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Mr. Van Ploos on Penmanship.
AM a Dutchman. My father, Mr. Lastman van Ploos was, for many years, one of the principal writing-masters in Amsterdam. He taught ladies and gentlemen, as well as lawyers' clerks, with much credit to himself, and advantage to them. But the class among whom he was considered to be the most expert and successful, was that of the merchants' and traders' apprentices, whom he taught to write a free, bold, rapid, legible hand. Some few were not so good of course; and no two were exactly alike; I speak, however, of the great balance in his favor. The most part of those who had learned to write of Mr. Lastman van Ploos could be known by their hands, which were accounted the most excellent, for good, quick writing and easy reading, in all Amsterdam.
There was a large family of us. I am afraid to say how many brothers and sisters I had, especially sisters; but all of them were taught writing by my father, and though some wrote better than others, the whole family of the van Plooses wrote good hands-with one exception. That melancholy one was I. What pain it was to my father to
receive the letters I wrote to him! Yet it was not his fault; for he did not teach me.
I will explain how this was. A few words will show why my writing did not, and to this day does not, deserve to be called a "hand," but rather a claw-and a broken claw, too, sometimes.
My father having made a considerable sum by his lessons in writing, entered into a small trade in pipes and tobacco. He was so successful in this that he soon became a merchant; abandoned pens and paper for meerschaums and kanaster; and determined that one of his sons should be educated in England, and become his agent there as soon as he was old enough for so important an office. I was the son selected for this purpose, and at the age of eight I was consigned, together with a large stock of Dutch pipes, to the care of a friend of my father's, Mynheer Trunkenbooms, a dealer in petticoats and other woollen articles, a most prudent and respectable man.
Arrived in London, I was placed under the care of Mynheer Trunkenbooms' agent's aunt, from whom I received the first rudiments of instruction, till one day the good lady's eye was attracted by the advertisement of a country schoolmaster who undertook to board and educate young gentlemen at the sum of six and twenty pounds a year, feeding them upon the best of diet, and teaching them eyery thing requisite to be known. This seemed so excelent a thing that she represented the case in the most eloquent manner to Mynheer Trunkenbooms on his next visit to London, who thought it would be just what my father wished. Accordingly I was sent to the school of Mr. Simon Spiphlicate, of Minerva House, Ponderwell, Hertfordshire.
I shall say nothing about my general education. I shall
speak only of the writing department of this academy. Oh, it was very different in its method to that of my father. There were two classes; the big boys' class, and the little boys' class. I was in the latter. At twelve o'clock every day we were called to writing, and placed at the same desk as the upper class had used before us, and on the same forms. These forms, to save the expense of two sets suited to the different heights and sizes of the two classes, were so contrived as to suit neither, being too high for the big boys, and too low for us little ones. Thus, the upper class always presented a long row of hunched backs, and boys' noses pointing perpendicularly down their quills; while the lower class presented a long row of stiff necks, and small noses pointing up their quills. This arrangement was well enough for a few intermediate sized boys; but the great majority were in the position I have described. We wrote with quills; steel pens had not then come into use. Our pens seldom suited us; we could not mend them ourselves, and we dared not ask to have them mended, because when this favor was granted by Mr. Spiphlicate, the acquiescence was al most always accompanied by a slap on the cheek directly after the pen was returned, or a crack on the crown by one hard knuckle as the boy received it. A crack on the tender crown of a little boy from the bony knuckle of a man's hand who does not measure the respective powers of giving and receiving, is not only something to feel at the time, but never to forget afterwards. I always had a singing in my head, and a mist over my eyes, for a quarter of an hour af ter it. The same knuckle-crack was also administered for a bad method of holding the pen, or for thick up-strokes, crooked down-strokes, and blots and smears. The sudden blow generally caused a large drop of ink to start out from the pen, and then you had a second crack on the nob for
this new blot, the crack coming, perhaps, exactly in the same place, all sore and dinging as it was; and this made me sick to death, or else it was a mad pain.
Mr. Simon Spiphlicate was a preacher, and had a subscription meeting-house. He stood six feet two, out of his shoes. He was very thin, but had large bones. His face was an unhealthy pale, with a mouldy tint in each cheek, and his great nose was swollen, and red at the end. He had weak eyes, and wore silver spectacles with immense round glasses The upper parts of his legs were thin, but from the knees downwards they were extremely large, and always cased in long black gaiters, strapped under the shoe, and buttoned all the way up to the bend of the knee. This dreadful figure, (which, to the apprehension of a little boy, under my circumstances, was not so much like that of a being of his own species, as of some gigantic foreign bird,) stalked up and down behind our backs all the time we were writing. The suddenness with which a blow would fall-or the horrible expectation of it, as he stood breathing down through his nostrils upon the back of my head-made the whole time of this lesson a torture of the mind. We all wrote as in fear of our lives.
When the lesson was over-oh, what a moment this was! True, it was over; but then we all had to show up our copies to him in succession. He now stood twirling a short ruler in his fingers. When the writing was very bad, or blotty, he seized one of the culprit's hands-often the right hand— and, bending the fingers down, beat it over the knuckles; so that in a few minutes afterwards they were swollen as large as marbles, and all of a red and purple hue. This it was often my fate to receive. I was four years at Minerva House Academy. Of the methods of instruction in English grammer, in Latin and Greek rudiments, in arithmetic,
and in geography and the abuse of the globes, I will say nothing; but as for writing, I came away with no epistolary "hand" of any kind, no notion of how it was to be acquired, and with a mortal hatred of the fine art of penmanship in which all our family excelled.
Mr. Spiphlicate gave me cake and wine on the morning I left; and, all smiles, shook hands with me at parting but my heart shuddered within me at his touch. The rec ollection of his smiles, and the subdued and tender sound of his voice in saying "Good-bye, van Ploos," puzzled my conceptions of human nature for years afterwards. "Good" with a soft tone, and a rising inflection" Good bye!”and the sallow smile of the griffin !—when I think of it now, though twenty-seven years have elapsed, I sometimes feel as if I should like to smash his spectacles upon his face, and assault him with a new pen.
At the age of about thirteen I left the academy of Mr. Simon Spiphlicate, and after being refused admission into several merchants' counting-houses on account of my "hand," I was placed with a wholesale tobacconist in Oxford Street, to learn the business. My education was at an end, and my penmanship being left to itself, to proceed upon the beautiful no-foundation just described, I gradually fell into a sort of writing of the very worst kind-slow and shapeless, or rapid and illegible, and seldom twice alike. This continued through years, under various circumstances of life, till here I am, a tobacconist of forty, who can't write his wife's Christian name in a manner fit to be read!
It may here be asked, by those who consider this matter of hand-writing in a mechanical light, whether there is not something awkward or unsuitable in the shape of my hand and fingers, or a certain inflexibility, inapt at all neat and curious manipulations? Not so; but the contrary. I