RECORD: Skinner, A. J. 1927. [Letter of reminiscences of Darwin at Down House]. In L. F. Abbot, Twelve great modernists. New York: Doubleday, pp. 247-249.
REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, transcribed and edited by John van Wyhe 10.2008. RN1
NOTE: The copy scanned is from the collection of van Wyhe.
One of the most striking tributes to Darwin's elemental goodness comes from an unexpected source which has not yet, I think, found its way into permanent literature.1 About three years ago there was a movement to purchase Darwin's home, "Down House," as a permanent memorial. At that time I found in the New York Evening Post a remarkable letter in behalf of the movement written from Cambridge, England, and signed A. J. Skinner. It reads partly as follows:
I was born and lived within sight of Down House, Darwin's old home. . . . Some of my boyhood years were spent in the service of Charles Darwin, my father being at the same time a coachman in his employ.2
Before me as I write is a picture of Down House with its creeper-clad walls, the old-fashioned veranda set about with comfortable chairs, the smooth, velvety lawn with the old sundial and flower beds, and the ancient mulberry tree, whose fruit when ripe was eagerly contended for by a host of noisy blackbirds, thrushes and others of the feathered tribes. I do not, however, require the aid of a photo-
1 Lawrence Fraser Abbott (1859-1933) American editor and writer. The preface of this book is dated 1 October 1926. The original published letter, presumably in a British periodical, has not been located.
2 Possibly the coachman named John, who, after Darwin's death, came to Cambridge with Emma Darwin for the winters. Bernard Darwin remembered him as 'soothing and tranquil rather than exciting company, as tranquil as the horses he drove'.
graph to bring back a memory picture of Down House as I knew it, for the old mansion, the gardens and orchard, the paddocks and the long leafy walk, known as the sand-walk, leading to a little coppice and a summer house, are as familiar to me after nearly fifty years as my present surroundings.
Another picture which also comes easily to mind is that of a tall, striking figure in Inverness cape and black, wide-brimmed, soft felt hat, striding along well-kept paths, followed by his inseparable companion, a white fox terrier, which, wandering neither to left nor right, trots steadily a length or so behind his master's heels.1 We whose duty it was to keep the paths and flower beds free from weeds and rubbish always knew the time of day when we saw the master of Down House approaching, for with him punctuality was a virtue, and the daily walk at the same hour each day was noted by us as an indication of what was expected of those who served him. But although Charles Darwin required punctuality and other virtues in those about him, no employer was more beloved and affectionately regarded, for just dealing and consideration were as much a part of his great nature as was his penetrating scientific mind.
Two little incidents from my own experience may serve to illustrate this fact. I was cutting the lawn one day and at one end of it I spied a queer looking apparatus with metal rods driven through the turf a foot or more into the ground. Being of a curious nature, I couldn't resist pulling up one of the rods to see what it was all about.2 While examining it I became aware of the presence of someone near, and stealing a guilty glance behind, I was almost paralyzed to see the "master," as we called him, standing over me.
I felt a great relief when I saw a kindly smile and heard a kindly voice saying: "Are you studying earthworms too,
2 This refers to the 'worm-stone', a reconstruction of which can still be seen at Down House. Click here.
my little man? Be careful to put the rod back where it came from."
On another occasion, in the afternoon of a midsummer day, when most of the village lads of my age were playing at cricket or other games, I was weeding one of the main walks. On my knees, hot and irritated, grumbling audibly and stabbing viciously at the weeds, I again became aware of a sympathetic voice saying, "I am sure you find that trying work to-day; finish it some other time," and the first half-crown of my own I ever possessed was pressed into my hand. So, too, the old gardener who tended the greenhouses, where experiments on plants were carried on and who at times may have unknowingly disturbed carefully adjusted instruments and appliances, could if he were alive testify to the same kindly consideration.
Numerous stories of Charles Darwin's thoughtfulness and kindness to man and beast were current among the villagers round about, and keen regrets and concern were felt in many a village home during the time of his fatal illness. One of the saddest days of my life, and I know others of the village folk shared my emotion, was when I set out to the nearest telegraph office, six miles away, with a bunch of telegrams which gave the news to the world that a great and noble heart had ceased to beat.
TWELVE GREAT MODERNISTS
HERODOTUS THOMAS JEFFERSON BEETHOVEN
ST. FRANCIS JOHN MARSHALL EMERSON
ERASMUS FRANCOIS MILLET DARWIN
VOLTAIRE GEORGE STEPHENSON PASTEUR
By LAWRENCE F. ABBOTT
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
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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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