Won't you be tempted to use it, instead of trying to understand people?'
In the year 1878, he took a passionate fancy for the phonograph: it was a toy after his heart, a toy that touched the skirts of life, art, and science, a toy prolific of problems and theories. Something fell to be done for a University Cricket Ground Bazaar. 'And the thought struck him,' Mr. Ewing writes to me, 'to exhibit Edison's phonograph, then the very newest scientific marvel. The instrument itself was not to be purchased - I think no specimen had then crossed the Atlantic - but a copy of the TIMES with an account of it was at hand, and by the help of this we made a phonograph which to our great joy talked, and talked, too, with the purest American accent. It was so good that a second instrument was got ready forthwith. Both were shown at the Bazaar: one by Mrs. Jenkin to people willing to pay half a crown for a private view and the privilege of hearing their own voices, while Jenkin, perfervid as usual, gave half-hourly lectures on the other in an adjoining room - I, as his lieutenant, taking turns. The thing was in its way a little triumph. A few of the visitors were deaf, and hugged the belief that they were the victims of a new kind of fancy-fair swindle. Of the others, many who came to scoff remained to take raffle tickets; and one of the phonographs was finally disposed of in this way, falling, by a happy freak of the ballot-box, into the hands of Sir William Thomson.' The other remained in Fleeming's hands, and was a source of infinite occupation. Once it was sent to London, 'to bring back on the tinfoil the tones of a lady distinguished for clear vocalisations; at another time Sir Robert Christison was brought in to contribute his powerful bass'; and there scarcely came a visitor about the house, but he was made the subject of experiment. The visitors, I am afraid, took their parts lightly: Mr. Hole and I, with unscientific laughter, commemorating various shades of Scotch accent, or proposing to 'teach the poor dumb animal to swear.' But Fleeming and Mr. Ewing, when we butterflies were gone, were laboriously ardent. Many thoughts that occupied the later years of my friend were caught from the small utterance of that toy. Thence came his inquiries into the roots of articulate language and the foundations of literary art; his papers on vowel sounds, his papers in the SATURDAY REVIEW upon the laws of verse, and many a strange approximation, many a just note, thrown out in talk and now forgotten. I pass over dozens of his interests, and dwell on this trifling matter of the phonograph, because it seems to me that it depicts the man. So, for Fleeming, one thing joined into another, the greater with the less. He cared not where it was he scratched the surface of the ultimate mystery - in the child's toy, in the great tragedy, in the laws of the tempest, or in the properties of energy or mass - certain that whatever he touched, it was a part of life - and however he touched it, there would flow for his happy constitution interest and delight. 'All fables have their morals,' says Thoreau, 'but the innocent enjoy the story.' There is a truth represented for the imagination in these lines of a noble poem, where we are told, that in our highest hours of visionary clearness, we can but
'see the children sport upon the shore And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.'
To this clearness Fleeming had attained; and although he heard the voice of the eternal seas and weighed its message, he was yet able, until the end of his life, to sport upon these shores of death and mystery with the gaiety and innocence of children.
It was as a student that I first knew Fleeming, as one of that modest number of young men who sat under his ministrations in a soul-chilling class-room at the top of the University buildings. His presence was against him as a professor: no one, least of all students, would have been moved to respect him at first sight: rather short in stature, markedly plain, boyishly young in manner, cocking his head like a terrier with every mark of the most engaging vivacity and readiness to be pleased, full of words, full of paradox, a stranger could scarcely fail to look at him twice, a man thrown with him in a train could scarcely fail to be engaged by him in talk, but a student would never regard him as academical. Yet he had that fibre in him that order always existed in his class-room.