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- Biographies of Working Men - 20/22 -


towns. Tam determined to alter all that, so he piled up all the stones into a small rockery, dug up the plot, manured it, and filled it with wild and garden flowers. The wild flowers, of course, he found in the woods and hedgerows around him; but the cultivated kinds he got in a very ingenious fashion, by visiting all the rubbish heaps of the neighbourhood, on which garden refuse was usually piled. A good many roots and plants can generally be found in such places, and by digging them up, Tam was soon able to make himself a number of bright and lively beds. Such self-help in natural history always lay very much in Edward's way.

At the same time, young Edward was now beginning to feel the desire for knowing something more about the beasts and birds of which he was so fond. He used to go in all his spare moments among the shops in the town, to look at the pictures in the windows, especially the pictures of animals; and though his earnings were still small, he bought a book whenever he was able to afford one. In those days cheap papers for the people were only just beginning to come into existence; and Tam, who was now eighteen, bought the first number of the _Penny Magazine_, an excellent journal of that time, which he liked so much that he continued to take in the succeeding numbers. Some of the papers in it were about natural history, and these, of course, particularly delighted the young man's heart. He also bought the _Weekly Visitor_, which he read through over and over again.

In 1831, when Tam was still eighteen, he enlisted in the Aberdeenshire militia, and during his brief period of service an amusing circumstance occurred which well displays the almost irresistible character of Edward's love of nature. While he was drilling with the awkward squad one morning, a butterfly of a kind that he had never seen before happened to flit in front of him as he stood in the ranks. It was a beautiful large brown butterfly, and Edward was so fascinated by its appearance that he entirely forgot, in a moment, where he was and what he was doing. Without a second's thought, he darted wildly out of the ranks, and rushed after the butterfly, cap in hand. It led him a pretty chase, over sandhills and shore, for five minutes. He was just on the point of catching it at last, when he suddenly felt a heavy hand laid upon his shoulder, and looking round, he saw the corporal of the company and several soldiers come to arrest him. Such a serious offence against military discipline might have cost him dear indeed, for corporals have little sympathy with butterfly hunting; but luckily for Edward, as he was crossing the parade ground under arrest, he happened to meet an officer walking with some ladies. The officer asked the nature of his offence, and when the ladies heard what it was they were so much interested in such a strange creature as a butterfly-loving militiaman, that they interceded for him, and finally begged him off his expected punishment. The story shows us what sort of stuff Edward was really made of. He felt so deep an interest in all the beautiful living creatures around him for their own sake, that he could hardly restrain his feelings even under the most untoward circumstances.

When Edward was twenty, he removed from Aberdeen to Banff, where he worked as a journeyman for a new master. The hours were very long, but by taking advantage of the summer evenings, he was still able to hunt for his beloved birds, caterpillars, and butterflies. Still, the low wages in the trade discouraged him much, and he almost made up his mind to save money and emigrate to America. But one small accident alone prevented him from carrying out this purpose. Like a good many other young men, the naturalist shoemaker fell in love. Not only so, but his falling in love took practical shape a little later in his getting married; and at twenty-three, the lonely butterfly hunter brought back a suitable young wife to his little home. The marriage was a very happy one. Mrs. Edward not only loved her husband deeply, but showed him sympathy in his favourite pursuits, and knew how to appreciate his sterling worth. Long afterwards she said, that though many of her neighbours could not understand her husband's strange behaviour, she had always felt how much better it was to have one who spent his spare time on the study of nature than one who spent it on the public-house.

As soon as Edward got a home of his own, he began to make a regular collection of all the animals and plants in Banffshire. This was a difficult thing for him to do, for he knew little of books, and had access to very few, so that he couldn't even find out the names of all the creatures he caught and preserved. But, though he didn't always know what they were called, he did know their natures and habits and all about them; and such first-hand knowledge in natural history is really the rarest and the most valuable of all. He saw little of his fellow- workmen. They were usually a drunken, careless lot; Edward was sober and thoughtful, and had other things to think of than those that they cared to talk about with one another. But he went out much into the fields, with invincible determination, having made up his mind that he would get to know all about the plants and beasties, however much the knowledge might cost him.

For this object, he bought a rusty old gun for four-and-sixpence, and invested in a few boxes and bottles for catching insects. His working hours were from six in the morning till nine at night, and for that long day he always worked hard to support his wife, and (when they came) his children. He had therefore only the night hours between nine and six to do all his collecting. Any other man, almost, would have given up the attempt as hopeless; but Edward resolved never to waste a single moment or a single penny, and by care and indomitable energy he succeeded in making his wished-for collection. Sometimes he was out tramping the whole night; sometimes he slept anyhow, under a hedge or haystack; sometimes he took up temporary quarters in a barn, an outhouse, or a ruined castle. But night after night he went on collecting, whenever he was able; and he watched the habits and manners of the fox, the badger, the otter, the weasel, the stoat, the pole-cat, and many other regular night-roamers as no one else, in all probability, had ever before watched them in the whole world.

Sometimes he suffered terrible disappointments, due directly or indirectly to his great poverty. Once, he took all his cases of insects, containing nine hundred and sixteen specimens, and representing the work of four years, up to his garret to keep them there till he was able to glaze them. When he came to take them down again he found to his horror that rats had got at the boxes, eaten almost every insect in the whole collection, and left nothing behind but the bare pins, with a few scattered legs, wings, and bodies, sticking amongst them. Most men would have been so disgusted with this miserable end to so much labour, that they would have given up moth hunting for ever. But Edward was made of different stuff. He went to work again as zealously as ever, and in four years more, he had got most of the beetles, flies, and chafers as carefully collected as before.

By the year 1845, Edward had gathered together about two thousand specimens of beasts, birds, and insects found in the neighbourhood of his own town of Banff. He made the cases to hold them himself, and did it so neatly that, in the case of his shells, each kind had even a separate little compartment all of its own. And now he unfortunately began to think of making money by exhibiting his small museum. If only he could get a few pounds to help him in buying books, materials, perhaps even a microscope, to help him in prosecuting his scientific work, what a magnificent thing that would be for him! Filled with this grand idea, he took a room in the Trades Hall at Banff, and exhibited his collection during a local fair. A good many people came to see it, and the Banff paper congratulated the poor shoemaker on his energy in gathering together such a museum of curiosities "without aid, and under discouraging circumstances which few would have successfully encountered." He was so far lucky in this first venture that he covered his expenses and was able even to put away a little money for future needs. Encouraged by this small triumph, the unwearied naturalist set to work during the next year, and added several new attractions to his little show. At the succeeding fair he again exhibited, and made still mere money out of his speculation. Unhappily, the petty success thus secured led him to hope he might do even better by moving his collection to Aberdeen.

To Aberdeen, accordingly, Edward went. He took a shop in the great gay thoroughfare of that cold northern city--Union Street--and prepared to receive the world at large, and to get the money for the longed-for books and the much-desired microscope. Now, Aberdeen is a big, busy, bustling town; it has plenty of amusements and recreations; it has two colleges and many learned men of its own; and the people did not care to come and see the working shoemaker's poor small collection. If he had been a president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, now--some learned knight or baronet come down by special train from London--the Aberdeen doctors and professors might have rushed to hear his address; or if he had been a famous music-hall singer or an imitation negro minstrel, the public at large might have flocked to be amused and degraded by his parrot-like buffoonery; but as he was only a working shoemaker from Banff, with a heaven-born instinct for watching and discovering all the strange beasts and birds of Scotland, and the ways and thoughts of them, why, of course, respectable Aberdeen, high or low, would have nothing in particular to say to him. Day after day went by, and hardly anybody came, till at last poor Edward's heart sank terribly within him. Even the few who did come were loth to believe that a working shoemaker could ever have gathered together such a large collection by his own exertions.

"Do you mean to say," said one of the Aberdeen physicians to Edward, "that you've maintained your wife and family by working at your trade, all the while that you've been making this collection?"

"Yes, I do," Edward answered.

"Oh, nonsense!" the doctor said. "How is it possible you could have done that?"

"By never losing a single minute or part of a minute," was the brave reply, "that I could by any means improve."

It is wonderful indeed that when once Edward had begun to attract anybody's attention at all, he and his exhibition should ever have been allowed to pass so unnoticed in a great, rich, learned city like Aberdeen. But it only shows how very hard it is for unassuming merit to push its way; for the Aberdeen people still went unheeding past the shop in Union Street, till Edward at last began to fear and tremble as to how he should ever meet the expenses of the exhibition. After the show had been open four weeks, one black Friday came when Edward never took a penny the whole day. As he sat there alone and despondent in the empty room, the postman brought him a letter. It was from his master at Banff. "Return immediately," it said, "or you will be discharged." What on earth could he do? He couldn't remove his collection; he couldn't pay his debt. A few more days passed, and he saw no way out of it. At last, in blank despair, he offered the whole collection for sale. A gentleman proposed to pay him the paltry sum of L20 10s for the entire lot, the slow accumulations of ten long years. It was a miserable and totally inadequate price, but Edward could get no more. In the depths of his misery, he accepted it. The gentleman took the collection home, gave it to his boy, and finally allowed it all, for want of care and attention, to go to rack and ruin. And so that was the end of ten years of poor Thomas Edward's unremitting original work in natural history. A sadder tale of unrequited labour in the cause of science has seldom been written.

How he ever recovered from such a downfall to all his hopes and expectations is extraordinary. But the man had a wonderful power of bearing up against adverse circumstances; and when, after six weeks' absence, he returned to Banff, ruined and dispirited, he set to work


Biographies of Working Men - 20/22

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