Swan Hill, 8 September 1860.
[Richard Birnie] 'Old Time Memories', The Australasian, Saturday 13 March 1886: 2.
My Dear ----- [Richard Birnie],
This letter was published as part of a larger article, titled 'Reminiscences of William John Wills' by Synesius, Haus Injussa Cano (I sing without permission):
I would that in recalling past happy scenes of which I am even at this distance of time proud, I could eliminate the personal pronoun. I am well persuaded that it is probably the duty, and certainly the interest, of all reminiscents to beware of egotism as a foe, yet, it is not easy to keep it in due subordination while recalling the hours of the happiest of many friendships. A letter from Wills, dated Swan-hill (the last, I believe, ever penned by him), has just turned up among other relics of the past, and awakened memories that make the soul not only a garden, but a shrine. I write to gratify the curiosity of the living. The dead are not dead to me, whatever they are to the many.
About a quarter of a century ago I found myself an inmate of a comfortable boarding house in Gertrude-street, Fitzroy. Mine host was a fine, jovial, sanguine American, one of the most generous and unselfish men I ever met, prodigal alike in smoking and in the "braw garnish" of swearing, which neither did nor meant harm to any human being, he nobly walked about the house, yarning, cigar in mouth, and surrendered its management to his mild, assiduous, and well mannered wife. There I first saw Wills, and we gravitated to each other by mutual attraction, though I was double his age. He was then assistant to Professor Neumayer, and led a somewhat laborious life, for he had night duty three times a week. More and more he impressed me with his rare and beautiful character. Seldom, if ever, have I known such a harmony of firmness, gentleness, refinement, application, and ardent desire of knowledge. But his heart was in science, especially in astronomy. I prevailed on him to study modern history and biography, also the poets; and was agreeably surprised by his receptive spirit and thoughtful appreciation of the novel subjects submitted to his attention.
A clear (perhaps too clear) complexion, an expressive eye that always outstripped his tongue (for he fought with, and partly subdued, a slight stammer), golden hair, a thick, tawny beard, a smile at once intellectual and sympathising, a light, clean, agile frame, prompt spontaneous movements, and a handiness such as is often seen in a young girl, a compact and nitid propriety of dress, an easy geniality, tempered with a becoming self-respect; such was the first superficial impression of the stranger on his introduction to William John Wills. He had, moreover, a keen and deep sense of the humorous, no less than of the ridiculous; and I used often to contrast his disfiguring bursts of laughter with the intellectual beauty of his smile in repose. This sense of the ridiculous he feared, and strove to keep under, he thought it led to satirical expression, which tends to make enemies. "I fear," he said to me one day, "that we cannot take our long walk tomorrow. The—the—fact is, I expect a wild, impulsive, and desultory young father in Melbourne; he will be for running everywhere, up and down, and—and—will need all my care to keep him in order. He will dine here, and will like you; you must try to like him. He is, like yourself, a trifle satirical—can hardly be serious even at his favourite whist." "Jack," said I, "you have a god like smile, but a bumpkin laugh."
Doctor Wills arrived, and proved to be all that his son had said, and something more. I was delighted by the thorough good understanding that prevailed between the father and the son—ease and loving prevenance on the part of the latter, but content and joyous pride on that of the former. The doctor soon posed as a merry old wag, but I failed in my attempts to discern the depth and the refinement of his son.
Mine host kept an excellent table, embellished with some American delicacies, among which I recall an oyster pie. He took a fancy to both Wills and myself, and, seeing our approval, ordered the pie as a standing dish. I lighted on a cheap vein of the Sydney Cawarra, more delicate than any imported hock, and our late dinners might have tempted Fontenelle himself. The table was filled up by Professor Damm, whose sententious scientific information was set off by the chat of a cheerful young Pole, who appeared to have learnt all his English from Dickens, Albert Smith, and such like: a tranquil Jewish gentleman, stone deaf, and hopelessly incapable of understanding a word that was said, yet who must have been an optimist of rare benevolence, for, as he surveyed the happy faces around him, and saw their conversation, he smiled approval at every sally, joined in every laugh he saw, and greeted every inmate that met his eye with a sympathetic smile. Mine host had taken a conspicuous part in the committee of Public Safety in St. Francis, and overflowed with tall talk—how he "had ordered fellows to be shot for the preservation of liberty and the glory of God," &c., both of which he had aided to preserve without "those damned cusses, the lawyers," &c. He was proud of his team, and thought nothing too good for Wills, but I saw that he was by nature tetchy and tenacious. At whist he was simply matchless, as the doctor and I soon found. The table was crowned by a respectable mediocrity, the head of some Government office, intended by nature for a happy, easy man, but, alas! misled by some demon who whispered that he was sufficiently cultured to lead the conversation, his attempts at which were as unsuccessful as those of Dominie Sampson to snuff the candles.
When he ventured on practical science and natural philosophy he was calmly put right by Professor Damm. If he prelected on American politics mine host jumped down his throat, astronomy, chemistry, pathology and science were taken care of by Wills, when he wandered into the ample range of history, biography, and literature he had to experience the tender mercies of the wide memory of the writer. His disbelief in high motives and general lack of ideality led Wills to style him "the disenchanter," but the gentle quiet humour of Wills tended rather to abate the gentleman's self-esteem. One evening he rose in a noble frenzy, "I know not why, professor, every word that I say is contradicted by someone. And you, sir " (turning to me), "you seem to worship that—that most conceded young man."
Now, I thought the epithet inapplicable, and replied—"If there be a conceited person present it is certainly not Wills."
The expedition had then not been finally decided on, but the strong recommendations of Professor Nieumayer had been heard in favour of Wills. At length I learnt his appointment as Burke's colleague with mixed feelings of delight and misgiving. A gentleman of talent and experience who now fills an important office in New Zealand, one day asked me, "How they came to appoint a beardless boy to duties that exact medical, no less than scientific, knowledge?" I replied,"I cannot solve the problem, but pray accept these palliations. (1.) First, he has an ample tawny beard, and is 27 years old. (2.) Second, his father, a prosperous physician, avers that his son knows far more of medicine, of pharmacy, and of pathology than himself, and for further particulars I must refer you to Professor Nieumayer." The gentleman was content with this reponse earn replique.
Sir Henry Barkly kindly gave me a special invitation to his ball at Government house for my friend, coupling with it a request that I should deliver it myself in person, which I did at table, to the consternation of Mr. Philister, who declared that such favours were reserved for heads of departments. Said Mr. P. augured ill for the expedition—"Is the power of death to be entrusted to so young a man ? I would not join such a company.' "And. if you did" retorted Wills,"do you think I would pronounce such a sentence upon you? No! I might, perhaps, order you to be birched." The disenchanter looked thunderbolts.
Our curiosity about the expedition took the form of a game of sorter. A book is opened, not necessarily Virgil, but Shakespeare, the Bible, or Pope, or Montaigne, &c., will do, and one person, blindfolded, lays his finger on a page. His next neighbour notes and witnesses this, and the question of the first, formed mentally, is orally given out. The amusement consists in the fancied coincidences and the consciousness of pure chance in the apparent answer. When Wills's turn came. I offered him an Anglican Prayer Book, and his finger lighted on the 49th Psalm, verse 19. The mental question was, "What is to become of Mr. P.'s soul?" The answer was, "He shall follow the generation of his fathers and shall never see light" The rage of poor pomposity may be supposed. "I do not understand such an unwarranted liberty—an impertinent curiosity concerning my soul!" When Wills had left the room, Mr. P. again expressed his wonder at my encouragement of such a — "Sir," exclaimed I, before your head is more grizzled his statue will be seen in our widest street, his photo in every shop window, and his name coupled with that of his colleague heard on almost every tongue." " Bravo!" exclaimed mine host slapping the table."Give me a man who stands up for his friend, and treats the company to a slice of tall talk." I know not whether a glass of the violet-scented cawarra might not have quickened my inspiration, but when I came to witness its mournful verification I would gladly have changed the poor triumph of a prophetic fluke —'twas no more—for one short hour of renewed social intercourse.
The day of starting came. I saw the excited crowd in the Royal-park: all was bustle and wonder. Burke galloping up and down, here and there, on his fine-spirited horse; Wills, covered with dust, flashed and eager, cording, packing, arranging, and working as only a man of spirit and high blood can work. A hurried farewell, a promise to write, and, as the cavalcade slowly vanished from my straining sight, I felt a sad presentment that I had looked my last upon the eye that had never been tamed upon and met mine but with deep esteem and the warm friendship of a pure and noble mind.
From Swan-hill I shortly afterwards received the following characteristic letter, for which the foregoing traits have, perhaps, prepared the reader:—
(Letter is transcribed above)
Let me hark back to recall a few interesting traits not generally known to the public. I have glanced at his well-known devotion to science, and with no small pleasure I succeeded in awaking and developing in him a love of literature. Many a walk and many an evening was devoted to Shakespeare and the philosophical analysis of his masterpieces was a perennial source of novelty and delight. We went to enjoy the fine impersonations of Brooke, whom Wills thought a god-like child of rare physical endowments and instincts, rather than of careful study or consecutive thought. Every fresh play was read, studied, and analysed before our visit to the theatre, which he was surprised to find so copious a fount of knowledge, of human nature, and practical morality. Gradually he proceeded to the lighter plays, and there found much to praise and we amusingly traced the biography of Falstaff from singing anthems as a chorister-boy in the chapel of the Duke of Norfolk, whose chaplain, no doubt, made him a scholar to the retinue of John of Gaunt, into whose goodwill he crept while a page: to the inn or Court, where he studied law; to his proficiency in all gentlemanly exercises and courtly games, till his wit gained the favour of the prince: to his tact and presence of mind, till he died the death of the selfish, with no mourner but the simple compassion of the poor woman whom he had defrauded. The character has been repeated, end will be Sheridan and Theodore Hook died, each a wreck. after a life of brilliancy, talent, and wit.
I remember one evening coming home from Professor Nieumeyer's, where we had been to tea. Wills walked along in silence. The night was clear, the stars all resplendent. Wills, after raising his eyes, exclaimed, thinking aloud, "What an astronomer he would have made". "Whom do you mean?" asked I. "Whom should I mean," said he, "but Shakespeare, the myriad-minded. The stars brought him up to my mind. He was thrown away at that Globe Theatre." On our arrival he asked me to give him "as much Shakespearianity as I could, but nothing else". "In two years," said he, "I am determined to become a Shakespearian scholar and critic." And such was his pluck that I believe he would have become both.
When prostrated by the fearful news of his lingering death, I was grateful for the consoling sympathy of my friend Dr. Sewell, who penned with emotion the simple endurance and calm resignation depicted in the last words of the diary—" Starvation by nardoo, father, is not so painful Give my share in &c., to my sisters," &c. But the fine fastidious taste of Dr. Sewell impeded his enjoyment, even his appreciation, of the gleams of humour that sometimes relieved the deep sorrows of Dr. Wills. "You perhaps have heard," said the latter to me, "that the dear fellow has named a mountain after you. Do you not picture him, with his eye and smile, noting some characteristic of the mountain that recalled you, and laughing as he made a memo, of it. Would you not like to see the mount?"
I own I should, did not age and infirmity forbid. I should joy to meet the morning sun up the mount that bears my name, conscious of a genial and enlivening influence.
Come, wear the form by which I know
Thy Spirit in Time among thy Peers,
The hope of unaccomp.ish'd years,
Be large and lucid round thy brow.
Come! Not in watches of the night,
But where the sunlight broodeth warm,
Come, beauteous in thy after-form,
And, like a finer light in light.
(*Alfred Lord Tennyson's 'In Memoriam' 1849)
I lay my laurel wreath on the bust of him, whom living I taught, cheered, and honoured. Let the kindred noble spirits whom alone I address keep his memory alive, and, having endured and forgiven me, think henceforth of him with perdurable esteem and regard.
He was a good son, a considerate brother, a staunch friend. Vulgar vices came not near him. His aspirations were noble, and his strength drawn from purity of soul.
The Star (Ballarat), 24 May 1862: 1.
Town and Gown.
Pursuant to announcement a lecture was delivered in the hall of the Mechanics' Institute on Friday evening, by Mr Birnie, the barrister, on the subject " Town and Gown," a series of serio-comic sketches of divers[e] notabilities in the old world. The lecture was for tbe benefit of tbe Explorers' Monument Fund, and concluded with an apostrophe to Wills. The body of the hall was pretty well filled on the occasion; from 300 to 400 persons being present ... If amusement and graney might be held compatible they would bear with him in pronouncing the name of William John Wills (Cheers.) The lecturer, when first in Melbourne, lived at a boarding-house kept by an American, and there be met Wills. Their friendship soon grew and strengthened, in spite of the difference of their ages and antecedents. Of the man aa a public explorer everybody knew as well as he did. Professor Neumayer said Wills's passion for astronomy was astonishing; and his nights were consumed in the study. Yet his days also were, ander the lecturer's guidance, spent in enlarging his literary attainments. But with all this labor Wills never disregarded the commoner duties and virtues of life. Even at the breakfast table he was as neat and clean as a woman. At the ball, of which he was as fond as a child, he was scrupulously temperate, and in speech pure as a lady. Wills read Sharon Turner, Hazlitt, Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and commented on all Of Tennyson's "In Memoriam" he said it was wonderful for its frequent bordering on faults without ever passing them. He was a student of literature as well as of astronomy and science. When appointed to the Exploring expedition, some one asked why such a boy was appointed. The lecturer replied "for three reasons,-first, because I he has a long tawny beard, secondly because he is 27 years of age, and thirdly because his father, who got his living by physicking people, said he (the son) knew more of medicine than he did." Much intercourse they had had and when the lecturer heard of his death he felt glad that nothing existed for recrimination or self condemnation. He introduced Wills to Shakespere, and his remarks on that author were original and striking. This tribute the lecturer would lay upon his friends bust and humble though the offering was he felt it would be accepted. The lecturer with much feeling concluded a peroration of eloquent eulogy upon his deceased friend, amid the loud and prolonged applause of the audience, who had cheered the lecturer at j frequent intervals throughout the whole of his discourse.
Mr M'Dowall moved a vote of thanks to the lecturer, seconded by Mr Dimant, both gentlemen highly complimenting Mr Birnie for his kindness in giving his services on the occasion.
The vote was carried by acclamation, and Mr Birnie, in acknowledging thc vote, implored the audience not to let the movement die away. The monument could not be too good for, the fame of the heroic explorers, and the patient, pious, unselfish manlin
The proceedings then closed.