RECORD: Nash, L. A. 1890. Some memories of Charles Darwin. Overland Monthly (October): 404-408.
REVISION HISTORY: Scanned by John van Wyhe. Transcribed (single key) by AEL Data. 9.2008. RN1
SOME MEMORIES OF CHARLES DARWIN.
WE had the happy fortune to be near neighbors of Mr. Darwin for about four years, — living at one end of the village of Down, while his house and grounds were at the other end. Between, the village street seemed to crawl its lazy length,—never any bustle or stir, save when the little ones turned out of school twice a day, or on Sunday when the villagers walked to and from the old parish church.
The neat little houses, no two or three alike, stood near together, but with trim gardens fronting the clean street, each with picket fence and wicket gate, and gay with old-fashioned flowers all the summer time. Some of these cottages were old-time houses, built of unbaked clay bricks, set in transverse frames of timber, which had held up the old thatched roofs for hundreds of years. Within might be still seen the great square fireplace, with its chimney corners, or ingle nooks, where the old folks had sat and kept warm for generations, while the hams and sides of bacon were hung high up in the wide chimney to smoke.
But these old whitewashed houses had mostly given place to the warm red brick, with slate roofs that brighten and silver in the sunshine. Three little stores had been made, by the enterprising tradesman building out over his front garden to the village street. At the head of the village it branched out into two more roads, widening at the branching point into an open space. On one side of this stood the old parish church, and had stood for eight hundred years,—restored, as the parson called it, spoiled as some of the rest of us thought, at a recent date. Still the solitary yew tree stood its sentinel at the churchyard gate, and had stood for the same eight hundred years, — fit emblem, our fore-fathers called the yew, of the immortality of the soul, while they laid the body to rest in God's acre by its side.
There were several breaks in the rows of cottages as you passed up the street. The trim little houses gave place to low flint stone walls, with trees peering over from the inner side. Open iron gateways (that had taken the place of the old oak doors) revealed a large house within, where the "great folks" dwelt. In one of these lived Miss Elizabeth Wedgwood, Mrs. Darwin's eldest sister. In another such house lived Doctor Frank Darwin, the helper and colaborer with his father through his latter years. And in the largest of these houses, at the end of the village, as I have said, lived then, and had lived for thirty years, the great naturalist himself.
These larger houses all open out at the back on their lawns, gardens, meadows, and little farmsteads, with a gardener's cottage scattered here and there.
So do the well-to-do English people live, side by side, and often heart to heart, with their poorer brethren, going in and out among them, ministering to their wants, and sympathizing with their joys. Ah! the happy, simple life of the English village is a sweet picture that does not find its counterpart on this side of the water, and that few Americans have seen, and consequently few appreciate.
Such was the little Kentish village, eighteen miles from busy London, and at the time the Darwins chose it for their home, fully twelve miles from a railroad. But then the roads were so made and kept that a lady could walk on them, or drive a two-wheeled cart all the year round, except when the snow might fall and hide the road a little while. The
English people have not yet forgotten the roadmaking lessons of the old Romans, and have not, so far, arranged for every man to work out, or play out, his road tax. One road, where Mr. Darwin often walked, opened out on one of the veritable old Roman roads, the highway between London, Maidstone, and the Kentish coast. Legends survive. Near by is Cæsar's well, where Cæsar stamped his foot and the water rose through the chalky soil, and still rises fresh. A few miles farther the soldiers saw a raven fly. Cæsar said, "Follow the raven's flight, and it will bring us to a stream," and the river they came to is called the Ravensbourne today.
Now the village of Down seems sacred to the memory of Charles Darwin. The place stands high up,—level with the cross on the top of St. Paul's Cathedral, which shows itself on rarely clear days, through the murky cloud hanging over the distant city. The air is pure and bracing, and Mr. Darwin thought he could count on quiet and seclusion for his work. Still people found him out. He would tell how a strange German got into his study one day, sat down, and said, "Now tell me all about your theory," — and so sat for two mortal hours, spoiling one whole day's work. A contrast to an American brother, who drove all the way from London in a hansom cab, sent his card in, and on seeing Mr. Darwin said, "Now, sir, shake hands," shook, and was off again.
Up to the last few years of his life Mr. Darwin would make expeditions into the country round, sometimes on an old pony, oftener on foot, looking for the English likenesses or parallels of the plants he was then studying. In his greenhouse were still the orchids made famous by his researches into the modes of their fertilization. Room was needed for another set of plants, and he gave his orchids to us.
How he would gaze on a plant from under his heavy eyebrows! Those eyebrows used to trouble his wife when his photograph was taken: she used to say the photographers gave him no eyes at all. Speaking of them himself, I remember, one day he called my attention to the oil painting of his father, which hung on the dining room wall. I said I could discover no likeness to him. "Well," he said, "my father used to wonder how I came by my eyebrows,—not by inheritance, he was sure, and he used to say he never noticed them until I returned from my long voyage on board the Beagle, and he believed they grew to that size because of my observing all the time,"—and then he laughed heartily.
His laugh would do you good to hear. I think I never heard a heartier laugh from him than once when he asked me about some bird, on which the conversation hinged, and I answered, as if talking to the children, "Oh, it was only a little dickey bird." With shame I blushed at my definition. But the truth is that there was such a sweet, childlike simplicity about that great man, that one forgot he was great, because he was always interested in the littles that make up so much of life.
Once I went to see Mrs. Darwin with a young niece who chanced to have a bunch of some wild berries in her hand. We had left, and got as far as the gate into the road, when Mr. Darwin came running after us. "You will think me crazy, but after you had left I thought I should like your niece to let me have some of those berries; you see the bloom is still on them."
Just then he was studying the wherefore of the bloom on fruit. When his mind was at work on any subject nothing cognate to it ever escaped his notice.
Before leaving England, ten years ago, I stayed with the Darwins for a day or two. I remember so well Mr. Darwin's coming into the dining room, bringing carefully some precious plant, some change in which he wanted us all to ob-
serve with him, and excusing himself for the interruption, for he was the most courteous of men.
He varied his study and observations by frequent rests in his study room, or by having some light book read to him, or by a game at backgammon with Mrs. Darwin. It was only by thus husbanding his little strength that he was able to get through the gigantic tasks he did. Between four and five in the afternoon he generally came into the drawing room for the ladies' tea, and to chat genially with any one calling at that time. He had often to leave the dinner table before the meal was over, and go and rest.
Once when there had been some music and singing in the evening, Mr. Darwin said to me in such a simple, regretful way: "I am not able to get the enjoyment from music that I did when I was young. I suppose from turning my attention always to other things the musical corner of my brain has got atrophied."
If the musical corner had got atrophied he had not allowed the philanthropic corner to wither. Any case of trouble or sickness met his ready sympathy. Many an appetizing dinner was carried from the Darwin's table to the sick around them. They had the faculty of attaching closely all their neighbors and dependents to them. The poor blessed them. In their own household there were four or five trusted old servants, whose homes had been with them ever since they kept house. I remember once, during an illness, inquiring of the butler how Mr. Darwin was, when he said: "Master's illnesses now-a-days are nothing to what they used to be. About thirty years ago many's a time when I was helping nurse him, I've thought he would have died in my arms."
Mr. Darwin sought to make the villagers thrifty by himself managing their Benefit Club, or village insurance society. It delighted him to tell that Down was such a healthy place, and the people so much longer lived than in other places, that he had got the actuary of the parent Benefit Society, of which the Down Club was a branch, to allow a special grade of bonuses for the Down villagers.
I notice he says, somewhere in the Life and Letters: "As for myself, I believe that I have acted rightly in steadily following and devoting my life to science. I feel no remorse from having committed any great sin, but have often and often regretted that I have not done more direct good to my fellow-creatures." From the great benevolence of his nature, I can well believe that at times this regret was very strong.
His life work did not debar him from the pleasures of home. Home was his experiment station, his laboratory, his workshop. So that when his family saw that he needed rest and change, they would persuade him to leave it all for a few weeks.
Home never had a more united family circle than this. The children had been delicate when young, and had had tutors at home. In winter time, the whole house had been their playground, with the sole exception of their father's study. I remember once, when I was discussing the bringing up of children with their wise and gentle mother, she said to me: "When we were young, Charles and I talked over together what we should do. The house was newly and expensively furnished. Shall we make the furniture a bugbear to the children, or shall we let them use it in their plays? We agreed together that, as they must be within doors a good deal, and five of them were boys, we would not worry about things getting shabby. So chairs and other furniture used to get piled up for railways and coaches, just as the fancy took them"; and then she added, "I believe we have all been much the happier in consequence."
Mr. Darwin used to tell a story about this against himself. He suddenly ap-
peared at the drawing-room door one day, to see one of the boys jumping up and down on the new springs of the sofa; at which he said to the child, "Leonard, I am sorry to see you doing that. I thought that was the one thing you were not to do in this room."
Then, looking at him archly and determinedly, the boy replied, "If that is what you think, father, it is you who had better make haste and go out of the room." Whereupon the father beat a hasty retreat.
These indulgent and wise parents invented a charming staircase toy for their children: just a planed board, about fourteen inches wide, and eight or nine feet long, with a little rim fixed on either side. This placed on the sloping stairs made the most delightful slide imaginable. Another toy was the rocking boat, a segment of about a third of a circle, wide enough to hold a child seated at either end. These two toys, relics of past childhood, used to be brought out every summer when the school children had an annual frolic on the Darwin's lawn.
I have heard Mrs. Darwin say that they never thwarted the children needlessly, but would say: "You seem to care very much about so and so, and I don't care at all, and when you are older you won't care for it, either, so you may have it now."
When those children were grown up, the chief family characteristic seemed to be their deference for each other's opinion. If one felt like contradicting another, it was only in the form, "Don't you think so and so?"
In fact, that was one great charm in Mr. Darwin's conversation: "Have you ever noticed so and so?" proceeding to tell you of some unique observation of his own. Or, "Don't you think the reason is this?" whatever it might happen to be, thus putting his listener on a par with himself, both as an observer and a reasoner.
The courtesy of his manner seemed to spring from the true simplicity of his nature, together with an innate regard for others. Wherever he saw a spark of the naturalist's soul in a young person, he knew how to fan it into life. This was the case with Sir John Lubbock, when a lad. Living in the adjoining parish, Mr. Darwin used to meet him on his country rambles, poking over living things. He encouraged these boyish researches, and that boy is today one of the world's great scientific observers.
All the children of the family were brought up with a reverent love for living things: to them in all their after lives nothing seemed "common or unclean." Whether an insect crawled or flew, were its colors bright or dull, its life above or below ground, they all appeared to be, so to speak, on respectful terms with it, because it lived.
Mr. Darwin was always very much alive to what the world said, not of him, but of the evolution theory. Anything that appeared in the public prints Mrs. Darwin would collect and read to him. Once when we were sitting under the garden veranda, the peculiarity of which was a glass roof, that all the timid rays of the English winter sun might be enjoyed, Mr. Darwin told us that had lately received a letter that had given him more pleasure than he had felt for a long time. It was a letter in Hebrew, from a Polish rabbi. He added: "You know I can't read Hebrew, so I had first to get it translated." The rabbi thanked him for his work (on evolution) and said it was the best elucidation of Genesis he had ever come across. Mr. Darwin added: "It is the best bit of praise I ever received." He went on to say how religious people found fault with his theory; "But I tell them I only state scientific truths as I have discovered them, and I leave it to the theologians to reconcile them with the Scriptures; that is their province, not mine."
Of late years Mr. Darwin rarely walked out beyond his own grounds.
They were pretty home meadows, with dry paths, which he had carefully measured, so that he knew when he had walked a mile, which, in his failing health, he considered a good "constitutional." Some member of the family was always ready to be his walking companion. On one side the lands slope upwards to the Cudham woods; on the other side down to the Vale of Keston. In the distance was the high ridge of Sydenham, with the shining towers of the Crystal Palace.
In lashing strictures on Charles Darwin's lack of faith, because his theories upset the old idea of an instantaneous creation, there is one sentence in his book that Christians overlook. It runs thus: "When through successive evolutionary developments the body of man was prepared for his spirit, it required another creative fiat to implant the soul within that body." It is for this little sentence that the school of strict and avowed materialists disown Charles Darwin as a brother.
L. A. Nash.
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Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (http://darwin-online.org.uk/)
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