In Flanders Fields And Other Poems (9 page)

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VIII. The Civil Years

It will be observed in this long relation of John McCrae that little mention has yet been made of what after all was his main concern in life. For twenty years he studied and practised medicine. To the end he was an assiduous student and a very profound practitioner. He was a student, not of medicine alone, but of all subjects ancillary to the science, and to the task he came with a mind braced by a sound and generous education. Any education of real value a man must have received before he has attained to the age of seven years. Indeed he may be left impervious to its influence at seven weeks. John McCrae's education began well. It began in the time of his two grandfathers at least, was continued by his father and mother before he came upon this world's scene, and by them was left deep founded for him to build upon.

Noble natures have a repugnance from work. Manual labour is servitude. A day of idleness is a holy day. For those whose means do not permit to live in idleness the school is the only refuge; but they must prove their quality. This is the goal which drives many Scotch boys to the University, scorning delights and willing to live long, mind-laborious days.

John McCrae's father felt bound "to give the boy a chance," but the boy must pass the test. The test in such cases is the Shorter Catechism, that compendium of all intellectual argument. How the faithful aspirant for the school acquires this body of written knowledge at a time when he has not yet learned the use of letters is a secret not to be lightly disclosed. It may indeed be that already his education is complete. Upon the little book is always printed the table of multiples, so that the obvious truth which is comprised in the statement, "two by two makes four", is imputed to the contents which are within the cover. In studying the table the catechism is learned surreptitiously, and therefore without self-consciousness.

So, in this well ordered family with its atmosphere of obedience, we may see the boy, like a youthful Socrates going about with a copy of the book in his hand, enquiring of those, who could already read, not alone what were the answers to the questions but the very questions themselves to which an answer was demanded.

This learning, however, was only a minor part of life, since upon a farm life is very wide and very deep. In due time the school was accomplished, and there was a master in the school--let his name be recorded--William Tytler, who had a feeling for English writing and a desire to extend that feeling to others.

In due time also the question of a University arose. There was a man in Canada named Dawson--Sir William Dawson. I have written of him in another place. He had the idea that a university had something to do with the formation of character, and that in the formation of character religion had a part. He was principal of McGill. I am not saying that all boys who entered that University were religious boys when they went in, or even religious men when they came out; but religious fathers had a general desire to place their boys under Sir William Dawson's care.

Those were the days of a queer, and now forgotten, controversy over what was called "Science and Religion". Of that also I have written in another place. It was left to Sir William Dawson to deliver the last word in defence of a cause that was already lost. His book came under the eye of David McCrae, as most books of the time did, and he was troubled in his heart. His boys were at the University of Toronto. It was too late; but he eased his mind by writing a letter. To this letter John replies under date 20th December, 1890: "You say that after reading Dawson's book you almost regretted that we had not gone to McGill. That, I consider, would have been rather a calamity, about as much so as going to Queen's." We are not always wiser than our fathers were, and in the end he came to McGill after all.

For good or ill, John McCrae entered the University of Toronto in 1888, with a scholarship for "general proficiency". He joined the Faculty of Arts, took the honours course in natural sciences, and graduated from the department of biology in 1894, his course having been interrupted by two severe illnesses. From natural science, it was an easy step to medicine, in which he was encouraged by Ramsay Wright, A. B. Macallum, A. McPhedran, and I. H. Cameron. In 1898 he graduated again, with a gold medal, and a scholarship in physiology and pathology. The previous summer he had spent at the Garrett Children's Hospital in Mt. Airy, Maryland.

Upon graduating he entered the Toronto General Hospital as resident house officer; in 1899 he occupied a similar post at Johns Hopkins. Then he came to McGill University as fellow in pathology and pathologist to the Montreal General Hospital. In time he was appointed physician to the Alexandra Hospital for infectious diseases; later assistant physician to the Royal Victoria Hospital, and lecturer in medicine in the University. By examination he became a member of the Royal College of Physicians, London. In 1914 he was elected a member of the Association of American Physicians. These are distinctions won by few in the profession.

In spite, or rather by reason, of his various attainments John McCrae never developed, or degenerated, into the type of the pure scientist. For the laboratory he had neither the mind nor the hands. He never peered at partial truths so closely as to mistake them for the whole truth; therefore, he was unfitted for that purely scientific career which was developed to so high a pitch of perfection in that nation which is now no longer mentioned amongst men. He wrote much, and often, upon medical problems. The papers bearing his name amount to thirty-three items in the catalogues. They testify to his industry rather than to invention and discovery, but they have made his name known in every text-book of medicine.

Apart from his verse, and letters, and diaries, and contributions to journals and books of medicine, with an occasional address to students or to societies, John McCrae left few writings, and in these there is nothing remarkable by reason of thought or expression. He could not write prose. Fine as was his ear for verse he could not produce that finer rhythm of prose, which comes from the fall of proper words in proper sequence. He never learned that if a writer of prose takes care of the sound the sense will take care of itself. He did not scrutinize words to discover their first and fresh meaning. He wrote in phrases, and used words at second-hand as the journalists do. Bullets "rained"; guns "swept"; shells "hailed"; events "transpired", and yet his appreciation of style in others was perfect, and he was an insatiable reader of the best books. His letters are strewn with names of authors whose worth time has proved. To specify them would merely be to write the catalogue of a good library.

The thirteen years with which this century opened were the period in which John McCrae established himself in civil life in Montreal and in the profession of medicine. Of this period he has left a chronicle which is at once too long and too short.

All lives are equally interesting if only we are in possession of all the facts. Places like Oxford and Cambridge have been made interesting because the people who live in them are in the habit of writing, and always write about each other. Family letters have little interest even for the family itself, if they consist merely of a recital of the trivial events of the day. They are prized for the unusual and for the sentiment they contain. Diaries also are dull unless they deal with selected incidents; and selection is the essence of every art. Few events have any interest in themselves, but any event can be made interesting by the pictorial or literary art.

When he writes to his mother, that, as he was coming out of the college, an Irish setter pressed a cold nose against his hand, that is interesting because it is unusual. If he tells us that a professor took him by the arm, there is no interest in that to her or to any one else. For that reason the ample letters and diaries which cover these years need not detain us long. There is in them little selection, little art--too much professor and too little dog.

It is, of course, the business of the essayist to select; but in the present case there is little to choose. He tells of invitations to dinner, accepted, evaded, or refused; but he does not always tell who were there, what he thought of them, or what they had to eat. Dinner at the Adami's,--supper at Ruttan's,--a night with Owen,--tea at the Reford's,--theatre with the Hickson's,--a reception at the Angus's,--or a dance at the Allan's,--these events would all be quite meaningless without an exposition of the social life of Montreal, which is too large a matter to undertake, alluring as the task would be. Even then, one would be giving one's own impressions and not his.

Wherever he lived he was a social figure. When he sat at table the dinner was never dull. The entertainment he offered was not missed by the dullest intelligence. His contribution was merely "stories", and these stories in endless succession were told in a spirit of frank fun. They were not illustrative, admonitory, or hortatory. They were just amusing, and always fresh. This gift he acquired from his mother, who had that rare charm of mimicry without mockery, and caricature without malice. In all his own letters there is not an unkind comment or tinge of ill-nature, although in places, especially in later years, there is bitter indignation against those Canadian patriots who were patriots merely for their bellies' sake.

Taken together his letters and diaries are a revelation of the heroic struggle by which a man gains a footing in a strange place in that most particular of all professions, a struggle comprehended by those alone who have made the trial of it. And yet the method is simple. It is all disclosed in his words, "I have never refused any work that was given me to do." These records are merely a chronicle of work. Outdoor clinics, laboratory tasks, post-mortems, demonstrating, teaching, lecturing, attendance upon the sick in wards and homes, meetings, conventions, papers, addresses, editing, reviewing,--the very remembrance of such a career is enough to appall the stoutest heart.

But John McCrae was never appalled. He went about his work gaily, never busy, never idle. Each minute was pressed into the service, and every hour was made to count. In the first eight months of practice he claims to have made ninety dollars. It is many years before we hear him complain of the drudgery of sending out accounts, and sighing for the services of a bookkeeper. This is the only complaint that appears in his letters.

There were at the time in Montreal two rival schools, and are yet two rival hospitals. But John McCrae was of no party. He was the friend of all men, and the confidant of many. He sought nothing for himself and by seeking not he found what he most desired. His mind was single and his intention pure; his acts unsullied by selfish thought; his aim was true because it was steady and high. His aid was never sought for any cause that was unworthy, and those humorous eyes could see through the bones to the marrow of a scheme. In spite of his singular innocence, or rather by reason of it, he was the last man in the world to be imposed upon.

In all this devastating labour he never neglected the assembling of himself together with those who write and those who paint. Indeed, he had himself some small skill in line and colour. His hands were the hands of an artist--too fine and small for a body that weighted 180 pounds, and measured more than five feet eleven inches in height. There was in Montreal an institution known as "The Pen and Pencil Club". No one now living remembers a time when it did not exist. It was a peculiar club. It contained no member who should not be in it; and no one was left out who should be in. The number was about a dozen. For twenty years the club met in Dyonnet's studio, and afterwards, as the result of some convulsion, in K. R. Macpherson's. A ceremonial supper was eaten once a year, at which one dressed the salad, one made the coffee, and Harris sang a song. Here all pictures were first shown, and writings read--if they were not too long. If they were, there was in an adjoining room a tin chest, which in these austere days one remembers with refreshment. When John McCrae was offered membership he "grabbed at it", and the place was a home for the spirit wearied by the week's work. There Brymner and the other artists would discourse upon writings, and Burgess and the other writers would discourse upon pictures.

It is only with the greatest of resolution, fortified by lack of time and space, that I have kept myself to the main lines of his career, and refrained from following him into by-paths and secret, pleasant places; but I shall not be denied just one indulgence. In the great days when Lord Grey was Governor-General he formed a party to visit Prince Edward Island. The route was a circuitous one. It began at Ottawa; it extended to Winnipeg, down the Nelson River to York Factory, across Hudson Bay, down the Strait, by Belle Isle and Newfoundland, and across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to a place called Orwell. Lord Grey in the matter of company had the reputation of doing himself well. John McCrae was of the party. It also included John Macnaughton, L. S. Amery, Lord Percy, Lord Lanesborough, and one or two others. The ship had called at North Sydney where Lady Grey and the Lady Evelyn joined.

Through the place in a deep ravine runs an innocent stream which broadens out into still pools, dark under the alders. There was a rod--a very beautiful rod in two pieces. It excited his suspicion. It was put into his hand, the first stranger hand that ever held it; and the first cast showed that it was a worthy hand. The sea-trout were running that afternoon. Thirty years before, in that memorable visit to Scotland, he had been taken aside by "an old friend of his grandfather's". It was there he learned "to love the trooties". The love and the art never left him. It was at this same Orwell his brother first heard the world called to arms on that early August morning in 1914.

In those civil years there were, of course, diversions: visits to the United States and meetings with notable men--Welch, Futcher, Hurd, White, Howard, Barker: voyages to Europe with a detailed itinerary upon the record; walks and rides upon the mountain; excursion in winter to the woods, and in summer to the lakes; and one visit to the Packards in Maine, with the sea enthusiastically described. Upon those woodland excursions and upon many other adventures his companion is often referred to as "Billy T.", who can be no other than Lieut.-Col. W. G. Turner, "M.C."

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