Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER III.: A JOURNEY AND A FLIGHT. 1833. Æt. 13. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER III.: A JOURNEY AND A FLIGHT. 1833. Æt. 13. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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A JOURNEY AND A FLIGHT.
Towards the end of June 1833, shortly after I was 13, my father and mother and I started from Derby to pay a visit to my uncle Thomas, at Hinton Charterhouse near Bath. I have no recollection of the first half-day’s journey to Birmingham, save a shadowy notion of passing through Lichfield; but the next day’s journey left vivid impressions. There is no day in my life concerning which I remember so much.
First among my recollections comes that of the suburban villas as we left Birmingham, and the delusive belief raised in me that life passed in them must be very delightful. I recollect next our ascent of the Lickey hill, and getting off the coach to walk. Then came the picturesque old town of Bromsgrove, full of half-wooden houses, where it was market-day; and shortly afterwards Droitwich, a somewhat similar town, distinguished, however, by its steaming salt works. Meanwhile the Malvern Hills had come into view, and were intensely interesting to me as being the first objects in the nature of mountains I had ever seen; for though born in Derbyshire I had never been in its picturesque parts. Presently we arrived at Worcester, clean and cheerful, where for the first time I tasted cyder: Derbyshire not being a cyder-producing county. By and bye Tewkesbury was reached, with its one long street into which I remember the coach turning as we passed over the Avon bridge; and then afterwards Cheltenham, so bright and elegant compared with such towns as I had seen. The coach-dinner was there, and we had time to look round. Now came the ascent of the Costwolds; and I recall my father’s comments on the local pronunciation, as the horses walked up the Leckhampton Hill. Presently passing through Painswick we reached the vale of Stroud, charmingly picturesque, and enchanting me by its entire novelty of character. After that, re-ascending the high table-lands, we came to Petty-france, followed by the long bare road to Cold Ashton; whence we descended into Bath, reaching it about 8 in the evening. In these days when I hate travelling, and always choose the train which carries me with greatest speed and fewest stoppages, it is strange to look back on that evening and remember that when we got down from the coach I was so sorry the journey had come to an end. Twelve hours perpetual seeing had not satiated me. I was ready for any amount more; and, indeed, I had a little more, for as we drove to Hinton in the twilight, I was constantly leaning over the carriage side and peering down through the deepening shadows into the valleys about Coomb Down.
My first day at Hinton was one of great delight, derived from all the novelties around me—especially the new insect life. A ramble in the neighbouring fields on the bright summer morning, has left an indelible impression caused by the numbers of unfamiliar flowers, butterflies, and moths. Blue butterflies, of which at home in all my rambles I had seen but one, were abundant; and there were numbers of Burnet moths, which were previously unknown to me. Subsequent days with wider excursions brought like pleasures. Not long after our arrival, I discovered a nest of caterpillars of the peacock-butterfly. I had never seen any before, though I knew them perfectly from drawings; and I carried them back in great glee. I was allowed by my uncle, at my father’s instigation, to make preparations for rearing them; and I had already had so much experience that this was an easy and successful process.
A few days brought a revelation which disagreeably astonished me. I had supposed I was about to spend a month’s midsummer holidays; but I was taken by my uncle one morning and set down to the first proposition in Euclid. Having no love of school or of books, this caused in me great disgust. However there was no remedy, and I took to the work tolerably well: my faculty lying more in that direction than in the directions of most subjects I had dealt with previously. This was significantly shown before the end of a fortnight; when I had reached, perhaps, the middle of the first book. Having repeated a demonstration after the prescribed manner up to a certain point, I diverged from it; and when my uncle interrupted me, telling me I was wrong, I asked him to wait a moment, and then finished the demonstration in my own way: the substituted reasoning being recognized by him as valid. Nothing further was at that time required of me; unless, indeed, I name reading. My uncle condemned my reading as bad in manner (and he was quite right, for I had then, as ever after, a tendency to hurry, leading to indistinctness of articulation), but he remarked upon my extensive acquaintance with words. This was somewhat strange, considering that I had had no reading lessons. Learning to read, as I have before pointed out, very late, I afterwards gained my knowledge of words by reading all kinds of books, and hearing the conversations around me.
After some four weeks, during which my daily lessons were occasionally interrupted by excursions made on behalf of my father and mother as visitors, there came the time for return. Then occurred a revelation still more startling than the first. I found that I was to remain at Hinton. It seems that the arrangement had been made some two months before. In the family correspondence there is a letter from my uncle to my father, which consults him respecting the desirableness of having at Hinton, his little nephew Henry. The proposal was prompted by sympathy with his brother Henry, the boy’s father; who through losses, chiefly in lace-manufacture, had fallen into straightened circumstances. This letter brought from my father, or rather from my mother with his approval, a letter containing a counter-proposal; namely that he, my father, should take charge of Henry and educate him, while I should be taken charge of and educated by my uncle Thomas. This, as shown by a letter of May 13, brought from Hinton a cordial assent, as being an arrangement which my aunt and uncle much preferred.
On finding that I was not to return home, my dismay was great; but there was nothing for it but to submit. Something like ten days passed in the ordinary routine; but in the course of that time there were certain incidents which, apparently trivial, had significant results. Frequent disagreements with my fellow-pupil S——— had occurred. I was at that time, as at all times, argumentative; and whatever we were doing together was apt to lead to points of difference, and occasionally to high words. To remedy the evil my uncle decided that we should study at separate hours: S——— in the morning and I in the afternoon, so that we might be kept apart. This arrangement, put in force about the last day of July, brought my discontent to a climax. I had never before been under anything like so strong a control, and I had also a yearning for home: a home-sick song popular at that time,—“Those Evening Bells,”—being a continual solace to me. I was quite prepared to break out into a rebellious act, and needed only this change which deprived me of companionship to fix my determination. As we were lighting our candles on going up to bed that night, I said to S———, referring to the arrangement of the day,—“It won’t happen again.”
The next morning revealed my meaning. Rising soon after six I started off; having resolved to return home. Reaching Bath in little more than an hour, and buying a penny roll just before leaving the city on the other side, I took the Cheltenham road; and, as I ascended the long hill and for some time afterwards, kept glancing over my shoulder to see if I was pursued. Presently, getting on to the high broad back of the Cotswold Hills and increasing my distance from Hinton, I ceased to fear that I should see the pony-carriage coming when I turned my head. But now as I walked on under the hot sun, I began fully to perceive my forlorn state; far away from anyone I knew, without possibility of going back, with scarcely any money, and with an immense journey before me. No wonder I burst into tears from time to time as I trudged on. However my speed, judging by the result, was not much diminished by the occasional fits of grief. Pursuing the monotonous road, varied only by here and there a cottage or a toll-gate, I came in the afternoon to the end of the high lands and descended into the Stroud valley; walking through its picturesque scenes in a widely different mood from that in which I had seen them a few weeks before. Reaching Stroud between 5 and 6, I remember asking a man on the other side of the town, which was my way to Cheltenham. He pointed out the way and said—“But you are not going there to-night, are you?” He would have been greatly astonished to hear that I had already walked from five miles on the other side of Bath. To Cheltenham I did go, however: reaching it, I suppose, between 9 and 10 in the evening, and finding a small suburban tavern where I got a bed for sixpence. I had only two shillings pocket money, which I saw I should have to make last me during the journey. On that day and on succeeding days I repeated my occasional purchase of a penny roll: twice or thrice during the journey stopping to get a glass of beer. Bread and water, with perhaps three glasses of beer, were the only things I tasted between Hinton and Derby.
I could not sleep a wink at Cheltenham. The physical excitement produced by walking 48 miles, kept me tossing about till it was time to rise. Next morning, however, I early started off again, undismayed by my bad night. I got a ride out of Cheltenham for some two miles in a cart; and then resumed my weary walk, seeing from time to time the Malvern Hills, which, when I first caught sight of them the previous evening, had given me a thrill of pleasure as being old friends. Mile after mile was traversed during the sultry August day, along roads thickly covered with dust—through Tewkesbury and Worcester, on to Droitwich and on to Bromsgrove, which I reached and passed in the evening. I intended to walk that night to Birmingham, but an occurrence deterred me. While resting some miles beyond Bromsgrove, I was accosted by one of those wandering Italian image-sellers, common in my boyhood—men who went about carrying on their heads boards covered with plaster casts, and calling out “Finees!” This man sat down by me; and when I walked on he joined me. After a time he pulled out a large pocket-knife with a blade of some eight inches long or so, and spoke of it admiringly. This, as may be imagined, made me shudder. I do not suppose he meant anything; but still his act suggested the thought that he might murder me. Presently we arrived at the little inn on the Lickey called the Rose and Crown, and I asked for a bed. Luckily they let me have one, and to my great delight they would not let the Italian have one. He had to go on.
That night, like the preceding one, was sleepless. The exertion of walking about the same distance as before (for I believe from Cheltenham to the Rose and Crown is 49 miles, and deducting the 2 in the cart leaves 47) had maintained that feverish state of body which always keeps me awake Next morning after a few miles’ walking, I came up with one of those heavy wagons, common in the days before railways, carrying goods between chief towns—wagons now no longer seen—great lumbering vehicles with large hoods to them. I made friends with the wagoner; and he let me ride on the soft straw as far as Birmingham, where he stopped. Thence I walked on to Lichfield. At Lichfield I happened to be passing the chief hotel just as the Derby coach drew up; and, getting hold of the coachman, told him my story. No doubt he saw in my worn face and parched lips how much I had been suffering. He took pity on me, and, the coach having plenty of room, let me ride for nothing. I asked to ride as far as Burton. When we reached Burton I offered him the few coppers I had left to let me go on. He, good fellow, refused to have them, but allowed me to keep my seat; and so I reached Derby about 3 o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday, having left Hinton on Thursday morning. That day I had walked not more than 20 miles, if so much.
Here, before passing to subsequent incidents, I may remark on the physical effects of this escapade. It can, I think, scarcely be doubted that my system received a detrimental shock. That a boy of 13 should, without any food but bread and water and two or three glasses of beer, and without sleep for two nights, walk 48 miles one day, 47 the next, and some 20 the third, is surprising enough. It is strange that the exertion was borne at all; and it is highly improbable that it was borne without injury. At an age so far short of maturity, a tax so great necessarily tells upon the subsequent development. The cost has to be met somehow; and is met, no doubt, by a falling short of ultimate perfection of structure. However, there was no manifest sign of mischief, either then or during subsequent years.
As may be imagined, great consternation was caused at home when I made my appearance. No expectation of seeing me had arisen, for no letter had arrived. At that time it took two or three days for a letter to go from Hinton to Derby; and some hours had elapsed before information was given at the parsonage which made it clear what had become of me. The following is from my aunt’s letter, written not to my father but to my uncle William, announcing my flight:—
“Herbert early this morning left us, and without in the slightest degree considering our feelings; as not any one in the house was aware until several hours afterwards of his having left Hinton. We however heard from a person who met him before 7 o’clock that he was walking exceedingly fast, and making the best of his way to Bath; from whence we have not the least doubt he intended to proceed to Derby. But as he may not arrive at home for some days yet, we are anxious his parents may not hear of this, that they may be spared the very great anxiety which would be caused by the thought of so young a creature travelling so long a distance, friendless and pennyless! Had there been any cause for this strange conduct we should not have been so much surprised; but nothing in the world has occurred to give him any reason for such a step. He has been treated with the greatest kindness, and has not been in any instance punished; indeed he has been much more indulged than before his Father left us.
“It is my decided opinion that unless his Parents punish him severely, and return him again to us immediately, it will not only be insulting to us, but ruinous to the boy himself!”
Later in order of date, though written on the day of my arrival in Derby, is a letter from my mother to my uncle and aunt, from which the following is an extract:—
“I think no one could picture the astonishment and grief I felt when he walked into the room. His Father was at Coxbench and did not arrive till ten the same evening, and was as you will suppose quite overcome, and was a length of time before he recovered from the tremour it put him into. Poor Herbert is exceedingly distressed. He weeps very much but says he could not help it, the confinement to his own room for so many hours was more than he could bear. He wishes his uncle to be told how sorry he is to offend him so, but appears to consider that there is no hope of forgiveness whilst he lives. It seems that he wept most of his way home, and from what I can gather his tears appear to have been mixed up with those of penitence. I should think it very likely he will have an illness from walking such a distance with only the support of bread and water. I had given him on the morning I left Hinton two shillings for the purpose of purchasing needles for his insects and any other little matter he might require. With this sum he reached home.”
Then after an interval during which come letters from my aunt and uncle with further comments on my conduct, there occurs a long letter from my father dated August 15; in which, after speaking of my state as such that “a little more excitement would have brought on a brain fever,” and after narrating a conversation he had with me, he continues:—
“I fear being tiresome, but I have said thus far, that you may form some idea of the child’s feelings. That this desperate step was taken in part from an overweening desire to see home and to enjoy the habits of home and the affections of his parents, I can have no doubt, notwithstanding his silence on the subject whilst with you, might lead to the thought that he had not much regard for either. Believing this as I do, and believing too that his bodily frame was quite in a state of inflammatory action, I confess I durst not think of sending him back immediately; notwithstanding I had shortly after the opinion of our dear Anna that a contrary conduct would be attended with the worst of consequences.
“I might mention in corroberation a journey he once took to Ingleby, a distance of 7 miles, to see me, without his mother’s knowledge and when he was only 9 years old, and in the performance of which he ran the greater part of the way. But these feelings are not peculiar to him. You yourself no doubt recollect longing after home so intensely whilst at Nottingham, that although my father to comfort you did what I never knew him to do before or since, go over on purpose to see you, yet so ungovernable were your longings after home, that in defiance of all entreaties you ran after the coach that was taking your father from you, and compelled them by your importunities to take you too. This occurrence has also forcibly brought to my mind the intense feeling you showed when at Quorn on the same subject, and how repeatedly I used to go over to try to comfort you, and to act the part of a father to you. Let us not forget these feelings of our youth, my dear brother. They are dear to my memory, and I invite you to cherish them.”
After being more than a fortnight at home, my father thought me sufficiently recovered to return. I was received at Hinton very amicably. No mention was made of the misdemeanour, and things went on as if nothing had happened: my uncle’s plan, however, of separating S——— and myself not being repeated.