed whom he wished to speak to," was Dr. Brown's explanation of his unexpected exit.

In The Imitation it is said, "If thy heart were sincere and upright, then every creature would be unto thee a looking-glass of life." It was so with Dr. Brown. His quick sympathy was truly personal in each case, but it did not end there. It gladdened him to call forth the child's merry laugh, for his heart expanded with the thought that joy was worldwide; and in the same way sorrow saddened him, for it too was everywhere. He discovered with keenest insight all that lay below the surface, dwelling on the good, and bringing it to the light, while from what was bad or hopelessly foolish he simply turned aside. He had friends in all ranks of life, "from the peasant to the peer," as the phrase is, and higher. He was constantly forming links with those whom he met, and they were links that held fast, for he never forgot any one with whom he had had real contact of spirit, and the way in which he formed this contact was perhaps the most wonderful thing about him. A word, a look, would put him in possession of all that was best and truest in a character. And it was character that he thought of; surroundings were very secondary with him. Though he thoroughly appreciated a beautiful setting, the want of it did not repel him. "Come and see a first-rate man," he said to me one day as he met me at the door. And here in the dining-room stood a stalwart countryman, clad in rough homespun, with a brightly-colored "cravat" about his neck, his face glowing with pleasure as his friend (for he evidently considered Dr. Brown his friend) looked up at him. They had met that morning, when the man came asking admission for a child to the Infirmary, and now he had returned to report his success. The look of keen and kindly interest with which every word was listened to might well encourage him to "go on," as he was frequently told to do. "The wife" figured now and then in the narration, and as he rose to go, the beaming look with which Dr. Brown said, "And you're fond of your wife?" was met by a broad smile of satisfaction, and "aye, I'm fond o' her," followed by a hearty shake of the hand. "His feelings are as delicate as his body is big," was Dr. Brown's remark as he returned to the room after going with him to the door.

It is Ruskin who says, "The greatest thing a human soul ever does is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion all in one." Dr. Brown was constantly seeing what others did not see, and the desire to tell it, to make others share his feelings, forced him to write, or made it impossible for him to do so when not in writing mood. To prescribe a subject to him was useless, and worse. What truer or shorter explanation can be given of the fascination of Rab and his Friends than that in James, in Ailie, and in Rab he "saw something" that others did not see, and told what he saw in "a plain way,"— in a perfect way, too. "Wasn't she a grand little creature?" he said about "Marjorie," only a few months before his death. "And grand that you have made thousands know her, and love her, after she has been in heaven for seventy years and more," was the answer. "Yes, I am glad," he said, and he looked it too. He was not thinking of Marjorie Fleming one of his literary productions, as it would be called, but of the bright, eager child herself.

But the words he applied to Dr. Chalmers are true as regards myself: "'We cannot now go very curiously to work to scrutinize the composition of his character: we cannot take that large, free, genial nature to pieces, and weigh this and measure that, and sum up and pronounce; we are so near as yet to him and to his loss, he is too dear to us to be so handled. 'His death,' to use the pathetic words of Hartley Coleridge, 'is a recent sorrow, his image still lives in eyes that weep for him."' Though necessarily all his life coming into close contact with sickness and death, he never became accustomed, as so many seem to do, to their sorrowfulness and mystery, and the tear and wear of spirit involved in so many of his patients being also his close personal friends, was, without doubt, a cause of real injury to his own health.

I shall never forget the expression of his face as he stood looking at his friend Sir George Harvey, for the last time. He had sat for a long while holding the nearly pulseless wrist, then he rose, and with folded hands stood looking down earnestly on the face already stamped with the nobility of death, his own nearly as pale, but wearing, too, the traces of care and sorrow which had now forever vanished from his friend's. For many minutes he stood quite still as if rapt in thought; then slowly stooping, he reverently kissed the brow, and silently, without speaking one word, he left the room.

I have spoken of the first time I saw him; shall I tell of the last — of that wet, dreary Sunday, so unlike a day in spring, when with the church bells ringing, John took me up to his room, and left me there? He was sitting up in bed, but looked weaker than one would have expected after only two days' illness, and twice pointing to his chest, he said, "I know this is something vital;" and then musingly, almost as if he were speaking of some one else, "It's sad, Cecy, isn't it?" But he got much brighter after a minute or two, noticed some change in my dress, approved of it, then asked if I had been to church, and, "What was the text?" smiling as he did so, as if he half expected I had forgotten it. I told him, "In the world ye shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." "Wonderful words," he said, folding his hands and closing his eyes, and repeated slowly, "Be of good cheer;" then, after a pause, "And from Him, our Saviour." In a minute or two I rose, fearing to stay too long, but he looked surprised, and asked me what I meant by going so soon. So I sat down again. He asked me what books I was reading, and I told him, and he spoke a little of them. Then suddenly, as if it had just flashed upon him, he said "Ah! I have done nothing to your brother's papers but look at them, and felt the material was splendid, and now it is too late." Some months before, when he was exceedingly well and cheerful, he had told me to bring him two manuscript books I had once shown him, saying, "I have often felt I could write about him, as good a text as Arthur Hallam." I told him it would be the greatest boon were he to do it; but he warned me not to hope too much. After a few minutes, again I rose to go. His "Thank you for coming," I answered by, "Thank you for letting me come;" and then, yielding to a sudden impulse, for I seldom ventured on such ground, I added, "And I can never half thank you for all you have been to me all these years." "No, you must n't thank me," he said sadly, and a word or two more, "but remember me when you pray to God." I answered more by look and clasp of his hand than by word; but he did feel that I had answered him, for "That night," he said firmly, his face brightening, and as I reached the door, "Come again soon."

The next time I was in that room, four days after, it was to look on "that beautiful sealed face," and to feel that the pure in heart had seen God. Sir George Harvey once said, "I like to think what the first glint of heaven will be to John Brown." He has got it now. What more can or need we say?

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