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The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 13
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
Apr 19, 2018
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The summer of 1905 found Harry Peyton Steger enjoying a summer in Germany and virtually swimming in academia. There were lectures in Bonn, given by world-famous professors, pilgrimages to feudal strongholds of the Middle Ages and an opportunity to feast hungry eyes upon impressive collections of Roman antiquities.

But soon he would grow weary of treading water in what he deemed to be the artificial world of the traditional academic process.  Soon he would seem to drown.

For years, Steger had dreamed of studying in Germany, a place he often referred to as "the land of scholars."  The Fannin County product had chased the elusive Rhodes Scholarship since his early days at the University of Texas.  In Austin, Steger and his first college roommate at UT, Roy Bedichek, had dreamed of tramping across Europe.  Now Harry's dreams are coming to life.

After being officially commissioned as a Rhodes Scholar, Steger spent a delightful summer in 1905 studying and backpacking along the verdant and meandering Mosel River in Germany before taking up residence at Balliol College in Oxford, England.  And, just as the young roommates had planned years ago, Bedichek would join Steger for a trek around Europe.  But, in 1907, Bedichek would find his close friend had resigned his coveted Rhodes Scholarship and was living a bohemian lifestyle while residing in a Whitechapel settlement in the London slums called Toynbee Hall.

And leave it to Steger to sum it up succinctly.

"I rotted before I ripened," Harry explained.

In the fall of 1905, however, Steger seemed well on his way to becoming a professor, perhaps at some ivy-covered East Coast institution or maybe at his beloved University of Texas.   Harry's life was literally revolving around higher education. 

Professor Bloomfield, head of the Department of Sanskrit and Comparative Philology at Johns Hopkins, an esteemed educator Steger referred to as the "Sanskrit shark," had spent part of his summer in Heidelberg, Germany and Harry visited Bloomfield for a week.  Steger seemed to enjoy seeing the sights and Bloomfield made use of the time to recruit his former student.

"Bloomfield was very encouraging to me," Harry wrote home. "He spoke more than once of the future that he thought I had and even suggested that I keep my eye on Johns Hopkins as a place to land."

At the same time, one of Steger's sponsors and former professors had just taken the job as president at UT.  David Franklin Houston, a man that would eventually serve President Woodrow Wilson as Secretary of Agriculture and later Secretary of Treasury, had been lured back to the University of Texas from Texas A&M.  In 1902, Houston had sent a letter of recommendation regarding Steger to the Bonham school board.  Harry couldn't have been happier than to hear that a man he truly respected would be at the UT helm.

"With Houston as president and Mezes as dean, the University ought to make rapid strides," Steger wrote to his family in Bonham.

In a letter to John Lomax, a UT grad now employed by A&M, Harry recalled running into another old friend from Austin during his summer in Germany.

"Last week, as I got off one of those European toy trains in Cologne, I ran right into the arms of Professor Frederick Eby of Baylor University," Steger remarked.  "We were one summer together in the Phi House at Austin.  Surely the world is small.  I like him; but his intellect is always indecently exposed.  That's immodest.  He ought to be more careful, especially when he 'goes out in company.'  Where in the world is Bedichek?  I have written and written cards asking for his address and all in vain.  How has the change in administration at A&M and the University affected your personal comfort?  Write me about it.  You can't keep a good man down.  Houston was shaped to be the president of the University of Texas.  How is Miss Bess?  Is Duvall back in Baltimore?  Up to two weeks ago, I had the weest, daintiest, reddest, sickliest mustache that had ever turned the stomach of a respectable person.  He resembled many things in my mind--a caterpillar, an emaciated toothbrush, what you will.  He was plainly visible, vividly, a flaring, bedinky, red!  He lived two months and seemed, in spite of his poverty, to get much out of life; probably because this is the native land of mustaches."

On September 29, Steger bid farewell to his German hosts, the Kube family.  He gave his parents a detailed itinerary.

"I leave tomorrow for Oxford," Harry wrote home.  "My itinerary is as follows: Leaving Bonn a.m., Rhein Saturday afternoon at 5:37, I go, by way of Koln, to Vlissingen, where (at 10:30 p.m.) I get on board a steamer, go to bed, sleep six hours and wake up Sunday morning in Queensboro, England, where an express-train carries me to London.  Breakfast in London; and up and away for Oxford, where I shall be, I hope, on hand for the midday meal.  I leave Bonn and the Kubes very reluctantly.  They have grown into me.  This thing of being transplanted again makes me shiver a bit; but it gives me the opportunity to see other folks and lands."

On the same day, Steger got a note in the mail to Lomax.

"The three months in Germany, spent in the midst of a German family, have been constantly delightful," Harry relayed to his friend in College Station.  Never was I more energetic, more cheerful, more ambitious; and, to fill my sweet cup, I can truthfully say that I can speak German.  For two months now no word of English has passed the fence of my teeth. (Thanks, Homer, for that phrase!)"

In October 1905, Steger had settled into the routine at Balliol College, one of the 20 or so constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England.  Harry's description of the life of a Rhodes Scholar must have fascinated his family in Fannin County.

"My day begins at 7:30," Harry begins, "when my servant--Brown is his name--raps at my bedroom door and exclaims, in an alarm clock tone of voice: '7:30, Sir!'  I bustle out of bed, take a cold sponge bath in an English tub (which is an awkward hip-tub wherein one must sit), hastily don a few clothes, throw my academic gown about my shoulders (it reaches but to the bottom of the normal coat-tail), and go to roll call at 7:55.  This is not really an ordeal, for it merely means that you show yourself to the head porter at the big college gate and go at once back to your room as soon as he has marked you 'present.'  On reaching my room, I find breakfast spread on the table--fish, or eggs, or sausages, or ham and bacon,--with a big roll, butter and marmalade or jam of some sort.  On my grate a kettle of hot water is humming away cheerfully and I make a cup of chocolate in a jiffy.  After breakfast, I probably do nothing until 10 o'clock.  This time I spend in reading letters and papers (which the college messenger delivers and puts on my table); and, at ten, to lectures (again my dinky little gown) or to my tutor.  At one I am free again and I go to my room where I find lunch spread--cold meat (fine, too), bread and butter, dessert, marmalade.  In the afternoon from two until four or 4:30, not a soul stays in college.  Everybody is at some sort of exercise.  I am rowing on the Thames or playing tennis.  At 4:30 comes teatime!  An Englishman will forego his soul before he will his afternoon tea.  It is not as insipid as it sounds, for it means more than tea.  It is a light meal, and, coming after considerable exercise, it is not altogether unwelcome.  At seven in the evening every man in college takes dinner in the big, beautiful old Hall--tutors (corresponding in a large degree to our professors), students, professors (which is the climax of titles and an accordingly rare one)--all in academic costume."

Balliol College, Harry explains, is the crème de la crème of the 20 outstanding colleges at Oxford.  In 1905, 20 Rhodes Scholars applied for entrance at Balliol; only Stevens of Connecticut and Steger of Texas were admitted.  The campus is regal--"beautiful beyond the power of words to describe," Steger says.  He finds the formal, conventional traditions to be irksome and daily amusement comes to the Fannin County native as he watches ancient routines carried out in what Harry feels is an overly dignified manner.  For example, every Sunday evening chapel closes with a prayer for "John Balliol and his wife, Devoguilla, the founder of this college." 

"The amusing mockery of it," Steger states,” is that John Balliol, brother to the king of Scotland, was a rowdy knight, who, in a spirit of adventure, sacked several churches in Oxfordshire and, in addition to being publicly scourged therefore, was compelled to found a college!  Such was the beginning of Balliol in 1263; and this same prayer has been offered up for hundreds of years."

Harry's closest friends are a young Englishman named Wilkinson; a brilliant Persian nobleman named Ameer Ali; Matsudairi, a Japanese Marquis; Orr, a native of Tasmania; an Aussie named Leslie; Lewis, from South Africa; and an American named Hutchins.  Steger points out that most Americans avoid being too clannish in order to absorb the influence of a myriad of cultures assimilating at Balliol.

A few Americans, adds Steger, have gone to the other extreme and ape the English to the point of disgust.

But, snobbery aside, life at Oxford allowed Steger to learn from historical figures.  In November Lord Roberts stopped by to lecture on The Northern Frontier of India and the annual Rhodes Dinner featured Rudyard Kipling.

Over the Christmas break, Harry headed back to the land of the Teutons to participate in the pageantry of a German Christmas with the Kubes.

In January, Lady Monkswell ("one of the swellest of the English nobility") invited Harry to a reception at her townhouse in London.

"My curiosity bids me go," Harry writes to his parents, "but my wardrobe, with more force, bids me stay.  You see, to be observed, in London, on the streets, in the afternoon, or even in a home, without a frock coat and a high silk hat, or else a Prince Albert, would be as rude as appearing in pajamas.  I tell you this because I think it will amuse you.  There is never a place in the world where formality in dress counts for as much as it does in London.  Of course, it is all silly rot."

But there is much about Balliol to admire.  The dean of the college, a man of independent means, accepts no salary and instead dedicates his pay to the upkeep of the historical buildings.

"Most American professors are complaining, and justly, of poor pay," Steger tells his parents.  "But these chaps, though paid no more, seem to love their work so intensely that the money consideration assumes a more secondary place.  Then, too, it is very seldom, with us in America, that a man of means goes into educational work."

Then, on January 13, 1906, there is a letter with that old familiar salutation.  Evidently Steger had caught up with Bedichek.

Dear Bedi,

I have a message for you.  In 1815 Great Britain annexed three little islands, called the Tristan d' Acunha group, situated in the South Atlantic Ocean, some 1,500 miles from Cape Colony.  When annexed, the islands were uninhabited.  In 1814, a small garrison was put on the largest of the three; in 1817, the garrison was withdrawn, but an English corporal remained behind with his wife and ten children.  Eight years later, when the Colonial Office in London sent a boat thither, there were only 12 people on the island--the corporal had evidently not done so well as King David in "spreading his Maker's image through the land." 

A few years later a party of Welsh sailors was shipwrecked there; and, today, the Colonial Office informs me there are a hundred people on this little island, which, by the way, is two and a half miles in diameter and boasts a bully climate.  The temperature averages 68 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and 55 degrees in the winter.  There is not a cent of coinage on the island. 

There are two other islands; one is called The Inaccessible, and, the other, Nightingale Island.  On the latter, two Germans lived for two years and then died.  The islanders have a patriarchal government, raise a good crop of goats and sheep and speak a mixture of Welsh and English. 

In spite of the fact that some of my utterances seem facetious, I would tell you seriously that none, absolutely none, of the data I have given is false, or stretched or tinted by fancy.  It is, to me, nothing short of remarkable that, in this day of irrepressible civilization, a little cake of mud could have so long existed in its state of Nature, without any yeast of ferment thrown into it. 

Does it not appeal to you as a delightful refuge from your future?  To me, for whom the hopes and ambitions of others interested in me have for years been goads and pricks that foretold me of a future struggle to make good, the place seems an Elysium.  There is no money there; therefore, we need no money.  If I can get the British Government to give us transportation and a little authority, will you join me? 

My first plan is to revolt from the Crown.  The Crown wouldn't give a copper damn; the Tristanians would be glad to revolt, as a relief from the monotony of thinking themselves subjects of a power that never remembered them; it is not a disagreeable thought to me, to you, that the way to a gentle dictatorship among these exotic Arcadians will be easy.  Not an inhabitant of this island has ever been off it.

I am afraid of a future that keeps me linked with people who expect achievements of me in realms of morbidity (all education is morbid).  The Cecil Rhodes Scholarship heaps the mighty mountain over me.  I speak German now with ease and rapidity.  To satisfy my natural liking for linguistics, I shall graft Teutonic idioms onto the Anglo Saxon and Welsh potpourri that already passes muster in this Eden left virgin for you and me.

Of course I shall request the Colonial Office to give me an appropriation of money wherewith I may make it worth the while of two (at least two; better, three) buxom, hefty, husky maidens; for much I fear me that our loyal subjects have ere now lost all distinctions of family and that many a man has, in the maze, become his own uncle.

Remember that you, as well as I, have a future to evade.


Previous Steger articles: