Front Page
The Short Story of Harry Peyton Steger: chapter 14
By Allen Rich, with excerpts from The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger, 1899-1912
Apr 20, 2018
Print this page
Email this article
The winter and spring of 1906 found Fannin County native Harry Peyton Steger very much enjoying the accoutrements of an Oxford education.  He even had a new friend that compared favorably to the gifted comrades Harry had become so fond of in Austin. 

Keimin Matsudaira had managed to attend Balliol several months before it was discovered that he "lived in the blight of a title," as Steger put it.  But the Marquis of Matsudaira and knight of the Order of the East Wing of the Mikado's Palace had given up his Dukedom rather than follow through with an arranged marriage.

"The laws of his native peerage demanded of him his marriage to the daughter of a neighboring Nabob," Harry penned to John Lomax.  "The fair one chanced to be but three years old."

"Oxford is not, in the smallest of detail, like any other place in the world," Steger tells Lomax.  "Come and see.  You and your woman and your girl-child would find it the garden spot of all, a cloister for seclusion, a music hall and a tavern for convivial symposia of the temporal and intellectual sort.  Germany, too, is easily accessible; where living is so cheap that thieving doesn't pay.  With these plain roads and village-inns at short intervals to rely upon, a man may see all the island and most the continent on a bike.  Get Ed Miller to come.  We'll make a colony."

To his cousin Edith, now a student at Vassar, Steger explains the unorthodox timetable for serious study at Oxford.  During the semester, days are spent in discussion and debate.  When college pauses for one of the many breaks, young scholars are expected to become immersed in their chosen field.

"We tire the sun with talking and send him down the sky, but we do very little work of an intense sort," Harry tells Edith.  "The system of utilizing time is here the reverse of that in vogue at American colleges.  It is taken as a matter of course that an Oxonian spends his term in the amenities and his vacation in the books.  Contrary to custom, I am babbling away of myself.  It seemed to me, however, that bits of Oxford would have more than trifling interest for a Vassar girl.  In return, rehearse to me whatever is peculiarly Vassarian, for 'tis sure to interest me.  The Miscellany you sent has been opening the eyes of an English girl who borrowed it.  The English girl scarcely dares to read a magazine without a chaperone.  Too much social coddling has made them 'scary.'  The American girl is, to her, shockingly boisterous." 

In mid-March of 1906, Steger was elected secretary of Arnold Literary and Debating Society, the largest debate club at Oxford.  Easter vacation centered on a very enjoyable trip Harry and Matsudaira made to Germany and then Paris

"It was as delightful a holiday as I ever had," Harry wrote to his folks in Fannin County.  "After a week in Germany, we two went on to Brussels.  To appreciate the little capitol of Belgium, one should see it before Paris; for it is nothing neither more nor less than a Paris in miniature.  In its reckless gaiety, its little cafes jutting on the street, its fondness for staying up the whole night, its display of beautiful gowns and elegant dandies, its cosmopolitan street crowds, and its ability to use two or three languages, Brussels is a little Paris.  There is in Brussels a quaint little fountain, now hundreds of years old but still running.  It is so unique of its sort that I shall describe it to you.  It is, first of all, the statue, about 2 1/2 feet high, of an absolutely naked baby boy.  The figure is said, by all authorities, to be a wonderful work of art.  The little chap 'pees' morning noon and night. It is a comical, a quaint, a grotesque sight; but vulgar it is not. It is called the Maennikin Fountain (Flemish for 'Little Man'). From Brussels we went to Paris and took up quarters in the Latin Quarter, the most interesting, the cheapest, the most notorious, the most comfortable, and the most famous, perhaps, of the French capitol.  In a pension, or family hotel, our bed cost us a franc (about 22 cents) a night.  Our dinner was a mighty meal of five courses, with a bottle of claret or of cider; and it, too, was a franc.  The Louvre in Paris is a grand treasure-house of art and antiquity.  I saw the old Greek statue of Samothrace, of Venus; and score after score of paintings by Michelangelo, Rubens, Raphael, Botticelli, etc., etc." 

After several days in Paris, Matsudaira was called back to London on business; Harry accompanied his friend and spent the time at the British Museum, Hyde Park, Westminster Abbey, even taking in Old Curiosity Shop, supposedly the original of the Dickens' novel.  

"I then came on back to Balliol," Steger continued, "the nicest, most homelike spot of them all, where, on my return from foreign lands and hotel life, with its thorns and its stones, you find a cheerful room and a singing kettle."   

But the beauty of the English spring soon had Steger thinking about another tramp about the island. 

John Orr, of Tasmania, James Macdonnell, of Canada, and Harry took off on bicycles for a five-day, 230-mile ride. 

"The roads of England are, for the most part, smooth as billiard tables; the weather was ideal; the country inns are all clean and comfortable," Harry told his parents.  "Their names smack of Dickens.  One night we spent in the Blue Boar Inn; another, in the Green Man Inn; others we visited for rest or refreshments were the Dun Cow, the Four Alls, the Rainbowe (sic), the King's Arms, the Brown bear, the Plough and the Red Lion.  We visited Rugby, where Tom Brown went to school; Coventry, Kenilworth--the scene of Scott's great novel and the site of Queen Elizabeth's favorite castle, the ruins which now stand, down in a green meadow, all covered with fresh ivy; Warwick, another grand castle, still inhabited.  Here we were shown the helmet that belonged to Charles the First, the armor of Oliver Cromwell.  Stratford-on-Avon, where Shakespeare's house and the church where he now lies buried, tho' very interesting, are, to my mind, thrown into the shadow by the beauty of the Avon River, the graceful curves it makes and the sloping meadows about it."

Harry had returned to Balliol and was resting from the journey when a playful letter from old friend Norman R. Crozier arrived April 23, 1906.

"This morning, as I was aroused from slumber by the siren notes of the early morning scout-call, your envelope was handed to me," Steger noted in his reply.  "I read it in bed.  Oxford, you see, is a luxurious place.  I am glad that, in the brief scope of your note, you were so successful in abusing me.  That short epistle is a masterpiece of subtle indignation and disgust.  You have chastened my spirit; and, if I have done anything to be sorry for, I am glad of it."

Steger and Crozier had enjoyed these verbal jousts for years.  In a letter from Bonham in 1899, Steger got Crozier's attention with the somewhat less than endearing introduction, "My dear Old Unprincipled Reprobate."  

Now that Crozier was married, Steger addressed his letters to Madge and Mrs. Madge.

"In Oxford we have three vacations," Harry tells his old pal.  "At Christmas, six weeks; at Easter five; in summer four months.  Nobody studies this term.  In the Oxford phrase, we all slack.  Each afternoon, we play tennis on grass courts, or row indolently and dreamily about on the beautiful little rivers here--the Cher or the Isis."

In the part of the letter addressed to "Mrs. Madge," Steger touched on matters of the heart; in particular how a trip Harry was planning on making back to Texas might resuscitate the fading drumbeats of love.  Alas, he seemed to already know the answer.

"I am getting old faster than the years come," Steger tells Mrs. Crozier.  "My visit home this summer will be made, in large part, because I want to see how much I think of the girl, how much I think of myself, how much the girl thinks of me, how much she thinks of herself and whether a romance is a delusion.  I fear it is."

But Harry doesn't say who she is and his friends who compiled The Letters of Harry Peyton Steger 1899-1912 don't volunteer that bit of information. 

His father is familiar with young Steger's love interest; however, because in a previous letter to his dad, Harry admits she has not written in a month, so, for the most part, daydreams must fade to the harsh reality of life without her.

Meanwhile, his friends all seemed to be wrapped warm in the arms of the love of their life.

"I was always fond of Annie Jo Gardner," Harry tells Mrs. Madge.  "It was impossible for me to refrain from grinning broadly when we met.  She and Vance ought to make each other happy.  Although my homeland has at times an attraction for me that draws me to it, I am by nature a tramp, and I shall never be able to stay long enough in one place to warm a home."

He closes the letter with a little advice to be passed along to "Mr. Madge."

"Norman is a man of education, of intellectual aspirations, of a home-loving heart.  'Money' will never mean to him 'life'--but it's a very fine fuel.  Bless him, I wish I could get way off in some quiet place with him and talk," Steger relays through Mrs. Crozier.  "I would give him the advice I wish I could myself take.  When you have money--that delightful amount of it known in fiction as a 'competency'--you are in a way to be mildly happy; unless, of course, troubles come that money cannot solve."

And troubles were on their way.  First, his eyesight seemed to weaken again. 

"An oculist has put glasses on me for good," Steger writes to his folks in Bonham, "glasses for 'street-use' as well as for reading."

The next letter, written May 22, 1906 and conveying a more serious tone, comes from a hospital at Oxford.

Previous Steger articles: