Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849), The Good Aunt
The conversation of the sensible, well-informed people who visited Mrs. Howard contributed to form her nephew's taste. A child may learn as much from conversation as from books—not so many historic facts, but as much instruction. Greek and Latin were the grand difficulties. Mrs. Howard did not understand Greek and Latin; nor did she, though a woman, set too high or too low a value upon the learned languages. She was convinced that a man might be a great scholar without being a man of sense; she was also persuaded that a man of sense might be a good scholar. She knew that, whatever abilities her nephew might possess, he could not be upon a footing with other men in the world, without possessing that species of knowledge which is universally expected from gentlemen, as an essential proof of their having received a liberal education; nor did she attempt to undervalue the pleasures of classic taste merely because she was not qualified to enjoy them: she was convinced, by the testimony of men of candour and judgment, that a classical taste is a source of real enjoyment, and she wished her nephew's literary pleasures to have as extensive a range as possible.
To instruct her nephew in the learned languages, she engaged a good scholar and a man of sense: his name—for a man is nothing without a name—was Russell. Little Charles did not at first relish Latin; he used sometimes to come from his Latin lessons with a very dull, stupified face, which gradually brightened into intelligence, after he had talked for a few minutes with his aunt. Mrs. Howard, though pleased to perceive that he was fond of her, had not the weakness to sacrifice his permanent advantage to her transient gratification. One evening Charles came running up-stairs to his aunt, who was at tea; several people happened to be present. "I have done with Mr. Russell, and my Latin, ma'am, thank goodness—now may I have the elephant and the camel, or the bear and her cubs, that you marked for me last night?"
The company laughed at this speech of Charles: and a silly lady—for even Mrs. Howard could not make all her acquaintance wise—a silly lady whispered to Charles, "I've a notion, if you'd tell the truth, now, that you like the bear and her cubs a great deal better than you do Latin and Mr. Russell."
"I like the bear a great deal better than I do Latin, to be sure," said the boy; "but as for Mr. Russell—why, I think," added he, encouraged by the lady's smiles, "I think I like the bear better than Mr. Russell."
The lady laughed affectedly at this sally.
"I am sure," continued Charles, fancying that every person present was delighted with his wit, "I am sure, at any rate, I like the learned pig fifty times better than Mr. Russell!"
The judicious lady burst into a second fit of laughter. Mrs. Howard looked very grave. Charles broke from the lady's caresses, and going up to his aunt, timidly looking up in her face, said, "Am I a fool?"
"You are but a child," said Mrs. Howard; and, turning away from him, she desired the servant, who waited at tea, to let Mr. Russell know that she desired the honour of his company.—Mrs. Holloway—for that was the silly lady's name—at the words, "honour of his company," resumed her gravity, but looked round to see what the rest of the company thought.
"Give me leave, Mr. Russell," said Mrs. Howard, as soon as he came into the room, "to introduce you to a gentleman, for whose works I know you have a great esteem." The gentleman was a celebrated traveller, just returned from abroad, whose conversation was as much admired as his writings.
The conversation now took a literary turn. The traveller being polite, as well as entertaining, drew out Mr. Russell's knowledge and abilities. Charles now looked up to his tutor with respect. Children have sufficient penetration to discover the opinions of others by their countenance and manner, and their sympathy is quickly influenced by the example of those around them. Mrs. Howard led the traveller to speak of what he had seen in different countries—of natural history—of the beaver, and the moose-deer, and the humming-bird, that is scarcely larger than a bumble bee; and the mocking-bird, that can imitate the notes of all other birds. Charles niched himself into a corner of the sofa upon which the gentlemen were sitting, and grew very attentive. He was rather surprised to perceive that his tutor was as much entertained with the conversation as he was himself.
"Pray, sir," said Mrs. Howard to the traveller, "is it true that the humming-bird is a passionate little animal? Is the story told by the author of the Farmer's Letters true?"
"What story?" said Charles, eagerly.
"Of a humming-bird that flew into a fury with a flower, and tore it to pieces, because it could not get the honey out of it all at once."
"Oh, ma'am," said little Charles, peeping over his tutor's shoulders, "will you show me that? Have you got the book, dear aunt?"
"It is Mr. Russell's book," said his aunt.
"Your book!" cried Charles: "what, and do you know all about animals, and those sorts of entertaining things, as well as Latin? And can you tell me, then, what I want very much to know, how they catch the humming-bird?"
"They shoot it."
"Shoot it! but what a large hole they must make in its body and beautiful feathers! I thought you said its whole body was no bigger than a bee—a humble bee."
"They make no hole in its body—they shoot it without ruffling even its feathers."
"How, how?" cried Charles, fastening upon his tutor, whom he now regarded no longer as a mere man of Latin.
"They charge the gun with water," said Mr. Russell, "and the poor little humming-bird is stunned by the discharge."
Hat tip: Tommy Richey.