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    Chapter 6

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    Chapter 6
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    RANDOM MEMORIES

    II. - THE EDUCATION OF AN ENGINEER

    ANSTRUTHER is a place sacred to the Muse; she inspired (really to a
    considerable extent) Tennant's vernacular poem ANST'ER FAIR; and I
    have there waited upon her myself with much devotion. This was
    when I came as a young man to glean engineering experience from the
    building of the breakwater. What I gleaned, I am sure I do not
    know; but indeed I had already my own private determination to be
    an author; I loved the art of words and the appearances of life;
    and TRAVELLERS, and HEADERS, and RUBBLE, and POLISHED ASHLAR, and
    PIERRES PERDUES, and even the thrilling question of the STRING-
    COURSE, interested me only (if they interested me at all) as
    properties for some possible romance or as words to add to my
    vocabulary. To grow a little catholic is the compensation of
    years; youth is one-eyed; and in those days, though I haunted the
    breakwater by day, and even loved the place for the sake of the
    sunshine, the thrilling seaside air, the wash of waves on the sea-
    face, the green glimmer of the divers' helmets far below, and the
    musical chinking of the masons, my one genuine preoccupation lay
    elsewhere, and my only industry was in the hours when I was not on
    duty. I lodged with a certain Bailie Brown, a carpenter by trade;
    and there, as soon as dinner was despatched, in a chamber scented
    with dry rose-leaves, drew in my chair to the table and proceeded
    to pour forth literature, at such a speed, and with such
    intimations of early death and immortality, as I now look back upon
    with wonder. Then it was that I wrote VOCES FIDELIUM, a series of
    dramatic monologues in verse; then that I indited the bulk of a
    covenanting novel - like so many others, never finished. Late I
    sat into the night, toiling (as I thought) under the very dart of
    death, toiling to leave a memory behind me. I feel moved to thrust
    aside the curtain of the years, to hail that poor feverish idiot,
    to bid him go to bed and clap VOCES FIDELIUM on the fire before he
    goes; so clear does he appear before me, sitting there between his
    candles in the rose-scented room and the late night; so ridiculous
    a picture (to my elderly wisdom) does the fool present! But he was
    driven to his bed at last without miraculous intervention; and the
    manner of his driving sets the last touch upon this eminently
    youthful business. The weather was then so warm that I must keep
    the windows open; the night without was populous with moths. As
    the late darkness deepened, my literary tapers beaconed forth more
    brightly; thicker and thicker came the dusty night-fliers, to
    gyrate for one brilliant instant round the flame and fall in
    agonies upon my paper. Flesh and blood could not endure the
    spectacle; to capture immortality was doubtless a noble enterprise,
    but not to capture it at such a cost of suffering; and out would go
    the candles, and off would I go to bed in the darkness raging to
    think that the blow might fall on the morrow, and there was VOCES
    FIDELIUM still incomplete. Well, the moths are - all gone, and
    VOCES FIDELIUM along with them; only the fool is still on hand and
    practises new follies.

    Only one thing in connection with the harbour tempted me, and that
    was the diving, an experience I burned to taste of. But this was
    not to be, at least in Anstruther; and the subject involves a
    change of scene to the sub-arctic town of Wick. You can never have
    dwelt in a country more unsightly than that part of Caithness, the
    land faintly swelling, faintly falling, not a tree, not a hedgerow,
    the fields divided by single slate stones set upon their edge, the
    wind always singing in your ears and (down the long road that led
    nowhere) thrumming in the telegraph wires. Only as you approached
    the coast was there anything to stir the heart. The plateau broke
    down to the North Sea in formidable cliffs, the tall out-stacks
    rose like pillars ringed about with surf, the coves were over-
    brimmed with clamorous froth, the sea-birds screamed, the wind sang
    in the thyme on the cliff's edge; here and there, small ancient
    castles toppled on the brim; here and there, it was possible to dip
    into a dell of shelter, where you might lie and tell yourself you
    were a little warm, and hear (near at hand) the whin-pods bursting
    in the afternoon sun, and (farther off) the rumour of the turbulent
    sea. As for Wick itself, it is one of the meanest of man's towns,
    and situate certainly on the baldest of God's bays. It lives for
    herring, and a strange sight it is to see (of an afternoon) the
    heights of Pulteney blackened by seaward-looking fishers, as when a
    city crowds to a review - or, as when bees have swarmed, the ground
    is horrible with lumps and clusters; and a strange sight, and a
    beautiful, to see the fleet put silently out against a rising moon,
    the sea-line rough as a wood with sails, and ever and again and one
    after another, a boat flitting swiftly by the silver disk. This
    mass of fishers, this great fleet of boats, is out of all
    proportion to the town itself; and the oars are manned and the nets
    hauled by immigrants from the Long Island (as we call the outer
    Hebrides), who come for that season only, and depart again, if "the
    take" be poor, leaving debts behind them. In a bad year, the end
    of the herring fishery is therefore an exciting time; fights are
    common, riots often possible; an apple knocked from a child's hand
    was once the signal for something like a war; and even when I was
    there, a gunboat lay in the bay to assist the authorities. To
    contrary interests, it should be observed, the curse of Babel is
    here added; the Lews men are Gaelic speakers. Caithness has
    adopted English; an odd circumstance, if you reflect that both must
    be largely Norsemen by descent. I remember seeing one of the
    strongest instances of this division: a thing like a Punch-and-
    Judy box erected on the flat grave-stones of the churchyard; from
    the hutch or proscenium - I know not what to call it - an eldritch-
    looking preacher laying down the law in Gaelic about some one of
    the name of POWL, whom I at last divined to be the apostle to the
    Gentiles; a large congregation of the Lews men very devoutly
    listening; and on the outskirts of the crowd, some of the town's
    children (to whom the whole affair was Greek and Hebrew) profanely
    playing tigg. The same descent, the same country, the same narrow
    sect of the same religion, and all these bonds made very largely
    nugatory by an accidental difference of dialect!

    Into the bay of Wick stretched the dark length of the unfinished
    breakwater, in its cage of open staging; the travellers (like
    frames of churches) over-plumbing all; and away at the extreme end,
    the divers toiling unseen on the foundation. On a platform of
    loose planks, the assistants turned their air-mills; a stone might
    be swinging between wind and water; underneath the swell ran gaily;
    and from time to time, a mailed dragon with a window-glass snout
    came dripping up the ladder. Youth is a blessed season after all;
    my stay at Wick was in the year of VOCES FIDELIUM and the rose-leaf
    room at Bailie Brown's; and already I did not care two straws for
    literary glory. Posthumous ambition perhaps requires an atmosphere
    of roses; and the more rugged excitant of Wick east winds had made
    another boy of me. To go down in the diving-dress, that was my
    absorbing fancy; and with the countenance of a certain handsome
    scamp of a diver, Bob Bain by name, I gratified the whim.

    It was gray, harsh, easterly weather, the swell ran pretty high,
    and out in the open there were "skipper's daughters," when I found
    myself at last on the diver's platform, twenty pounds of lead upon
    each foot and my whole person swollen with ply and ply of woollen
    underclothing. One moment, the salt wind was whistling round my
    night-capped head; the next, I was crushed almost double under the
    weight of the helmet. As that intolerable burthern was laid upon
    me, I could have found it in my heart (only for shame's sake) to
    cry off from the whole enterprise. But it was too late. The
    attendants began to turn the hurdy-gurdy, and the air to whistle
    through the tube; some one screwed in the barred window of the
    vizor; and I was cut off in a moment from my fellow-men; standing
    there in their midst, but quite divorced from intercourse: a
    creature deaf and dumb, pathetically looking forth upon them from a
    climate of his own. Except that I could move and feel, I was like
    a man fallen in a catalepsy. But time was scarce given me to
    realise my isolation; the weights were hung upon my back and
    breast, the signal rope was thrust into my unresisting hand; and
    setting a twenty-pound foot upon the ladder, I began ponderously to
    descend.

    Some twenty rounds below the platform, twilight fell. Looking up,
    I saw a low green heaven mottled with vanishing bells of white;
    looking around, except for the weedy spokes and shafts of the
    ladder, nothing but a green gloaming, somewhat opaque but very
    restful and delicious. Thirty rounds lower, I stepped off on the
    PIERRES PERDUES of the foundation; a dumb helmeted figure took me
    by the hand, and made a gesture (as I read it) of encouragement;
    and looking in at the creature's window, I beheld the face of Bain.
    There we were, hand to hand and (when it pleased us) eye to eye;
    and either might have burst himself with shouting, and not a
    whisper come to his companion's hearing. Each, in his own little
    world of air, stood incommunicably separate.

    Bob had told me ere this a little tale, a five minutes' drama at
    the bottom of the sea, which at that moment possibly shot across my
    mind. He was down with another, settling a stone of the sea-wall.
    They had it well adjusted, Bob gave the signal, the scissors were
    slipped, the stone set home; and it was time to turn to something
    else. But still his companion remained bowed over the block like a
    mourner on a tomb, or only raised himself to make absurd
    contortions and mysterious signs unknown to the vocabulary of the
    diver. There, then, these two stood for awhile, like the dead and
    the living; till there flashed a fortunate thought into Bob's mind,
    and he stooped, peered through the window of that other world, and
    beheld the face of its inhabitant wet with streaming tears. Ah!
    the man was in pain! And Bob, glancing downward, saw what was the
    trouble: the block had been lowered on the foot of that
    unfortunate - he was caught alive at the bottom of the sea under
    fifteen tons of rock.

    That two men should handle a stone so heavy, even swinging in the
    scissors, may appear strange to the inexpert. These must bear in
    mind the great density of the water of the sea, and the surprising
    results of transplantation to that medium. To understand a little
    what these are, and how a man's weight, so far from being an
    encumbrance, is the very ground of his agility, was the chief
    lesson of my submarine experience. The knowledge came upon me by
    degrees. As I began to go forward with the hand of my estranged
    companion, a world of tumbled stones was visible, pillared with the
    weedy uprights of the staging: overhead, a flat roof of green: a
    little in front, the sea-wall, like an unfinished rampart. And
    presently in our upward progress, Bob motioned me to leap upon a
    stone; I looked to see if he were possibly in earnest, and he only
    signed to me the more imperiously. Now the block stood six feet
    high; it would have been quite a leap to me unencumbered; with the
    breast and back weights, and the twenty pounds upon each foot, and
    the staggering load of the helmet, the thing was out of reason. I
    laughed aloud in my tomb; and to prove to Bob how far he was
    astray, I gave a little impulse from my toes. Up I soared like a
    bird, my companion soaring at my side. As high as to the stone,
    and then higher, I pursued my impotent and empty flight. Even when
    the strong arm of Bob had checked my shoulders, my heels continued
    their ascent; so that I blew out sideways like an autumn leaf, and
    must be hauled in, hand over hand, as sailors haul in the slack of
    a sail, and propped upon my feet again like an intoxicated sparrow.
    Yet a little higher on the foundation, and we began to be affected
    by the bottom of the swell, running there like a strong breeze of
    wind. Or so I must suppose; for, safe in my cushion of air, I was
    conscious of no impact; only swayed idly like a weed, and was now
    borne helplessly abroad, and now swiftly - and yet with dream-like
    gentleness - impelled against my guide. So does a child's balloon
    divagate upon the currents of the air, and touch, and slide off
    again from every obstacle. So must have ineffectually swung, so
    resented their inefficiency, those light crowds that followed the
    Star of Hades, and uttered exiguous voices in the land beyond
    Cocytus.

    There was something strangely exasperating, as well as strangely
    wearying, in these uncommanded evolutions. It is bitter to return
    to infancy, to be supported, and directed, and perpetually set upon
    your feet, by the hand of some one else. The air besides, as it is
    supplied to you by the busy millers on the platform, closes the
    eustachian tubes and keeps the neophyte perpetually swallowing,
    till his throat is grown so dry that he can swallow no longer. And
    for all these reasons-although I had a fine, dizzy, muddle-headed
    joy in my surroundings, and longed, and tried, and always failed,
    to lay hands on the fish that darted here and there about me, swift
    as humming-birds - yet I fancy I was rather relieved than otherwise
    when Bain brought me back to the ladder and signed to me to mount.
    And there was one more experience before me even then. Of a
    sudden, my ascending head passed into the trough of a swell. Out
    of the green, I shot at once into a glory of rosy, almost of
    sanguine light - the multitudinous seas incarnadined, the heaven
    above a vault of crimson. And then the glory faded into the hard,
    ugly daylight of a Caithness autumn, with a low sky, a gray sea,
    and a whistling wind.

    Bob Bain had five shillings for his trouble, and I had done what I
    desired. It was one of the best things I got from my education as
    an engineer: of which, however, as a way of life, I wish to speak
    with sympathy. It takes a man into the open air; it keeps him
    hanging about harbour-sides, which is the richest form of idling;
    it carries him to wild islands; it gives him a taste of the genial
    dangers of the sea; it supplies him with dexterities to exercise;
    it makes demands upon his ingenuity; it will go far to cure him of
    any taste (if ever he had one) for the miserable life of cities.
    And when it has done so, it carries him back and shuts him in an
    office! From the roaring skerry and the wet thwart of the tossing
    boat, he passes to the stool and desk; and with a memory full of
    ships, and seas, and perilous headlands, and the shining pharos, he
    must apply his long-sighted eyes to the petty niceties of drawing,
    or measure his inaccurate mind with several pages of consecutive
    figures. He is a wise youth, to be sure, who can balance one part
    of genuine life against two parts of drudgery between four walls,
    and for the sake of the one, manfully accept the other.

    Wick was scarce an eligible place of stay. But how much better it
    was to hang in the cold wind upon the pier, to go down with Bob
    Bain among the roots of the staging, to be all day in a boat
    coiling a wet rope and shouting orders - not always very wise -
    than to be warm and dry, and dull, and dead-alive, in the most
    comfortable office. And Wick itself had in those days a note of
    originality. It may have still, but I misdoubt it much. The old
    minister of Keiss would not preach, in these degenerate times, for
    an hour and a half upon the clock. The gipsies must be gone from
    their cavern; where you might see, from the mouth, the women
    tending their fire, like Meg Merrilies, and the men sleeping off
    their coarse potations; and where, in winter gales, the surf would
    beleaguer them closely, bursting in their very door. A traveller
    to-day upon the Thurso coach would scarce observe a little cloud of
    smoke among the moorlands, and be told, quite openly, it marked a
    private still. He would not indeed make that journey, for there is
    now no Thurso coach. And even if he could, one little thing that
    happened to me could never happen to him, or not with the same
    trenchancy of contrast.

    We had been upon the road all evening; the coach-top was crowded
    with Lews fishers going home, scarce anything but Gaelic had
    sounded in my ears; and our way had lain throughout over a moorish
    country very northern to behold. Latish at night, though it was
    still broad day in our subarctic latitude, we came down upon the
    shores of the roaring Pentland Firth, that grave of mariners; on
    one hand, the cliffs of Dunnet Head ran seaward; in front was the
    little bare, white town of Castleton, its streets full of blowing
    sand; nothing beyond, but the North Islands, the great deep, and
    the perennial ice-fields of the Pole. And here, in the last
    imaginable place, there sprang up young outlandish voices and a
    chatter of some foreign speech; and I saw, pursuing the coach with
    its load of Hebridean fishers - as they had pursued VETTURINI up
    the passes of the Apennines or perhaps along the grotto under
    Virgil's tomb - two little dark-eyed, white-toothed Italian
    vagabonds, of twelve to fourteen years of age, one with a hurdy-
    gurdy, the other with a cage of white mice. The coach passed on,
    and their small Italian chatter died in the distance; and I was
    left to marvel how they had wandered into that country, and how
    they fared in it, and what they thought of it, and when (if ever)
    they should see again the silver wind-breaks run among the olives,
    and the stone-pine stand guard upon Etruscan sepulchres.

    Upon any American, the strangeness of this incident is somewhat
    lost. For as far back as he goes in his own land, he will find
    some alien camping there; the Cornish miner, the French or Mexican
    half-blood, the negro in the South, these are deep in the woods and
    far among the mountains. But in an old, cold, and rugged country
    such as mine, the days of immigration are long at an end; and away
    up there, which was at that time far beyond the northernmost
    extreme of railways, hard upon the shore of that ill-omened strait
    of whirlpools, in a land of moors where no stranger came, unless it
    should be a sportsman to shoot grouse or an antiquary to decipher
    runes, the presence of these small pedestrians struck the mind as
    though a bird-of-paradise had risen from the heather or an
    albatross come fishing in the bay of Wick. They were as strange to
    their surroundings as my lordly evangelist or the old Spanish
    grandee on the Fair Isle.
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