Dr. Coit of St. Paul's
THE first Headmaster of St. Paul’s School was twenty-six when he opened it alone, and with three boys. Three hundred and thirty-nine were there, and thirty-six masters, on the winter day when he died, at the age of sixtyfive; and a hush fell upon the hearts of those who had gone out of that school into the world. The master builder of their consciences and characters would never again look at them with his searching blue eyes. His marble effigy, recumbent in the School Chapel, is rightly clothed in a monastic gown, with a rope knotted round the waist. The sculptor knew that time had misplaced him, as an April day will sometimes appear in January. His well-known fellow churchmen and acquaintances, Phillips Brooks, Bishop Doane, and the three Bishops Potter, were at one with their epoch; he came as straight from the twelfth century as John Brown from the Old Testament, or Napoleon from the age when invaders could change the course of history.
His spirit was felt to be so remote from the present that to see him do some everyday thing, as when by a quick light touch from behind he knocked the cap over the eyes of a little new boy who had forgotten in his general timidity to take it off as he was entering the Chapel, never ceased to be incongruous; or as when, in the midst of reproving two boys who had together destroyed a posted bulletin not to their liking, he pulled himself up short on the brink of a joke: —
‘Then I’m to understand that Tom tore it down, and Jack tore it — to pieces.’
He adjusted himself to his age in little that was not needed for the welfare of the school that he created, and in his creation he found his context, the medium for his genius; during forty years he filled every cranny of St. Paul’s with his tremendous personality.
Few boys over whom his spiritual fire passed ever forgot it, or the tall black figure in which it blazed. Whatever religious observance they may have dropped away from, whatever scruple of their boyhood they got over, him they never got over. Twenty-five years after he was dead, and three rectors had succeeded him, a lady who came to live at the school found that she met his legend at every turn; he was still present in the place, pervading it; while out in the world he lived so deep in men of forty and fifty that his formidable shape would appear to them in their dreams.
Henry Augustus Coit was born on January 20, 1830, seven hundred years later than the days of his spiritual kin. Behind the times he was not; he was keenly alive to them, found them little to his liking, and withdrew from them to live devotedly in his work, and deeply within himself, in perpetual communion with something eternal. Had he come into the world at Assisi or Siena, when Innocent II was pope, instead of at Wilmington, Delaware, when Andrew Jackson was president, it might well be that the calendar would now include another saint, that another order would be numbered with the Franciscans and Benedictines, and that his portrait — possibly even his martyrdom — by Pinturicchio or Pietro Vannucci would hang treasured in the hill-town cathedrals of Italy. Instead, there is his photograph in the Alumni House: a stern sad man in clerical black; a broad brow, a keen eye, the beard and shaven upper lip of other days; obviously a man of war and a captain; less obviously a prophet of poetic vision, and a tender, very human heart; a true and vivid likeness of the man’s aspect in his full prime. To catch the vision and the heart, his youthful face must be studied, his ardent face when he was twenty-four: beardless, a brow that might be Shelley’s, thick waving hair massed above this, an eye of wide-open wistfulness, a mouth of marked purpose, not yet chiseled by strife, and the fashion of choker and collar to be seen round the neck of Daniel Webster. In this early likeness noble and serious dreams can be read, dreams meant to come true through action; the face in the Alumni House has been hammered into austerity by forty years of fighting with the beasts at Ephesus, and the knowledge that nothing comes wholly true. He is reported to have said once that boarding schools were a necessary evil: if he ever did, it was a momentary flash, an overstatement of his feeling that the best he could do must fall short of what, in the beginning, he may have hoped to do. And possibly this, with his native bent for indignation at the evil in the world, rather than elation over the good, may have set stern sadness in the depths of his countenance, in spite of the drollery and humor which often played over its surface. His lightning perception of the ludicrous did little to help the mood that dwelt inmost in him.
At morning service in the Chapel, when he said, ‘Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening,’ there was an overtone in his arresting voice which seemed to be almost fatalistic, almost to ask, ‘And what does it all come to?’
When he gave out such hymns as ‘Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide,’ ‘Weary of earth, and laden with my sin,’ ‘Lead, kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,’ and many another that bore upon the tragedy of life, the music of his utterance fitted those words closer than when he stood tall and majestic in the white amplitude of his surplice, and read, ‘The day of resurrection! Earth, tell it out abroad!’ or, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handywork.’
This spirit in exile, separated by seven centuries from its native epoch, could not sing the Lord’s song in a strange land jubilantly, like Phillips Brooks, who was at home in his times, and splendidly buoyant, and could make it sound like a trumpet. ‘Life is so simple!' Brooks exclaimed exuberantly, one Sunday morning in his pulpit. It was not simple to Henry Coit: better to hold aloof from it, and put armor on young souls to encounter it and prevail. Behind every sentence that he preached in Chapel, every page of Greek or Latin which he put with such grace into English for his stumbling boys, every game that ho countenanced outdoors and in lived the unswerving purpose to equip young souls to meet a life that was mostly evil. In him, more than in any of his remarkable brothers, the heritage of Celtic twilight prevailed, and his New England ancestors held his stormy temperament in their grip. The sombre cast of Puritanism dimmed the natural sun of mirth and humor that constantly struggled to shine out in him, and checked, too often to his own loss and the loss of those around him, the impulse of laughter and fun which bubbled up liberally in him. It almost seemed as if he felt it wrong to relax. In his spontaneous distrust of any indulgence, he was more like John Knox than like the converted troubadour of Assisi, at whose touch the rose tree lost its thorns: the discipline of the thorn was to him more desirable than the smell of the rose. He had never been converted, like Saint Paul, or Saint Francis, or Saint Ignatius; he had never needed conversion; the straight line of his life was from its beginning to its end without a break, and all his days he walked humbly in the sight of his God — but not much so in the sight of men.
His ecclesiastical chief, and affectionate friend, Bishop Niles, a trustee of the school, was explaining to him once why he could not attend the approaching functions and prize giving of Last Night; Last Night at his own school in Holderness came on the same date, and claimed his presence. And while he talked Dr. Coit kept his back turned in annoyance.
‘Henry Coit,’ said the Bishop at last, ‘when I am speaking to you of serious things, you will please look at me.’
The trustees of the school, a chosen group of men capable in their various callings, were humorously aware that when they convened at the Rectory to discuss and decide upon whatever of importance had come up they were little more than what is termed rubber stamps, ratifying the decisions of their Headmaster. They sat and heard him; they learned what had been done, and what was to be done, and the reasons for it; in their submission they were not unlike boys being lectured in his study. The chief difference was that, being mature men, they recognized to the full the extraordinary quality of their Headmaster, his sagacity and integrity, the success he was making of his work — and so they were glad to give him his head. Such a way to conduct a complex institution could never last, except during the same exceptional state of things, as when some nation is ruled for a while by a benevolent despot.
‘When our meeting is over,’ said a trustee, Dr. Samuel Eliot, to a parent of one of the boys, ‘Dr. Coit waves a hand toward the dining room, and tells us that we shall find sherry and cigars there. None of us ever dares to go in.’
His attitude about tobacco was something quite peculiar, and must be laid not alone to his innate distrust of any mere physical indulgence; a delicate and extreme fastidiousness marked his taste in a multitude of directions, and this the smell of tobacco evidently offended. In his summer holidays, late in life, when he sat with his family on the deck of some Canadian steamer, and cigar smoke floated his way, he would give the characteristic wave of his hand to waft it off, and a sniff of his nose, and a blow with his lips, while the gleam of irony twinkled in his blue eye.
When Augustus Swift, who brought much-needed liveliness and liberality in living to the school early in 1874, came to establish his rooms full of good water colors, bright shelves of books, comfortable curtains and chairs, across the hall from the Doctor’s austere study, and the doors of both rooms would be open, the Doctor would interrupt what he was saying to some boy by a turning of his head and a searching sniff, and, ‘My dear, don’t you notice an odor of nicotine?’ And the ironic twinkle in the blue eye would follow, and win the delighted boy’s confidence.
Less playful was his remark to his son when he appeared one day with a cigar in his mouth: ‘And when did you assume that badge of manhood?’
That was the father; the host did not carry it so far. For the trustees cigars and sherry were always ready, and prejudice was waived for other guests. In the upstairs apartment of his son and daughter-in-law during the later days when they lived with him, the badge of manhood was allowed. And when a certain prelate was staying in the house the Doctor, after dinner, would say to his son, ‘Take the Bishop upstairs and see that he has all the necessary apparatus.’
Dr. Coit’s fastidiousness came out in his dress; never a wrinkle in his severe coat, or a fray in his white collar, or a speck on the polish of his long, narrow, well-made shoes. At his right hand on his desk lay always a row of pencils, symmetric and sharpened to the finest point; his swift handwriting, though traced by a flying pen, was exquisitely formed and delicate as a thread.
Fastidiousness came out in his choice of words, in his literary taste, in his severity or his laughter over the English into which the boys would put their Horace or their Euripides.
He was holding an oral examination in sixth-form Latin, and had invited an old boy, arrived from college for a visit, to sit beside him on the platform.
‘You may scan the first line of this ode,’ he said to one of the form.
‘Vitas me hinnuleo similis, Chloe,’ the boy read in correct rhythm.
‘That will do. Now translate it.’
‘You shun me, Chloe, like a mule. ’
‘Oh, my dear! A mule! Do you think calling her that would soften her heart?’
‘It’s in the dictionary, sir.’
‘Did n’t you notice any other word there? Did n’t you see “fawn”? Well, go on; and remember it’s a lover addressing a young lady.’
And while the boy continued the Doctor, quietly mirthful, turned to the visitor and said, ‘You see, we’re still going at it on all fours!’
Going at it on all fours under such discipline as Henry Coit’s trained many a clumsy mind to go upright with a good carriage. This advantage has befallen youth before. Arnold of Rugby, Fellenberg of Hofwyl, and Muhlenberg, who taught Henry Coit — these were all of the race of great civilizers. Whenever you had Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other, it was said that you had a university. Arnold not only licked drunken, lawless Rugby into shape; his work there reformed Harrow and Eton, and ordained a new decency in the brutal schools of Britain.
Henry Coit had nothing to reform; he had something to create out of almost nothing — a farm in the wilds, and three boys driven there with him in a carriage. He played on an old square piano to accompany them in their evening hymns; and, since Henry Coit, every preparatory school in America has had its eye on what he made out of that beginning in 1856.
Without pretensions to erudite scholarship, he gave young brains the secret of taste and discrimination, set intellects, when an intellect could be discerned, on the right road. Through the unerring felicity of his comments, Cicero, Horace, Homer, Euripides, set their seal upon every young intelligence that was congenitally capable of taking this impress; and the seal remained long after the syntax had evaporated.
St. Paul’s boys were noted for their good use of English; it was recognized by the boys from other schools who met them at Harvard, where they anticipated the required course in rhetoric without effort. Why did they find this so simple a matter? Because Dr. Coit’s strict and delicate taste pervaded St. Paul’s from top to bottom. Not alone his classes in Greek and Latin, but those of his assistant masters also were equally lessons in English. No going at it on all fours if the boy could be lifted to his feet; accuracy even to the last shade was demanded, but merely as the necessary root of the matter. This must bloom into the natural idiom of the Mother Tongue; it could not be left a dislocated jumble of gerunds and ablatives absolute.
Sweet when she talks to me,
is the English into which Dr. Coit turned two lines of Horace, as he sat with his sixth form. It was quite often his way toward the end of the hour to hold the book up, and lean back, and read to the boys his version of whatever Latin or Greek had been that day’s assigned work; and once a boy returning from Harvard, disappointed with some readings of Homer to which he had listened there, begged him to write out and publish his own translation. The suggestion was whisked to the winds by a sweep of the thumb over the long fingers, and a sound in the throat, which could express every shade of disapproval from diverted irony to corrosive scorn, and at which the boy had frequently shaken in his shoes.
Personal questions, attempted compliments, brought instantly the whisk of the thumb and the sound in the throat. To that same boy, on another visit, the Doctor ironically narrated a conversation with a President of the United States, who had inquired by what methods he was so successful in impressing himself on his scholars. It was the Founder of Christianity, Dr. Coit had retorted, whose words and example he strove to teach; and to the alumnus he added, ‘Impress one’s self! As if one wanted a set of young apes!’
But when the alumnus broke into laughter at this a quick ‘Pssh!’ cut him short. At that sound he had also often shaken in his shoes.
To provoke mirth and cut it short was one of the strange traits of this strange man. It was as if his humor had escaped from him unaware, and was not to be countenanced. Yet he could relax in the heartiest laughter.
Two old boys came up to the Anniversary, and interpolated an Italian number in the concert programme. One, in a wild wig, sat pounding the piano, while the other, got up like an operatic prima donna, rushed about the school-study platform and shrieked scales and trills in a high falsetto. Dr. Coit, in one of the stalls at the end of the room, sat rocking backward and forward, and at last put his hand over his face.
When his humanity came uppermost, he could be like sunshine; the blue eyes ceased to pierce, and twinkled or shone with an understanding that warmed many a boy’s heart to strive with all the strength that was in him. The appeal and the exhortation were in essence always religious; the same talk from other lips has left many a boy cold; it was the fiery spirit that burned in Henry Coit which opened young hearts and minds and touched to life the aspirations latent there.
With forty years of boys to deal with, nothing short of omniscience could have steered free of mistakes. Henry Coit’s genius with youth did not save him from misreading some characters whom their contemporaries saw through easily. He thought too well of some, and of some not well enough. There was a boy who received the school medal, the crown of all honors, given in token of character, influence, loyalty, good standing. No one watched this boy walk up and get it with any hearty enthusiasm; the school knew better. Many years later, when the boy had come a good deal to the fore through exercise of the same assiduity, adroitness, and colorless adaptation which had won him the school medal, somebody arriving at the Rectory spoke of having seen him in a train.
‘Poor potatoes,’ remarked Dr. Coit.
Because of his never dropping his old boys out of sight, but always following up their careers, he had long since taken his former medal boy’s true measure, and could be philosophic over the error.
Philosophy was not always at his elbow; he could treat a boy’s translating Chloe into a mule lightly, but when fastidiousness was outraged he was at times less calm.
A small boy received a hamper from home. He must have been meant to share the good things in it; instead, he ate them all in his alcove, alone — candy, cake, pickles, and preserves. In the middle of the night terrible results followed; the whole dormitory was startled from its sleep, and every window had to be opened.
The small boy did not perish, but he was not at his desk in the schoolroom next morning; and another boy, on going to speak to Dr. Coit, found the door of the study closed, and stood outside, appalled by the words that came through it: —
‘You will pack your trunk immediately. The carriage has been ordered to take you to the train. Your parents are expecting you. Dirty little pigs like you shall not stay at this school.’
The blast in those last words was described by the boy who heard them. It seldom broke forth, and only when Henry Coit had no time to think second thoughts. It fell once on the head of a graduate in his mid-twenties, who had been asked if he took the Sacrament regularly, and had told the truth, that he could take it no longer with sincerity. But on this occasion, when Henry Coit had talked himself out of his storm of disappointment and indignation, he quieted into affection and concern for the old boy’s soul; and their relations thereafter became more close than they had ever been before.
The same graduate did not tell Dr. Coit the truth upon an earlier occasion, when he was being questioned too closely about some reported irregularities of one of his friends, a sophomore at that time. The sophomore, after being ejected from a Boston theatre, had spent the night in jail. The papers had mentioned the incident. The graduate did his best. He affected surprise, and was certain that nothing of the sort had happened. But Dr. Coit merely sat shaking his head.
‘To think of those delicate little features relaxed in drunkenness!’ was his only observation.
One momentous event became a legend through the stir it made. On his way from the schoolroom to recitation on the third floor, a fourth-former, loitering at the rear of his class, turned the key in the door of Dr. Coit’s study on the second landing. The imprisonment lasted but a moment. A master happening to arrive and knock heard the quiet voice of the vice rector, Joseph Coit, telling him to unlock the door. Out of it Henry Coit issued, and is described as mounting the stairs three steps at a stride. The fourth form was hardly settled in its seats when the door burst open, and the black apparition, with blue eyes blazing, towered before the class. The revolutionary deed was announced amid petrified silence. Who had done this? No one spoke. After a pause, whoever had done it was commanded to stand up. There was no move, but only more silence.
‘If the boy does not come to me by to-night,’ said Dr. Coit, ‘I shall dismiss -, -, - (naming three boys in bad standing) to-morrow.’ He went, leaving a right guess among those three picked out.
This stroke put on the screws. The recitation was adjourned, the fourth form held a meeting. Every name was called; each boy rose and absolutely denied it to his classmates. But the truth was known by two there. A fourth-former, still tardier than the culprit, had come up the stairs behind him. Wrung between telling tales on the guilty or seeing the innocent suffer, this witness broke silence at last. Among his peers, in their teens, he never recovered his standing: had he not gone back on the code? But had n’t the Doctor’s threat forced him? Bated fourth-form breaths recovered themselves and argued fiercely. What right had the Doctor to make a threat like that? Well, did n’t the Doctor have to keep his school going? They thrashed it back and forth. The telltale lost caste, still more the culprit who had serenely lied to his comrades; Dr. Coit came out of it justified, on the whole. Somehow their young eyes saw it as he saw it, that codes have to give way in given cases. It is interesting to remember that Arnold of Rugby would say to a boy, ‘If you give me your word, of course I am bound to take it,’ while to one boy, who happened to be telling the truth, Dr. Coit said, ‘Between your word and a master’s, I am bound to take the master’s.’ The boy never forgave him. All commanders must at times suffer from having to justify their means by their end.
When, like most temperaments of genius, he fell victim to his mood, the lightning might strike other victims. Close to the end of a school year, out of a clear sky, he sent for a fifth-form boy and ordered him to go home by the next train. The boy asked the reason. Merely that he was doing no good, was ‘disloyal,’ not with ‘the spirit of the place’ — words often used by Henry Coit. The boy left the study.
Later, when Joseph Coit was in the study with his brother, the boy’s roommate appeared at the door.
‘Dr. Coit, you’re sending HMaway.’
The roommate knew that he was taking his life in his hands.
‘Dr. Coit, the Anniversary is next week. In a month we shall all go home. If you expel him now, everybody at home will hear of it. To say that he was not satisfactory to you will make them all sure that something which cannot be told is the cause of his sudden dismissal so close to the end of the year. That will put a cloud on his character which will darken it for a long while. If you allow him to stay the term out, and he does not come back after the holidays, no one will notice it much, or think that he was guilty of something that he never did.’
Henry Coit sat awhile, looking at the roommate.
‘Joseph,’ he began to his brother at length, quite mildly, ‘ do you hear what the boy is saying? He says I must n’t send HMaway.’
‘Oh, let him stay!’ said Joseph, always looking out of the window.
‘My dear,’ said Dr. Coit to the roommate, ‘ you may tell HMfrom me that he need n’t go.’
Another boy braved him quite differently. He was seventeen, and saw college life drawing near. Although head of his form month after month, as good at his books as in his conduct, he had no intention of becoming a bookworm; his imagination was filled with the freedom which all his friends at college were enjoying. He alone in his form had hung back from being confirmed. The Doctor had hoped that he would join the confirmation class in his fourth form. He had steadily expressed his unwillingness for two years, and the chances of his ever consenting were coming to an end. Once again Dr. Coit sent for him and made his friendly, apprehensive, urgent appeal. When the boy stood before him unmoved, he gave it up, but dwelt earnestly upon the necessity of prayer night and morning, if the soul were to continue safe. It was all friendly, fatherly, and sacred; and the boy was deeply touched. At the end, Dr. Coit handed to him a slim book, saying that its daily use would be of help. It was entitled Private Prayers for School Boys.
In surprise at himself, and in trepidation, the boy said, ‘If you please, Dr. Coit, I would rather make my own prayers.’
The Doctor received the book back from his hand and laid it down without a sign of anger.
‘Certainly, my dear, you must do as you feel about it.’ Then he looked at the boy with his charming smile. ‘ But take care about being too self-reliant.’
Another wrestling contest occurred in the sixth-form Greek. The boys were seated around the room with the Doctor at the end of the long table.
‘You may begin,’ he said to a boy who ranked second in the form.
‘Sit down, sir!’ he interrupted imperatively after a few words had been translated. ‘Take it up, next, and see if you can do it properly.’
The next boy repeated verbatim the translation of his predecessor.
‘That is right,’ said the Doctor. ‘You may continue.’
‘That’s exactly what I said!’ loudly blurted the first boy.
‘Pssh!’ went the Doctor, like the lash of a whip.
‘It is, though,’ the boy muttered.
No notice was taken of it. The Alcestis went on, while the boy smouldered over his injury.
At the end of the hour, as the form was leaving the room, the Doctor spoke to the boy, who stopped beside the chair.
‘I had a curious dream last night,’ said the Doctor, amicably. ‘I dreamt that you were impertinent to me, and apologized.’
‘Did you dream that I apologized?’
‘It was a curious dream.’
And the boy, still a mere bomb of fury, left the Doctor sitting alone in the recitation room. He did not expect it to end there; in his state of mind he would have been expelled with pleasure. Nothing followed. In the Doctor’s manner when they next met there was not a symptom of their collision. So this lion could be bearded in his den.
This same boy was Library poet. When his effusion appeared in the Horœ, the Doctor sent for him. It lay open upon his desk, near all the finely sharpened pencils; beside it lay a blue book, containing the boy’s recent Latin examination.
‘My dear,’ said the Doctor, tapping the poem, ‘this — well — it does n’t amount to very much. But here’ — he touched the blue book — ‘is a true achievement. Such good work means something. But don’t lie back on it. We should never remain entirely pleased with what we do, and — well — is n’t that one of your dangers?’ With his winning smile, the Doctor handed the blue book to the boy. It had received a perfect mark.
Upon whomsoever Dr. Coit bestowed full praise, it lived with him, one of the glowing moments of his school life. The threshold of the Doctor’s study was like a gate of judgment. In the forty years of his reign, what thousands of hangdog steps crossed it, what thousands of fluttering hearts entered there, and issued heavy with their sentence, or lifted upon the wings of the morning! Only in the room where a man like that presides can be heard the words that scorch or heal beyond forgetting.
There is no mystery about Henry Coit, save the eternal mystery of genius. His forefathers account for him; his blood had been two hundred years in the country when he was born, the second in a family of nine, his father a clergyman, and behind him other clergymen, and families of eight, nine, ten, and fathers who lived to eighty. John Coit came from Wales to Salem in 1636, and was a shipbuilder in New London in 1650. Shipbuilding Coits followed him; and a Coit commanding his regiment at Norwich; and graduates of Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton; merchants in Boston and New York, Congregational ministers. Their wives were mostly from New England. It is a typical case of energetic colonial blood. Henry’s brothers were men out of the common; two of them — Joseph and Milnor — laid important stones in the edifice of St. Paul’s, particularly Joseph.
With his descent, it is curious how little he suggested New England, save in his suspicion of all gayeties and pleasures not intellectual; but he had grown up in the Middle and Southern States, and this it must have been that abolished whatever else of New England might have lurked in him.
The asceticism was pretty steep when he began at St. Paul’s at the age of twenty-six. On Sundays, those three small scholars might merely, by way of relaxation, walk sedately in the vicinity, hair brushed, hands washed, and in their Sunday best. One fall afternoon they met some sheep in a field, and forgot to be sedate. In the middle of the chase a tall black figure strode upon them over the field, and their hearts fainted away.
‘Little boys, expedite!’ commanded the figure; and herded them to their penance. It was heavy: three days without any play!
Although Henry Coit’s asceticism mellowed as he matured, and his eyes were gradually opened to the good in cricket, and hockey, and rowing, and football, and track athletics, he never went further than approval; they stirred no chord in him. He watched them with a whimsical detachment.
It cannot be said that he was always genial in manner; the younger boys especially regarded him with awe, and his own sense of the intense seriousness of life and duty gave a sternness and austerity to his aspect which made many of his pupils afraid of him. He liked to encourage games and sports . . . his sympathy with these pursuits showed itself mainly in hasty and occasional visits to the playground. . . .
I should describe him as a great prophet among schoolmasters, rather than as an instructor or educator in the ordinary sense of the term. . . . The dominating idea . . . was that a headmaster is called of God to make his school a Christian school. . . . This idea pervaded not only his chapel sermons. ... In his lessons, his study of history, his discipline, his exhortations addressed to . . . the whole school, he is felt to be always striving to infuse into the common life his own enthusiasm of Christian earnestness. . . .
It is not necessary that this should be a school for three hundred or even of one hundred boys, but it is necessary that it should be a school of Christian gentlemen.
Any St. Paul’s boy who knew Dr. Henry Coit would recognize him in these paragraphs — which are quoted from a life of Arnold of Rugby.
This remarkable parallel is matched by one remarkable divergence. Arnold constantly spoke out on public questions, wrote numerous pamphlets, and took the chair of London University. In his sixty-five years Henry Coit wrote once to a newspaper, and once for a magazine. It is a piece of the cloistered, twelfth-century inner man, the haughty withdrawal from things temporal, the ardent dedication to things eternal. Fastidiousness plays a part in it, and social shyness as well. He was shy when he met parents; few of them ever saw the true man at his full stature, as he was in the pulpit, or on Thursday evenings in the schoolroom, or at times in his study, dealing with a difficult case.
‘If a boy has set his mind to do nothing, but considers all the work here as so much fudge, which he will evade if he can, he is sure to corrupt the rest, and I will send him away without scruple.’
His voice can be heard in these words — but they are Arnold’s.
Again the striking resemblance, but always inside the cloister. Henry Coit seemed unaware of the United States, and the President, and all others in authority, save when the Episcopal service obliged him to pray for them on Sunday mornings.
What had his attention been doing between 1830 and 1865? The clash of slavery and abolition began in the year of his birth. Bleeding Kansas, John Brown, King Cotton, John C. Calhoun, Lincoln and Douglas — the whole of the one great drama our history holds so far, the long tragedy that marked American faces with a spiritual depth now vanished, unrolled while Henry Coit was growing up in the Middle and Southern States. What had all this counted for him? Some thought his sympathies were with the South. If so, his conscience must have raked him fore and aft when Sumter was fired on. He offered himself for Union military service, and was rejected. Most Americans who lived through all this showed it till their deaths, referred to it almost daily. Never Henry Coit. Away off from it at St. Paul’s School, it had been out of sight, and in after years seemed out of mind. It must be supposed that he turned the whole of himself like a burning glass upon one spot, and set that spot aflame; what lay outside the periphery of his mission did not count.
Although the founder and several of the other trustees lived in Boston, Boston sent but few boys; more came from both New York and Philadelphia, while the masters of the formative years were from Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York. New England influence was negligible, if not nil; the High Church tradition, both sacred and secular, endowed St. Paul’s with the full, unbroken inheritance of the Anglican liturgy and humanities, the flavor of England, Italy, and Greece, as transmitted through the Renaissance. Cromwellian dissent was as absent from the precepts as fish balls from the cuisine, and Henry Coit’s asceticism neither held him back from Horace nor inclined him to Emerson.
‘The man was good,’ he remarked of Emerson one day, to an old boy. ‘That is perfectly obvious. But do you know his poems, my dear? “And yielded myself to the perfect whole.” The perfect whole! And what may that be? Well, perhaps they have them in Massachusetts.’ The blue eyes twinkled, and the long leg, crossed over the knee, swung as the boy had seen it swing many a time in the study, when the voice had been saying ‘It is perfectly obvious’ about one thing or another.
That a flower so alien to the granite and pines of New Hampshire as St. Paul’s School should bloom in their midst is due to the accident of the founder’s first choice for his headmaster declining the invitation; and that Henry Coit, in soul a monastic of the twelfth century, should have sprung from six generations of New England shipbuilders, merchants, and divines must remain a mystery. Ecclesiastical as he was, yet he would not consent to the boys making auricular confession as part of their discipline, which it is said had been suggested to him. Father Hall’s ritualistic services in the Church of the Advent went too far for him in that direction, while the liberal doctrines of Phillips Brooks went too far in the other.
He paid the schoolmaster’s usual forfeit to his calling. Phillips Brooks expressed it once to a freshman who had come from St. Paul’s to Harvard:
‘When my classmate Dimmock took the Adams Academy at Quincy, of course we bade him good-bye as a companion. After a man has acquired the habit of talking to boys, real conversation with him is over for his old friends. Coit is a curious man,’ Mr. Brooks added, and laughed jovially.
Whenever Phillips Brooks came up to make the Anniversary address in the Chapel, the sight of assembled youth lifted him above even his usual eloquence, and it poured out like a burst of sunshine. After service he was to be seen from afar, beaming and huge, moving about the grounds, Dr. Coit escorting him.
‘A curious man!’ he exclaimed to the freshman. ‘He dislikes Harvard on account of the irreligious influence which he has seen it exert, and he consulted me as to what clergyman he should tell his Harvard boys to seek out for guidance. He said, “I don’t quite wish them to go to Father Hall, and of course I can’t send them to you.”’
‘Where did you tell him to send us?’
‘How could I tell him? I said, “ Well, Dr. Coit, it hardly looks as if I were the man to advise you!”’ And again Mr. Brooks (he was not yet a bishop) laughed out jovially, with Christian tolerance for a great brother Christian.
For one so steeped in the classics, the great brother Christian showed by occasional flashes that Emerson was by no means the only contemporary writer of whom he had an opinion; he recommended Balaustion’s Adventure very highly to his sixth form when they were reading Alcestis with him. On the other hand, he began one Thursday evening in the schoolroom: —
‘I find little books lying about,’ — and the thumb flicked slightingly over the fingers, — ‘little novels with all sorts of little titles. “Red as a rose was she.” Hmp! Black as a crow was he.’ The school giggled. ‘Pssh! When you read a novel, choose one that has something in it. Go to Thackeray. Go to Scott.’ And the rest of that Thursday’s discourse was on fiction, always with the background that any novel which did not hold up right living and Christian faith was ‘poor.’ Nothing said on Thursdays was ever said in the Chapel, nothing in the Chapel was ever said on Thursdays.
On his vigilant round one day, he leaned over a boy’s shoulder, and saw Atalanta in Calydon.
‘What’s this, my dear?’ He picked it up and turned the leaves back and forth, shaking his head. ‘Yes — beautiful words: “Time with a gift of tears, Grief with a glass that ran.” Hmp! He could n’t say “Grief with a gift of tears,” because he preferred more alliteration to more sense. . . . My dear, don’t read Swinburne. I’d much rather have you read Byron. Byron was a man.’ He handed the book back. ‘Don’t lend this to anyone.’ And with this mark of confidence he proceeded on his solitary walk.
He possessed the rapid eye that could seize the whole content of a page with a glance; and the booksellers of Boston knew him well. Whenever somebody else took morning Chapel, the boys understood that the Doctor was not at the school. They did not know that he timed these absences by the length of his hair. When it needed cutting, and only then, he left his post and went straight to the Parker House. There, in quiet, be spent one night, his presence in Boston known only to the barber and certain shops. The booksellers descried the tall, intent figure in black, circulating slowly among the shelves, picking up a volume, putting a volume down, and departing with an armful to read undisturbed, relaxed, in his room at the Parker House, and in the train next day. The train always rested him; and beside the books he would bring back little tokens for the family.
Best to the family, and to the New Hampshire neighbors, was this affectionate side of him revealed. The farmers with their families became his devoted parishioners; he held special services for them, he won them to his faith. In times of illness and of grief he went to them and sat comforting them. He was to be met among the hills and the pines, driving his buggy to visit some home in need, often with special food cooked at the Rectory or a bottle of wine—a lonely figure, unforgettable, with something majestic about it.
When he spoke in a sermon of ‘the eternal solitude of the human soul,’ that word came from the experience of his own soul; when in another sermon he said, ‘Therefore we pray, Empty us of ourselves that we may be filled with Thee,’ it was the heart of his attitude toward life. Besides the gentle and wise lady who was Mrs. Coit, and Joseph, his more equable and judicious brother, was there any other who served to steady him when the blasts of his temperament broke from the stern repression under which they were held? Who else was admitted to the privacy of his brooding meditations? To many a fortunate boy Joseph’s warm heart gave the shelter and the anchor of his intimacy, and was a human providence to him at critical moments which he could never have brought himself to confide to Henry. It was well for St. Paul’s School, very well, that Mrs. Henry Coit was there at the actual beginning, and that Joseph Coit went there only nine years later. The presence of neither caused bated breaths; when Henry appeared on the scene, awe came with him, leapfrog ceased, caps were touched in silence. His response often mystified some boy; what had he done now? Very possibly nothing to deserve the haughty coldness which had made him wonder; it is certain that Henry Coit sometimes was sunk in his inner mood, and unaware of the effect his manner produced. But this was never the case on Sunday nights, when he stood on the schoolroom platform after the Sunday evening hymn, and the whole school filed by to shake hands with him. Then indeed his good-night conveyed unmistakably his opinion of each boy’s recent record. Mostly this was correct; sometimes utterly unjust.
Henry Augustus Coit may be said to have died in his boots, kept going by his will and his conscience after his vital fires had burned low, and an accident had lamed him, and the loss of his wife had plunged him in deeper loneliness. His vital fires burned out early in 1895. After three weeks at home for Christmas, the school returned to work. Dr. Coit had not left work. During those weeks he is said to have written five hundred letters. He had no secretary. One Sunday morning, after receiving the Sacrament at early celebration, he was seen to leave before the end of the service. He was found fainting in the vestry. For a few hours next day he struggled on in his study. That was the last of him. A few days later he was lying face to the wall, silent even to his brother Joseph, who was overcome in telling of this afterward. Henry Coit had no more to say to any man.
The news stunned the old boys of St. Paul’s, scattered over the country. The Doctor was not their parent; he was their tribunal, still living in their conscience as their exalted and uncompromising mentor. They had never known any man like him; they were never to know any man like him again. Many started for the school, but the great tempest of that winter prevented their arrival. Nevertheless, some hundred of them got there, and followed in their carriages through the deep drifts. And so, while the gusts of snow raged, they stood watching the body being lowered into the ground.
On his birthday in after years, two old boys walked to the grave on the hill among the pines, and met there an old servant of the school, all alone, giving way to his grief. Upon their speaking to him, he slowly drew a gold piece from his pocket and held it out, and said: —
‘He gave me that, forty-two years ago.’