Skelton Account

The Table-Talk of Shirley 1896
John Skelton

[294-305] Even while these last sheets are going through the press, I hear with profound sorrow of the death of my dear and admirable friend, Professor Huxley, to the whole world a thinker of brilliant faculty and immense force, to his friends one of the brightest, bravest and cheeriest of men.

Huxley had probably the most trenchant intellect of the time; yet, on the emotional side lie was extraordinarily tender and sympathetic,–no woman more so. He was one of the best talkers, if not the best talker, I have known,–alert, swift at repartee, apt to respond to badinage of any kind in kind. Yet his constancy to his convictions, to his serious convictions, was proverbial–he was at all times honest as the day. The [295] John Knox of Agnosticism, it might be said of him as Morton said of the Scotch Reformer,–"He never feared the face of man." His letters, like his talk, were delightful; a mine of gay wisdom; the wisdom never pedantic; the gaiety never forced or frivolous. A score of those lying beside me are so characteristic of the writer in his graver as in his lighter vein, that I venture to string together a few sentences, taken almost at random from their pages.

January 1879
To John Skelton:

"Being the most procrastinating letter-writer in existence, I thought or pretended to think that it would riot be decent to thank you until I had read the book. And when I had done myself that pleasure, I further pretended to think that it would be much better to wait till I could send you my Hume book, which, as it contains a biography, is the newest approach to a work of fiction of which I have yet been guilty. The 'Hume' was sent, and I hope reached you a week ago; and as my conscience just now inquired in a very sneering and unpleasant tone whether I had any further pretence for not writing on hand, I thought I might as well stop her mouth at once."

August 16, 1885
To John Skelton

"I am riot quite sure about giving up work–but I am giving up pay, which is more serious. Not that I have anything to complain of–-H.M. Treasury having acted as generously as could be expected. Age, bad health, and anxiety carne arm in arm, and marched straight over me this time last year–so that there was nothing for me but to bolt to Italy according to doctor's orders and try to get better.

"But all the king's horses and all the king's men have not put Humpty Dumpty exactly where he was before, I cannot stand the racket of the last twenty years any longer; and the only thing was to get out of all official burthens. So I am absolutely relieved; but I have retained a certain connexion with my old school at S. Kensington, and I have not yet renounced the Presidency of the Royal Society. What I shall do by-and-bye depends very much on what happens here. We came ten days ago; and I have so distinctly improved that I hope by-and-bye to be fit for something."

March 7, 1887
To John Skelton:

"There is a paragraph in your preface which I meant to have charged you with having plagiarised from an article of mine, which had not appeared when I got your book. In that Hermitage of yours you are up to any codesicobuddhistotelepathic dodge! It is about the value of practical discipline to historians. Half of them know nothing of life, and still less of government and the ways of men. I am at present engaged on a series of experiments on the thickness of skin of that wonderful little windbag––The way that second-rate amateur poses as a man of science really 'rouses my corruption.' What a good phrase that is. I am cussed with a lot of it, and any fool can strike ile."

December 31, 1881
To John Skelton:

"I am going to read your vindication of Mary Stuart as soon as I can. Hitherto I am sorry to say I have classed her with Eve, Helen, Cleopatra, Delilah, and sundry other glorious––who have hired men to their destruction. But I am open to conviction, and ready to believe that she blew up her husband only a little more thoroughly than other women do by reason of her keener perception of logic." [London, December 31, 1881.]

November 2, 1888
To John Skelton:

"I have been in the Engadine for the last four months trying to repair the crazy old 'house I live in,' and meeting with more success than I hoped for when I left home . . . . I have been much interested in your argument about the 'Casket Letters.' The comparison of Crawford’s deposition with the Queen's letter leaves no sort of doubt that the writer of one had the other before him; and under the circumstances I do not see how it can be doubted that the Queen's letter is forged. But though wholly agreeing with you in substance, I cannot help thinking that your language on p. 341 may be seriously pecked at. My experience of reporters leads me to think that there would be no discrepancy at all comparable to that between the two accounts; and I speak from the woful memories of the many Royal Commissions I have wearied over. The accuracy of a good modern reporter is really wonderful. And I do not think that 'the two documents were drawn by the same hand.' I should say that the writer of the letter had Crawford's deposition before him, and made what he considered improvements here and there."

January 21,1886
To John Skelton:

"I took a thought and began to mend (as Burns's friend, and my prototype (G.O.M.) is not yet reported to have done) about a couple of months ago, and then Gladstone's first article caused such a flow of bile that I have been the better for it ever since. I need not tell you I am entirely crushed by his reply–still the worm will turn, and there is a faint squeak (as of a rat in the mouth of a terrier) about to be heard in the next 'XIX.'

"Seriously it is to me a grave thing that the destinies of this country should at present be seriously influenced by a man who, whatever he may be in the affairs of which I am no judge, is nothing but a copious shuffler in those which I do understand." [London, January 21, 1886.]

June 4, 1886
To John Skelton:

"Yes. I am sorry to say I know–nobody better–what it is to be unfit for work. I have been trying to emerge from that condition first at Bournemouth and then at Ilkley for the last five months with such small success that I find a few days in London knocks me up, and I go back to the Yorkshire moors next week. We have no water-hens–nothing but peewits, larks, and occasional grouse; but the air and water are of the best, and the hills quite high enough to bring one's muscles into play. I suppose that Nebuchadnezzar was quite happy so long as he grazed and kept clear of Babylon,–if so I can hold him up for my Scriptural parallel."

January 13, 1891
To John Skelton:

"Many thanks to you for reminding me that there are such things as ‘Summer Isles' in the Universe. The memory of them has been pretty well blotted out here for the last seven weeks. You see some people can retire to 'Hermitages' as well as other people; and though even Argyll cum Gladstone powers of self-deception could not persuade me that the view from my window is as good as that from yours, yet I do see a fine wavy chalk down and soft turfy ridges over which an old fellow can stride as far as his legs are good to carry him. The fact is that I discovered that staying in London any longer meant for me a very short life and by no means a merry one. So I got my son-in-law to build me a cottage here where my wife and I may go down-hill quietly together, and 'make our sowls' as the Irish say–solaced by an occasional visit from children and grandchildren. The deuce of it is that, however much the weary want to be at rest, the wicked won't cease from troubling. Hence the occasional skirmishes and alarms which may lead my friends to misdoubt my absolute detachment from sublunary affairs.–Perhaps peace dwells only among the forked - tailed Petrels.

October 17, 1893
To John Skelton:

"I am happy to say I got the screws fairly tightened up at the Malorja, and I hope the rickety old machine will jog through the winter. But I must have done with such escapades as that at Oxford. If ever there was an egg dance, that was. Imagine having to talk about Ethics when 'Religion and Politics' are forbidden by the terms of the endowment!–and to talk about Evolution when good manners obliged one to abstain from dotting one's i's, and crossing one's Vs. Ask your Old Man of Hoy to be so good as to suspend judgment until the Lecture appears again with an appendix in that collection of volumes the bulk of which appals me. Didn't I see somewhere that you had been made Poor Law Pope or something of the sort? I congratulate the poor more than I do you, for it must be a weary business trying to mend the irremediable. (No. I am not glancing at the whitewashing of Mary.)"

[300] One letter I may be permitted to quote entire, seeing that I have somehow come to associate it with that noble passage (one of the most perfect in our literature) in which, vindicating himself from the charge of feeling satisfied with a merely negative philosophy, Huxley wrote–"I venture to count it an improbable suggestion that any such person–a man, let us say, who has wellnigh reached his threescore years and ten, and has graduated in all the faculties of human relationships; who has taken his share in all the deep joys and deeper anxieties which cling about them; who has felt the burden of young lives intrusted to his care, and has stood alone with his dead before the abyss of the Eternal,–has never had a thought beyond negative criticism. It seems to me incredible that such an one can have done his day's work, always with a light heart, with no sense of responsibility, no terror of that which may appear when the fictitious veil of Isis–the thick web of fiction man has woven round Nature–-is stripped off."

May 20, 1878.

"My dear Skelton,–I would give a great deal on all grounds to be able to welcome Mrs. Skelton and you here next Monday; but I must be inhospitable, and straitly forbid you the house.

"Last Monday evening my youngest child was attacked by diphtheria. On Monday my eldest followed and on Thursday my son who came home for his holiday from St Andrews to his sister's wedding a fortnight ago.

"He and my youngest child have had the horrible disease very mildly, and they are practically well. But my poor Madge, the light of my house, has given us a week of terrible anxiety. On Tuesday I did not leave home, not knowing what the issue of the day might be. On Saturday I hoped she was safe; but yesterday there was a relapse, and we had a weary night of anxiety. This morning I am glad to say she is a little better, and I am hopeful again. But her condition is very critical.

"Under these circumstances the house is tabooed and our friends come no further than the gate. I am sure I need not say how glad we should have been to welcome Mrs Skelton and yourself, and I hope Froude would have come with you as he sometimes does.

"You have children and will understand what life is under these conditions. One sets one's back hard, and lives from day to day–Ever yours very truly, T. H. Huxley

"Fanny Bruce was to have been with us, but of course is not. Let us have another chance of seeing you on your way back."

[302] Here is the last letter I had from him–written in January of this year, during the terrible frost which none of us is like to forget:–

January 12, 1893

"My dear Skelton,–I do not wonder that between my essays and the weather you are driven to fly your home. Only the notion of bettering yourself by coming here into the jaws (or at any rate jaw) of the essayist–with the thermometer below freezing all day on a south wall, and down to 20o or even 19o at night, and with a violent N.E. gale, which brings vividly to my recollection a 'coorse day' in Edinburgh–savours to my mind of eccentricity.

"But a wilful man must have his way, and if you shall feel how much reason you have to envy our 'South Coast winter.' I don't wish to write

‘sarkastic’ but I should think there are plenty of vacant houses just now. If we had not a son and his wife and a couple of grandchildren filling up our cottage at present, and if my poor wife were not laid up with a complication of rheumatism and sore throat from the horrid cold of last week, we could gladly find room for you and Mrs. Skelton here. But send me word what accommodation you want, and I have not the least doubt you may be suited. I am confoundedly honest, considering how glad we should be to see you, in warning you that our glacier may be as bad as your snow-field. With kindest remembrances and good wishes to Mrs Skelton,–Ever yours very truly, T. H. Huxley."

[303] There are some fine lines by Heine (admirably translated into English by Mr Leland, who has indeed a real genius for translating Heine) which, with suitable modification, might have been written by Huxley; for, in the prolonged struggle for intellectual freedom, Huxley was in the foremost rank, and fought with the best. Would it be permissible to inscribe these lines under the bust we are to have in the Abbey?–

I really do not know whether I deserve that a laurel wreath be laid on my coffin. Poetry, dearly as I have love it, has always been to me only a holy plaything, or a conse[304]crated means whereby to attain a heavenly end. I have never attached much value to a poetic reputation, and I care little whether my songs are praised or blamed. But ye may lay a sword on my coffin, for I was a brave soldier in the War of Freedom for Mankind."

It is past midnight. The moon is high in heaven, but on the wane. It casts a dim mystical twilight–the twilight of the night–upon the land; but on the brow of the sea it brightens for a space, and strikes keen and clear. "They cuist the glamour o’er her," says the old ballad of the stricken maiden; and a dark barque, with drooping sails, lies listless and becalmed, upon the enchanted water. Down below here, among the lesser planets and near the eternal stars one hears the rustling murmur of the winged hosts, who speed through the noiseless night. On what mission are they bent–what behests do they carry? Very sad is this waning light–so sad that one has scarcely heart to enjoy its strange beauty–sad with the menace of the Death which approaches. The earth is dead already; and even the heavenly lights begin to fail. What, then, remains? We will go down to the moonlighted shore, and wash our hands and feet in the incoming tide, and wait on the beach there for the black-stoled weeping queens, who will take us with them to the land that is very far off beyond the sea.

[305] Ali, well! the sea and the stars are fine things no doubt; but the night grows cold, and the winter breeze shivers among the bulrushes on the bank. Very grand: are the infinite spaces, and the pale armies that marshal their visionary banners along the northern sky; but right beneath Orion lies a little cosy nest. The nestlings are asleep; their twitterings have ceased; the peace of dreams is about them. A rosy fragrant cheek presses the snowy pillow–a smile of sweet content rests upon the parted lips–one nut-brown curl has escaped from the braided hair. Yes–the night is cold. We will go HOME.


C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University