Professor Chrystal

by a student

When Chrystal came to Edinburgh he rooted up the humours of the classroom as a dentist draws teeth. Souls were sold for keys that could be carried in the waistcoat pocket. Ambition fell from heights, and lay with its eye on a certificate. By night was a rush of ghosts, shrieking for passes. Horse-play fled before the Differential Calculus in spectacles.

I had Chrystal's first year, and recall the gloomy student sitting before me who hacked "All hope abandon ye who enter here" into a desk that may have confined Carlyle. It took him a session, and he was digging his own grave, for he never got through; but it was something to hold by, something he felt sure of. All else was spiders' webs in chalk.

Chrystal was a fine hare for the hounds who could keep up with him. He started off the first day with such a spurt that most of us were left behind mopping our faces and saying "Here's a fellow" which is what Mr Stevenson says Shakespeare would have remarked about Mr George Meredith. We never saw him again. The men who were on speaking acquaintance with his symbols revelled in him as students love an enthusiast who is eager to lead them into a world toward which they would journey. He was a rare guide for them. The bulk, however, lost him in labyrinths. They could not but admire their brilliant professor; but while their friend the medalist and he kept the conversation to themselves, they felt like eavesdroppers hearkening to a pair of lovers. "It is beautiful", they cried, "but this is no place for us; let us away."

A good many went, but their truancy stuck in their throats like Orway's last roll. The M.A. was before them. They had fancied it in their hands, but it became shy as a maiden from the day they learned Chrystal's heresy that Euclid is not mathematics but only some riders in it. This snapped the chord that had tied the blind man to his dog, and the M.A. shot down the horizon. When Rutherford delivered his first lecture in the Chair of Institutes of Medicine, boisterous students drowned his voice, and he flung out of the room. At the door he paused to say "Gentlemen, we shall meet again at Philippi." A dire bomb was this in the midst of them, warranted to go off, none able to cast it overboard. We, too, had our Philippi before us. Chrystal could not be left to his own devices.

I had never a passion for knowing that when circles or triangles attempt impossibilities it is absurd, and x was an unknown quantity I was ever content to walk round about. To admit to Chrystal that we understood x was only a way he had of leading you on to y and z. I have him his chance, however, by contributing a paper of answers to his first weekly set of exercises. When the hour for returning the slips came round, I was there to accept fame - if so it was to be - with modesty; and if it was humiliation, still to smile. The Professor said there was one paper, with an owner's name on it, which he could not read, and it was handed along the class to be deciphered. My presentiment that it was mine became a certainty when it reached my hand, but I passed it on pleasantly, and it returned to Chrystal, a Japhet that never found its father. Feeling that the powers were against me, I then retired from the conflict, sanguine that the teaching of my mathematical schoolmaster, the best that could be, would pull me through. The Disowned may be going the round of the classroom still.

The men who did not know when they were beaten returned to their seats, and doggedly took notes, their faces lengthening daily. Their note-books reproduced exactly the hieroglyphics of the black-board, and, examined at night, were as suggestive as the photographs of persons one has never seen. To overtake Chrystal after giving him a start was the presumption that is an offshoot from despair. There was once an elderly gentleman who for years read the Times every day from the first page to the last. For a fortnight he was ill of a fever; but on recovering, he began at the copy of the Times where he had left off. He struggled magnificently to make up on the Times, but it was in vain. This is an allegory for the way these students panted after Chrystal.

Some succumbed and joined the majority - literally; for to mathematics they were dead. I never hear of the old University now, nor pass under the shadow of the walls one loves when he is done with them, without seeing myself as I was the day I matriculated, an awestruck boy, passing and repassing the gates, frightened to venture inside, breathing heavily at sight of janitors, Scott and Carlyle in the air. After that I see nothing fuller of colour than the meetings that were held outside Chrystal's door. Adjoining it is a classroom so little sought for, that legend tells of its door once showing the notice: "There will be no class to-day as the student is unwell." The crowd round Chrystal's could have filled that room. It was composed of students hearkening at the door to see whether he was to call their part of the roll to-day. If he did, they slunk in; if not, the crowd melted into the streets, this refrain in their ears -
"I'm plucked, I do admit,
I'm spun, my mother dear,
Yet do not grieve for that
Which happens every year.
I've waited very patiently,
I may have long to wait,
But you've another son, mother,
And he will graduate."
A professor of mathematics once brought a rowdy student from the back benches to a seat beside him, because - "First, you'll be near the board; second, you'll be near me; and, third, you'll be near the door." Chrystal soon discovered that the students could not be too near the door, and he took to calling the roll in the middle of the hour, which insured an increased attendance. It was a silent class, nothing heard but the patter of pencils, rats scraping for grain, of which there was abundance, but not one digestion in a bench. To smuggle in a novel up one's waistcoat was perilous, Chrystal's spectacles doing their work. At a corner of the platform sat the assistant, with a constable's authority, but not formed for swooping, uneasy because he had legs, and where to put them he knew not. He got through the hour by shifting his position every five minutes; and, sitting there waiting, he reminded one of the boy who, on being told to remain so quietly where he was that he could hear a pin drop, held his breath a moment, then shouted, "Let it drop!" An excellent fellow was this assistant, who told us that one of his predecessors had got three months.

A jest went as far as in that class as a plum in the midshipmen's pudding, and, you remember, when the middies came on a plum they gave three cheers. In the middle of some brilliant reasoning Chrystal would stop to add 4, 7, and 11. Addition of this kind was the only thing he could not do, and he looked to the class for help - "20," they shouted, "24," "17," while he thought it over. These appeals to their intelligence made them beam. They woke up as a sleepy congregation shakes itself into life when the minister says "I remember when I was a little boy..."

The daring spirits - say, those who were going into their father's office, and so did not look upon Chrystal as a door locked to their advancement - sought to bring sunshine into the room. Chrystal soon had the blind down on that. I hear that they have been at it recently with the usual result. To relieve the monotony, a student at the end of bench ten, dropped a marble, which toppled slowly downward toward the Professor. At every step it took there was a smothered guffaw; but Chrystal, who was working at the board, did not turn his head. When the marble reached the floor, he said, still with his back to the class, "Will the student at the end of bench ten, who dropped that marble, stand up?" All eyes dilated, He had counted the falls of the marble from step to step. Mathematics do not obscure the intellect.

Twenty per cent was a good percentage in Chrystal's examinations; thirty sent you away whistling. As the M.A. drew nigh, students on their prospects might have been farmers discussing the weather. Some put their faith in the Professor's goodness of heart, of which the symptoms had been showing. He would not, all at once, "raise the standard" - hated phrase until you are through, when you write to the papers advocating it. Courage! was it not told of the Glasgow Snell competition that one of the competitors, as soon as he saw the first paper, looked for his hat and the door, that he was forbidden to withdraw until an hour had elapsed, and that he then tackled the paper and ultimately carried off the Snell? Of more immediate interest, perhaps, was the story of the quaking student, whose neighbour handed him in pencil, beneath the desk, the answer to several questions. It was in an M.A. exam, and the affrightened student found that he could not read his neighbour's notes. Trusting to fortune, he enclosed them with his own answers, writing at the top, "No time to write these out in ink, so enclose them in pencil". He got through: no moral.

A condemned criminal wondering if he is to get a reprieve will not feel the position novel if he has loitered in a University quadrangle waiting for the janitor to nail up the results of a degree exam. A queer gathering we were, awaiting the verdict of Chrystal. Some compressed their lips, others were as lively as fireworks dipped in water; there were those who rushed round and round the quadrangle; only one went to the length of saying that he did not want to pass. H., I shall call him. I met him the other day in Fleet Street, and he annoyed me by asking at once if I remembered the landlady I quarrelled with because she wore my socks to church of a Sunday: we found her out one wet forenoon, H. waited the issue with a cigar in his mouth. He had purposely, he explained, given in a bad paper. He could not understand why men were so anxious to get through. He had ten reasons for wishing to be plucked. We let him talk. The janitor appeared with the fateful paper, and we lashed about him like waves round a lighthouse, all but H., who strolled languidly to the board to which the paper was being fastened. A moment afterwards I heard a shriek, "I'm through! I'm through!" It was H. His cigar was dashed aside, and he sped like an arrow from the bow to the nearest telegraph office, shouting "I'm through!" as he ran.

Those of us who had H.'s fortune now consider Chrystal made to order for his Chair, but he has never, perhaps, had a proper appreciation of the charming fellows who get 10 per cent.

This article appeared in the University of Edinburgh Journal, Vol. 5, 1932-33, 121-124.

Last Updated November 2007