IT has been granted to me during the last few days to study a soaring human boy face to face. The abstract "my nephew" of whom I ocasionally speak in passing has become the concrete "Guy, don't do this," or, " Guy, don't do that." My study is littered with paper darts of all sorts and sizes; a clasp-knife is at this moment lying open on my favourite arm-chair, a catapult is on the floor (perhaps the safest place for it), and odd numbers of Chums are strewn about the house. The owner of these articles is dashing up and down the stairs, with a whole pack of dogs at his heels.
Guy is an atom of humanity, tottering on the brink of his eleventh birthday. His fond mother consigned him to my care, together with a long list of instructions. "His usual bed-time," she said, "is eight o'clock. Please, please see that he brushes his teeth morning and evening, and keeps his hands clean. When he goes out he must wear his overcoat and his little flannel comforter; and when he comes in you must always insist on his changing his stockings. Keep him out of peddles, and see that he does at least an hour at his arithmetic and Latin Grammar. He is weak in arithmetic; but in Latin Prose he got full marks at his last examination. Don't allow him to make himself a nuisance to you. If he does, give him a good book of adventures, and you '11 find him as quiet as a mouse." These were the more important items in the compendium drawn up for the guidance of a bachelor uncle.
So far I have done my best, but my best has stopped short of Latin grammar and arithmetic. I can remember how keenly I detested the genial old gentlemen who, on hearing that I had gone to school, asked me to decline mensa, and posed me with the perfect tense of fero, and in my nephew's case I satisfied myself with his personal assurance that he had been able to translate into Latin these memorable sentences--"CAESAR marched into Italy with a large army," and "We were seen by CAIUS, your slave." A boy who can do that, and obtain full marks for it, is obviously reserved for very great things. .
For the rest, I found him fairly amenable. He jibs a good deal al his overcoat, and has contrived to lose his little flannel comforter; his bedtime has been extended to nine o'clock; I have utterly failed to restrain him from puddles (our country roads, by the way, are nothing but so many huge puddles); and I find it next to impossible to keep his hands clean, though he has immaculate intervals lasting for about three minutes at a time. But he brushes his teeth and he changes his stockings, so I feel that on the whole I have done pretty well.
OF course he collects postage-stamps. He also takes a profound interest in smoking and all that pertains to it. He goes about bristling with cigarettes so as to be ready to supply my needs at the shortest notice. He is never without a tray, into which he knocks the ash from my cigarette as I smoke it. He has just come in and has posted himself at my elbow. Whizz-bang, he has decided that I have finished my cigarette, he has seized it out of my mouth, hurled it into the fire, has jammed another between my lips and has struck a match and burnt the cigarette to a cinder before I have recovered from the shock. He has found a box of fifty cigars and clipped all their ends, and he has filled my ten pipes with tobacco so as to be ready for all emergencies. It is delightful to find a mere boy able and willing to make himself so useful. \
BUT his usefulness goes further. Only this morning I found him in the pantry busily employed in helping the butler to polish up the forks and spoons, and yesterday he was allowed, as a great treat, to tae a hand in the manufacture of a plum-pudding. To-morrow he is to wait at table, a prospect which seems to fill him with unutterable joy. On the whole he is really a very good and cheerful little boy, with plenty of resources for his own amusement. One thing has struck me about him. He weighs about five stone and his size therefore, is not gigantic. Still, in his little knickerbocker suit, he looks quite big enough for his years. But in the evening he wears a full-dress Eton suit, which has the effect of reducing him to the merest scrap; the most diminutive shrimp, I warrant, that ever got full marks for Latin prose.
I fear there is a lack of reverence about the nephews of present day. This one--and I presume he is typical of the rest--calls me familiarly by my Christian name without the respectful prefix "Uncle." When asked why he did this, he said, "Oh, I don't know, 'uncles' are people with whiskers." As my whiskers did not survive my freshman's year at Cambridge, it appears that I am not qualified for the title, though I cannot shake off the responsibilities of the post. His ideas on age we also rather alarming. "How old," I asked him " is the head-master of your school?" "Oh, middle-aged--nearly thirty."
BUT my chief surprise has been his keen and appreciative enjoyment of Huckleberry Finn. I gave it to him to quiet him, and he was soon deep in it. This evening he has insisted on reading aloud to me the whole of that inimitable passage which relates how the two old frauds, the King and the Duke of Bridgewater, pretended to be the brothers of Mr. Peter Wilks, deceased. At every other sentence the boy had to stop, convulsed with laughter, and, mind you, he laughed in the right way and at the right things. This is no mere piece of knockabout clowning such as one supposes would appeal to a small boy, but a bit of the most genuine and incisive humour ever printed. I am, therefore, forced to the conclusion--still assuming GUY to be typical--that the sense of humour amongst nephews of a tender age has become far keener and juster than it used to be.
But, after all, what a great book Huckleberry Finn is. With how lavish a hand has MARK TWAIN scattered the riches of his humour and his observation and his sympathy over every page. There is enough in it to fit out twenty ordinary books with laughter. There are bits of description in it which bring a scene before your eyes as vividly as if you had seen it over and over again and fixed it on your mind. Characters are hit off in a few incisive touches, and the man stands before you as he must have lived.
TAKE this for description: "It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little way looked all dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they were just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest--fst! it was as bright as glory, and you 'd have a little glimpse of tree tops a-plunging about, away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash, and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the underside of the world, like rolling empty barrels downstairs, where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know."
AND this:--"Colonel Grangerford was a gentleman, you see. He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well-born, as the saying is, and that's worth as much in a man as it is in a horse, so the widow Douglas said, and nobody ever denied she was of the first aristocracy in our town; and pap he always said it too, though he warn't no more quality than a mud-cat himself. Colonel Grangerford was very tall and very slim, and had a darkish-paly complexion, not a sign of red in it anywheres; he was clean-shaved every morning all over his thin face, and he had the thinnest kind of lips, and the thinnest kind of nostrils, and a high nose and heavy eyebrows, and the blackest kind of eyes, sunk so deep like they seemed they was looking out of caverns at you as you may say. His forehead was high, and his hair was black and straight and hung to his shoulders.... Sometimes he smiled, and it was good to see; but when he straightened himself up like a liberty pole, and the lightning begun to flicker out from under his eyebrows, you wanted to climb a tree first, and find out what the matter was afterwards. He didn't ever have to tell anybody to mind their manners--everybody was always good-mannered where he was. Everybody loved to have him around too; he was sunshine most always--I mean he made it seem like good weather. When he turned into a cloud-bank it was awful dark for half a minute and that was enough; there wouldn't nothing go wrong again for a week.
THEN for simple, unforced pathos you have the runaway nigger, Jim, one of the finest and purest gentlemen in all literature. And for tragedy, can anything be more moving and terrible than the last stand of the Grangerfords, or the death of Boggs, with its sequel in Colonel Sherburn's imperturbable defiance of the cowardly mob, who propose to lynch him? But I have not space to dwell on all the great points of this Homeric book--for Homeric it is in the true sense, as no other English book is, that I know of.
So I (and my nephew) send this message of goodwill across the sea to our friend MARK TWAIN, at a time when messages of goodwill and friendship are sorely needed. That the countrymen of DICKENS and MARK TWAIN should fight about Venezuela is an idea so fantastic and preposterous that imagination boggles at it; and even the mind of the worst Jingo of either nation must revolt from it when it is fully realised.