Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1659/A Winter Morning's Ride

From Macmillan's Magazine.


The proverb that "the early bird gets most worms" has no truer application than in travelling, considered as a fine art. Of course to him who uses locomotion as a mere method of getting from one place to another, it matters nothing whether he starts at 3 a.m. or at noon. But to the man who likes to get the most he can out of his life, and looks upon a journey as an opportunity for gaining some new insight into the ways, and habits, and notions, of his fellow-men, there is no comparison between their value. The noonday travelling-mood, like noonday light, is commonplace and uniform; while the early morning mood, like the light when it first comes, is full of colour and surprise. Such, at any rate, has been my experience, and I never made an out-of-the-way early start without coming upon one or more companions who gave me a new glimpse into some corner of life, and whose encounter I should have been the poorer for having missed. My last experience in this matter is very recent. In the midst of the wild days of last December I received an unexpected summons on business to the north. My appointment was for eleven o'clock on the morrow, two hundred miles from London. It was too late to make arrangements for leaving home at once, so I resolved to start by the first morning train, which leaves Euston Square at 5.15 a.m. Accordingly, soon after four next day I closed the house door gently behind me, and set out on my walk, not without a sense of that self-approval and satisfaction which is apt to creep over early risers, and others who pride themselves on keeping ahead of their neighbours.

It was a fine wild morning, with half a gale of wind blowing from the northwest, and driving the low rain-clouds at headlong speed across the deep clear sky and bright stars. The great town felt as fresh and sweet as a country hillside. Not a soul in the streets but an occasional solitary policeman, and here and there a scavenger or two, plying their much-needed trade, for the wet mud lay inches deep. I was early at the station, where a sleepy clerk was just preparing to open the booking-offices, and a couple of porters were watering and sweeping the floor of the big hall. Soon my fellow-passengers began to arrive, labouring men for the most part, with here and there a clerk, or commercial traveller, muffled to the eyes.

Amongst them, as they gathered round the fire, or took short restless walks up and down the platform, was one who puzzled me not a little. He had arrived on foot just before me, indeed I had followed him for the last quarter of a mile through Euston Square, and had already begun to speculate as to who he could be, and on what errand. But now that I could get a deliberate look at him under the lights in the hall, my curiosity was at once raised and baffled. He was a strongly built, well-set young fellow of five feet ten or eleven, with clear grey eyes, deep set under very straight brows. His hair was dark, and would have curled but that it was cropped too short. He was clean shaved, so that one saw all the lower lines of his face, which a thick nose, slightly turned up, just hindered from being handsome. He wore a high sealskin cap, a striped flannel shirt with turn-down collars, and a slip-knot tie with a rather handsome pin. His clothes were good enough, but had a somewhat dissipated look, owing perhaps to the fact that only one button of his waistcoat was fastened, and that his boots, good broad double-soled ones were covered with dry mud. His whole luggage consisted of the travelling-bag he carried in his hand, one of those elaborate affairs which generally involve a portmanteau or two to follow, but swelled out of all gentility and stuffed to bursting-point

An Englishman? I asked myself. Well, yes, — at any rate more like an EngUshman than anything else. A gentleman? Well, yes again, on the whole; though not of our conventional type — at any rate a man of some education, and apparently a little less like the common run of us than most one meets.

Here my speculations were cut short by the opening of the ticket-window by the sleepy clerk, and the object of them marched up and took a third-class ticket for Liverpool. I followed his example, my natural aversion to eating money raw in railway-travelling inclining me to such economy, apart from the interest which my problem was exciting in my mind. I am bound to add that nothing could be more comfortable than the carriages provided on the occasion for the third-class passenger of the N. W. R. I followed the sealskin cap and got into the same carriage with its owner. As good luck would have it, no one followed us. He put his bag down in a corner, and stretched himself along his side of the carriage with his head on it. I had time to look him well over again, and to set him down in my own mind as a young English engineer, who had been working on some continental railway so long as to have lost his English identity somewhat, when he started up, rubbed his eyes, took a good straight look at me, and asked if any one coming from abroad could cut us off from the steamer that met this train. I found at once that I was mistaken as to nationality.

I answered that no one could cut us off, as there was no straighter or quicker way of getting to Liverpool than this; but that he was mistaken in thinking that any steamer met the train.

Well, he didn't know about meeting it, but any way there was a steamer which went right away from Liverpool about noon, for he had got his passage by her, which he had bought at the tobacco-store near the station.

He handed his ticket for the boat to me, as if wishing my opinion upon it, which I gave to the effect that it seemed all right, adding that I did not know that tickets of this kind could be bought about the streets as they could be in America.

Well, he had thought it would save him time, perhaps save the packet, as she might have sailed while he was after his ticket in Liverpool, which town he didn't know his way about. But now, couldn't anyone from the Continent cut her off? He had heard there was a route by Chester and Holyhead, which would bring any one who took it aboard of her at Queenstown.

I answered that this was probably so, beginning to doubt in my mind whether my companion might not, for all his straightforward looks and ways, have come by the bag feloniously. Could it be another great jewel-robbery?

I don't know whether he noticed any doubtful look in my eyes, but he added at once that he was on the straight run from Heidelberg. He had come from there to London in twenty-six hours. I made some remark as to the beauty of Heidelberg, and asked if he knew it well.

Why, yes, he said he ought to, for he had been a student at the university there for the last nine months. Why then was he on the straight run home, I ventured to ask. Term wasn't over?

No; term wasn't over; but he had been arrested, and didn't want to go to prison at Strasburg, where one American student was in for about two years already.

But how did he manage to get off, I asked, now thoroughly interested in his story.

Well, he had just run his bail. When he was arrested he had sent for the doctor at whose house he lodged to bail him out. That was what troubled him most. He wouldn't have the Herr Doctor slipped up anyway. He was going to send the money directly he got home, and there were things enough left of his to cover the money.

What was he arrested for?

For calling out a German student.

But I thought the German students were always fighting duels.

So they were, but only with swords, which they were always practising. They were so padded when they fought that they could not be hurt except just in the face, and the sword arm was so bandaged that there was no play at all except from the wrist. You would see the German students, even when out walking miles away from the town, keep playing away with their walking-sticks all the time, so as to train their wrists.

What was his quarrel about?

Well, it was just this. The American students, of whom there were a large number there, kept pretty much to themselves, and no love was lost between them and the Germans. They had an American Club to which they all belonged, just to keep them together and see any fellow through who was in a scrape. He, and some of the American students, were sitting in the beer-garden close to a table of Germans. Forgetting the neighbourhood, he had tilted his chair, and leant back in it, and so come against a German head. The owner jumped up, and a sharp altercation followed, ending in the German's calling him out with swords. This he refused, but sent a challenge to fight with pistols by the president of the club, a real fine man, who had shot his two men down South before he went to Heidelberg. The answer to this was his arrest, and arrest was a very serious thing now. For some little time since a German and an American fought with swords first, and then with pistols. The American had his face cut open from the eye right down across the mouth, but when it came to pistols he shot the German, who died in an hour. So he was in jail, and challenging with pistols had been made an offence punishable by imprisonment, and that was no joke in a German military prison.

Did he expect the university authorities would send after him then?

No; but his folk were all in Germany for the winter. He had a younger brother at Heidelberg who had taken his bag down to the station for him, and would have let his father know, as he had told him to. If he had telegraphed, the old gentleman might come straight off and stop him yet, but he rather guessed he would be so mad he wouldn't come. No; he didn't expect to see his folk again for three or four years.

But why? After all, sending a challenge of which nothing came was not so very heinous an offence.

Yes, but it was the second time. He had run from an American university to escape expulsion for having set fire to an outhouse. Then he went straight to New York, which he wanted to see, and stopped till his money was all gone. His father was mad enough about that.

I said plainly that I didn't wonder, and was going to add something by way of improving the occasion, but for a look of such deep sorrow which passed over the boy's face that I thought his conscience might be left to do the work better than I could.

He opened his bag, and took out a photograph, and then his six-shooter — a self-cocking German one, he said, which was quicker and carried a heavier ball than any he had seen in America; and then his pipes and cigar-tubes; and then he rolled a cigarette, and lighted it; and, as the dawn was now come, began to ask questions about the country.

But all in vain; back the scenes he was running from came, do what he would. His youngest brother, a little fellow of ten, was down with fever. He had spoilt Christmas for the whole family. It would cut them up awfully.

But to a suggestion that he should go straight back he could not listen. No, he was going straight through to California, the best place for him. He had never done any good yet, but he was going to do it now. He had got a letter or two to Californians from some of his fellow-students, which would give him some opening. He wouldn't see his people for four or five years, till he got something to show them. He would have to pitch right in, or else starve. He would go right into the first thing that came along out there, and make something.

As we got further down the line the morning cleared, and we had many fellow-passengers; but my young friend, as I might almost call him by this time, stuck to me, and seemed to get some relief by talking of his past doings and future prospects. I found that he had been at Würtzburg for a short time before going to Heidelberg, so had had a student's experience of two of the most celebrated German universities. My own ideas of those seats of learning, being for the most part derived from the writings of Mr. Matthew Arnold, received, I am bound to own, rather severe shocks from the evidently truthful experience of this one medical student.

He had simply paid his necessary florins (about Il. worth) for his matriculation fee, and double that sum for two sets of lectures for which he entered. He had passed no matriculation examination, or indeed any other; had attended lectures or not, just as he pleased — about one in three he put as his average — but there was no roll-call or register, and no one that he knew of seemed to care the least whether he was there or not. However, he seemed to think that but for his unlucky little difficulty he could easily at this rate have passed examination for the degree of doctor of medicines. The doctor's degree was a mighty fine thing, and mnch sought after, but didn't amount to much professionally, at least not in Germany, where the doctor has a State examination to pass after he has got his degree. But in America, or anywhere else, he believed, they could just practise on a German M.D. degree, and he knew of one Herr Doctor out west who was about as fit to take hold of any sick fellow as he was himself. Oh, Matthew, Matthew, my mentor! When I got home I had to take down thy volume on universities in Germany, and restore my failing faith by a glance at the appendix, giving a list of the courses of lectures by professors, Privat-docenten, and readers of the university of Berlin during one winter, in which the medical faculty's subjects occupy seven pages; and to remind myself that the characteristics of the German universities are "Lehrfreiheit ttnd lernfreiheit," "Liberty for the teacher, and liberty for the learner;" also that "the French university has no liberty, and the English universities have no science; the German universities have both." Too much liberty of one kind this student at any rate bore witness to, and in one of his serious moments was eloquent on the danger and mischief of the system, so far as his outlook had gone.

By the time our roads diverged, the young runaway had quite won me over to forget his escapades, by his frank disclosures of all that was passing in his mind, of regret and tenderness, hopefulness and audacity; and I sorrowed for a few moments on the platform as the sealskin cap disappeared at the window of the Liverpool carriage, from which he waived a cheery adieu.

As I walked towards the carriage to go on my own way, I found myself regretting that I should see his ruddy face no more, and wishing him all success "in that new world which is the old," for which he was bound, with no possession but his handbag and self-reliance to make his way with. I might have sat alone for thrice as long with an English youngster, in like case, without knowing a word of his history; but then, such history could never have happened to an Englishman, for he never would have run his bail, but would have gone to prison and served his time as a matter of course.

How much each nation has to learn of the other! But I trust that by this time my young friend has seen to it, that the good-natured Herr Doctor who went bail for him hasn't "slipped up anyway."