My father was headmaster of Wellington College, where and when I was born, but of him there, despite his extraordinarily forcible personality, I have no clear memory, though the first precise and definite recollection that I retain at all, heaving out of nothingness, related to him, for it certainly was he, who, standing by the table in the window of the dining-room with an open newspaper in his hand told me never to forget this day on which the Franco-German war came to an end.
Otherwise as regards him, somebody swept by in an academic cap and gown, a figure not at all awe-inspiring as he became to me very soon after, but simply a rather distinguished natural phenomenon to be regarded in the same light as rain or wall-paper or sunshine.
Cudgel my memory as I may, I can evoke no other figure of him at Wellington, except as something shining and swift; an external object whirling along on an orbit as unconjecturable as those of the stars, and wholly uninteresting. He had a study on the left of the front door into the Master’s Lodge, where there was a big desk with a shiny circular cover. I know that I was taken in there to say good night to him, but the most remarkable thing there... was the big desk with large handles, and perhaps a boy standing by it, mountainous in height and looking extremely polite and gentle. There was the same ceremony every evening: my father kissed me, put his hand on my head and said, “God bless you and make you a good boy always.”
The most significant detail of that ritual was that my father’s face was rough, not smooth like the face of my mother and of Beth, nor that there lingered round him in the room, a smell of books and a smell of soap.
A little later there came a period when for half an hour before bedtime my two sisters and I (for the present the youngest) used to visit him in that same study while he drew entrancing pictures for us, each in turn.
One of these I found only the other day: it represents a hill crowned with a castle and a church, in front of which is a small knight waving his sword in the direction of a terrifying dragon, horned and tailed, who is flying across the sky. Below in minute capitals runs a rhyming legend.
Or I went to the College chapel, though not often, and by way of a treat, and there... was the same figure in a surplice, in a stall on the right hand of the door entrance. I believe I was there on the last Sunday which my father was to serve as headmaster and all sang a hymn which he had written.
Emotionally, I have no picture-book illustrated with memories of my first five years, but externally I have impressions that possess a haunting vividness comparable only to the texture of dreams, when dreams are tumultuously alive. All these (and I think the experience is universal) were external happenings, trivial in themselves, but far more lasting than emotional affairs in later life.
Never shall I forget, though I have forgotten so much of far vaster import since then, the discovery of an adder on the croquet lawn outside the nursery windows. The gardener attacked it with the shears that he had been using for clipping the edges of the grass: he made fine chopping gestures, and presently disappeared into the belt of wood with the adder slung on the blades.
There is this vignette: something terribly vivid but clouded about the mist. I have no other knowledge of the gardener but that he killed an adder with his shears and went into the belt of wood with the corpse dangling thereon.
There was an evening when, having had my bath in the nursery I escaped from the hands of my nurse, slippery with soapy water, and looked out of the nursery window. Then a miracle burst upon my astounded eyes, for, though it was bedtime my mother was in the act of putting her foot on her own croquet ball, and with a smart stroke sending the adversary into the limbo of a flower-bed. This was allowed by the rule of 1870 or thereabouts, and it gave me the impression of consummate skill and energy. My mother, you must understand, stood quite still with her own ball in chancery below her foot. The concussion of her violent mallet sent the adversary into a flower-bed, and the calcareous nodded....
Then Beth, my nurse, caught me, and rubbed me dry, and I went to bed with the delicious sense of my mother’s magnificence, and the marvel of people still playing croquet in daylight when I had to go to bed. I think this occasion was the first on which I recognized my mother as having a personality of her own. The next confused me again, for on some birthday of one of us, or at Christmas, Beth told me Abracadabra was coming, and that I mustn’t be frightened.
I was then taken to see my mother, who was lying down in her bedroom, and said that she was very sleepy, and I returned to the nursery. Shortly afterwards there was a general hubbub in the house, and on being taken downstairs from the nursery into the hall, I saw a huge bedizened fairy standing in front of the fireplace. She blew a piercing trumpet at intervals, and made dance-steps to the right and left. She had a wonderful hat covered with lilies, and a dress covered with jewels, and in front of her was a thing that might have been mistaken for the clothes-basket out of which Beth took clean shirts and socks, but it could not possibly have been that, because it gleamed with pure gold. A sheet lay on the top of it, and Abracadabra blew her trumpet, and Beth, holding me close, said, “Eh, dear, don’t be frightened; it’s all right!”
Obviously, it was all right; for to put an end to all tearful tendencies, Abracadabra, with a magnificent gesture, withdrew the sheet, and hastily presented me with a clockwork train, just what I had always wanted. She turned a key in the engine, and the engine then capsized with loud buzzing, but when Abracadabra put it on its wheels again, it proceeded to draw three tin carriages after it. And it was mine, the very thing I had wanted, and Abracadabra smiled as she gave it me, and I thought that her face was rather like Mamma’s. But the likeness must have been purely accidental, because Mamma was in her bedroom feeling sleepy. And when Abracadabra went through the door into the kitchen passage blowing loudly on her trumpet, and when, after a few excursions of the clockwork train, I could go up to her room again, and found her still sleepy, it might be indeed considered proved that she was not Abracadabra. Besides, when I told her about Abracadabra’s visit, she was very much vexed that she had missed her, and asked whether Abracadabra had not left any present for her, which she had not.
That is the first clear and definite memory I have of Abracadabra, and, in a way, it is the last, for when next that amiable fairy visited us, I knew, alas, that she was no fairy at all, but my mother, dressed in the amazing garb of fairyland. But though that particular brand of fairyland was finished for me, those subsequent occasions were grit with grandeur, for I, concealing my own superior knowledge, must pretend that this was genuine.
Abracadabra, thus indulging and buttressing the belief of my youngest brother Hugh, who still, innocent thing, had no grown-up doubts on the subject.... I found those selfsame garments only lately in a trunk stowed away in an attic at the last home my mother lived in; a skirt covered with sprays of artificial flowers, a bodice and stomacher set with gems of pure glass, a hat of white satin embowered in flowers, a pair of wings, gauze and gold, and a pair of high-heeled shoes covered with gilt paper. They were moth-eaten and moldy, and it was scarcely possible for the most sentimental pilgrim to preserve them.
Besides I had the memory of the day when the authentic fairy appeared in them, and that memory was sweeter than the condition, forty-five years later, of the robes themselves. My mother had kept them, I make no doubt, when her own days of Abracadabra were over by reason of our emergence from childhood, in the hope that one day a daughter or daughter-in-law would assume them again for the joy and mystification of grandchildren, but that day never came. So, the robes of fairyland stowed away in their trunk were forgotten, until that day at Tremans when I found them, as I turned out the treasures and the rubbish of the vanished years before the house passed into the hands of others.
It was a dark autumn day, and the rain beat softly on the roof, but verily, when I opened the trunk and found them there, the sunlight of the dawn of life shot level and delicious rays from the far horizon, and cast a rainbow over the weeping sky.
People in those very early days, except for Beth, were more part of the general landscape of life than human beings, similar in kind to myself, with an individuality of their own. They were not loved or feared: they were but a part of the general environment, like the walls of the nursery, or trees or dinner or beds. But, as by some superior swiftness of evolution, Beth ceased to be landscape, and became a human being, wholly to be adored and generally to be obeyed, sooner than any of the family. She was well over fifty when first I remember her, and had by now almost completed the nursing of a second generation, for she had been nursery-maid with Mrs. Sidgwick, my mother’s mother, when her family came into the world, and had gone to my mother when at the mature age of nineteen the first of her six children was born. Thereafter Beth remained with my mother until the end of her long and utterly beautiful life of love and service. Very soon after she came to my grandmother, at the age of fifteen, she gave notice because she wanted to go back from Rugby to her native Yorkshire, and did not settle into more southerly ways. But my grandmother encouraged her to think that she soon would do so, and so Beth, instead of leaving, stopped on till the age of ninety-three, in an unbroken devotion to us of seventy-eight years. That devotion was returned: we were all her children, and the darlingest of all to Beth’s big heart was Hugh.
Beth then, to my sense, emerged first into the ranks of human beings, servant and friend and to a very considerable extent mistress. But she gave us no weak and sentimental devotion, and though she never inspired the smallest degree of fear, her rare displeasure caused an awful feeling of loneliness and desolation. If we had done wrong, she demanded sorrow before her forgiveness was granted, and if to her wise mind the sorrow was not sufficiently sincere, she was quite capable of saying, when we said we were sorry in too superficial a manner, “I don’t want your sorrow,” and the day grew black, until she accepted it and beamed forgiveness. That granted, there was never any nagging, and next minute she would be running races with us again until panting and bright-eyed she would stop and say, “Eh, dear, I can’t run any more: I’ve got a bone in my leg.”
She mingles in almost every memory that I have of those days, a loved and protecting presence. She... it was, who lifted me up to look out of the nursery window when a sham fight was going on, perhaps at Aldershot, where reports of guns to be heard and, so I fancy, flashes and wreaths of smoke, and like George III I got it firmly embedded in my mind that this was the battle of Waterloo that I had witnessed. The connection I think lay through the fact of this place being Wellington.
She, it was, who led me through a delicious sandy piece of waste ground near the house called the Wilderness, and allowed me to pick and eat a blackberry from a bramble that grew by a rubbish heap on which was a broken plate. Never have I seen such a blackberry. I can still hardly believe it was not of the size of an apricot, for I know it entirely filled my mouth and the juice spurted therefrom as out of a wine-vat.
She too consoled me for the loss of two front teeth which came out into a piece of butter-scotch that she had given me. She removed the teeth and I proceeded with the toffee. She too allowed me to take out of the Noah’s ark with which we played on Sundays a brown dog remotely resembling a setter, two of whose legs had been broken. Her brilliant surgery had repaired this loss by inserting in the stumps a couple of pins so that it stood up as well as ever. This I was permitted to carry about with me, partly in my pocket, but mostly in a warm damp hand, which caused the setter to exude a pleasant smell of paint and varnish.
A moment of tragedy, the first that I had known, was the sequel, and I do not believe that ever in my life I have been more utterly miserable.
What happened was this.
It was Christmas Eve, and the five of us, Martin, Arthur, Nellie, Maggie, and myself--Hugh, so I guess, being then little more than a month old--were returning from our walk, and the setter should have been in my hand or in my pocket. We were going through a wood of fir trees, where the ground was brown and slippery with pine needles, and the sun was low and red shone through the tall trunks making, with the fact that it was Christmas Eve, an enchanted moment.
I had just found out that my breath steamed, as it came out of my mouth, and Beth and I were playing steamers. Then suddenly I became aware that the setter was neither in my hand nor my pocket, and the abomination of desolation descended on me. For a little while we looked for it, and then Beth decreed that we must go on. But Martin--this is the first thing that I can recollect about him--being eleven years old and able to walk alone after dark, got leave to stop behind and look for it, while the rest of the bereaved procession went homewards.
At that point my memory fails, and I have no idea whether he found it or not. But here were the two first crystallized emotions of my life; the black misery of the loss of the setter, and the sense of Martin’s amazing kindness and bravery in stopping behind by himself in the terrible wood. There was a moon in the sky when we came out into the open and frosty stars, but no heart within me to care for playing steamers any more that day.
Next morning, after nursery-breakfast, I went down to the dining-room, and was given a cup of milk to drink by my father. This was an unusual proceeding, and as I progressed towards the bottom of the cup he told me to drink slowly. Something inside the cup clinked as I finished it, and there was a shilling which was mine.
On Sunday morning, towards the end of the Wellington days, I went down to breakfast in the dining-room. There were short prayers first, about which I remember nothing except the sight of servants’ backs, kneeling at chairs. But on one such morning, in the summer I suppose, because all the windows were wide open, a very delightful thing happened. There was a tame squirrel that used to scamper about the house, and run up and down stairs, and on this occasion, he suddenly descended from a curtain rod crossed the floor and scampered up the cook’s back. Probably she pushed him off, for he chattered with rage and went and sat on the sideboard and began nibbling ham.
After prayers were over, while breakfast was being brought up, it was my task to go around the walls of the dining-room, where hung engravings of eminent personages and name them. There was the Prince Consort in striped trousers with a bowler hat in his hand, the Duke of Wellington in knee-breeches, the head and shoulders of Dr. Walford, a full length of Dean Stanley, and Dr. Martin Routh in a wig reading a book. Round the edge of this which I think must have been a mezzotint were various small sketches of the said Dr. Martin Routh in other attitudes.
Then came the smell of sausages and the advent of two or three sixth form boys who in turn breakfasted with my father. These were very glorious persons and I marveled at their condescension in coming. Once the head of the school came, and following my father’s example I addressed him by his surname (whatever it was) without the prefix of “Mister,” for which omission I was corrected. But out of his magnificence he did not seem to mind.
Slowly, as the mists of infancy dispersed through which like sundered mountain-tops were seen these scattered incidents, a more panoramic vision of life as a coherent whole made its appearance. There had been vignettes, now of the Wilderness, now of my father’s study, now of the nursery, with nothing except the continuous association with Beth to bind them together. But now these scattered localities became parts of one connected puzzle, and I could form some sort of complete idea of the place.
Most important was the house, the master’s lodge, a red brick building standing in its own grounds. You entered through a gabled porch into a broad passage, on one side of which lay my father’s study. Glass doors separated this from the huge immensity of the hall, with my mother’s sitting-room, the drawing-room and the dining-room opening out of it. The stairs started in the center of it and after one flight separated into two, each of which led up into a gallery that skirted three sides of the hall. Bedrooms opened out of this, also the day nursery and night nursery, and pitch-pine banisters (a wood much admired at that time) ran around it, and it was through these banisters that one morning my sister Maggie, in a fit of wonderful audacity inserted her foot, and exclaimed, “That’s my foot, Alleluia.”
In the nursery, the room with which I was chiefly concerned, was a rocking-horse with wide red nostrils and movable pummels. These pummels penetrated right through his dappled skin, and by removing them it was possible to drop small objects like pebbles into his inside, where they rattled agreeably as he rocked. Once some one of us, tempting Fate, held a penny at this remarkable aperture, and the penny dropped inside, so that Beth had to turn the rocking-horse upside down and shake him until it was restored to currency again.
There was a low deal table, quantities of lead soldiers, and a swing hung from the ceiling, so that altogether it presented most agreeable features. There was also a large cupboard where playthings must be put away when they were done with, and I remember with excitement a Homeric struggle that took place there between Martin and Arthur for the possession of a stick which was painted blue and red.
But the most remarkable feature of the nursery was its walls, which, by the time we left Wellington, were entirely covered with pictures. These pictures, we children used to cut out on wet days from old illustrated papers under my father’s supervision, and he, clad in a dressing-gown to defend his clothes from splashes of paste, fixed them up on the walls, till the entire surface was covered. He had a step-ladder on which he attacked the higher altitudes, and a roller with which he pressed down the affixed pictures to the wall. There were battles there and historical scenes, notable buildings, and numerous cartoons from_Punch_. But one ought never to have been put there, for I dreaded seeing it, and, like a child, kept my dread to myself. It was the outcome, I imagine, of some inquiry into sweated trades, and represented a dressmaker talking to a client and saying, “I wouldn’t disappoint your ladyship for anything,” or words to that effect. At the back was a glimpse into her workroom, and there falling backwards with closed eyes was a girl, fainting I suppose in the artist’s intention, but I knew better and was aware that she was dead. Nightmares pictured her as falling across my bed in the sleeping-nursery next door, and Beth, in her frilled nightcap came close and said, “Now, dear, go to sleep again. I’m taking care of you.”
Doors in the hall led I suppose to kitchens and servants’ bedrooms, but of these I remember nothing except the fact of a flagged passage and the smell of a store-cupboard to which I once went with my mother. That part of the house did not matter.
Outside, the lawn was spread round two sides of the house; if you crossed it, you found a wicket-gate in a fence that bordered the belt of trees where the gardener cast the dead adder, and through this you passed to the kitchen garden. On the right of the lawn below the trees stood a summer-house where the croquet mallets were kept, and through these trees were a path that led out into the school playing fields. A gravel sweep faced the front door; there were laburnums and rhododendrons by the gate, to the right lay the Wilderness and straight in front the College buildings with the spired chapel at the far end.
Somewhere in these buildings was the school library, only notable because it contained a glass case in which was a white ant. Below the playing fields lay two immeasurable lakes, in the lower of which was the school bathing-place: the upper, though also immeasurable, was smaller, and a waterfall of gigantic height severed the two. By degrees the same world extended even further than that, for by walking laboriously you could reach either of two hills called Edgebarrow and Ambarrow, and then it was time to come home again.
Simultaneously with this growing reality of the world, its inhabitants (still with the exception of my father) assumed an individuality of their own. Far the most individual of them was my mother, who seemed to live entirely for pleasure except when she taught us our lessons. She played croquet with consummate skill, she drove herself in a pony carriage, she put on a low shining dress every evening with turquoise brooches and bracelets, and had as much eau-de-Cologne as she wished on her handkerchief. When she was dressing for dinner we used to go into her room examine that Golconda of a jewel-case, and bring her clean handkerchiefs of our own still folded up, for her to “make moons” on them, as the phrase was, with eau-de-Cologne. She took the stopper out of the bottle, and reversed it on to these folded handkerchiefs, making three or four applications. Then we unfolded these odorous handkerchiefs held them up to the light, and lo, they were penetrated with full wet moons of eau-de-Cologne.
She was, too, enormously wealthy, for every Saturday we went to see her in her sitting-room, and she opened the front of her inlaid Italian cabinet, and drew from one of the pigeon-holes within, a little wicker-basket, and out of it paid our weekly allowances. For elders there was as much as six pence, but six pence came out of a japanned cash-box, for juniors there was two pence or a penny according to age, and all these pennies, infinite apparently in number came out of the wicker-basket. She had a rosewood work-box, lined with red silk, which contained what was known as her “treasures.” These were two white china elephants with gilded feet, a small silk parasol, the ferrule of which was a pencil, an amber necklace, a Cornelia heart, and boxes which made loud pops when you opened them.
If any of us had a cold, or some ailment that kept us indoors, we were allowed to play with her treasures, to while away the solitude. But for some reason I did not think much of the treasures, and after being consoled with them during an afternoon indoors gave vent to the appalling criticism, “What Mamma calls tensors, I call ’Rubbish.” But that, as far as I know, was the only disloyalty of which I was ever guilty with regard to her. I just did not care about that particular sort of treasures.
What a life was hers! She ordered lunch and dinner precisely as she chose; she had a silver card-case with cards in it, stating who she was and where she was, and we all belonged to her, and so in some dim way did my father, and even the biggest boys of the great sixth form itself touched their caps to her as she passed. And slowly, slowly I became aware that she was worthy of all these pleasures and this homage.
There were certainly lessons in those days, I suppose for about an hour a day. There was a book called _Reading without Tears_, which said that a-b was “ab,” and d-o-g was “dog.” There must have been certain crises over this learning for I was kept in instead of going out one day, and, with the fatal habit of inversion which has clung to me all my life, said, so my mother told me, “I call it tears without reading!” I record this anecdote in pure self-condemnation: I don’t suppose I knew that this _obiter dictum_ made sense; it was only the beginning of a habit to play about with words, and see to what fashion of affairs they could be suited.
Every morning also, when we came downstairs we went into my mother’s sitting-room, and learned a new verse of a Psalm, repeating the verses previously learned. The Twenty-Third Psalm was one of these, and the Ninety-First I think must have been another, since I cannot remember the time when I did not know it by heart. I do not think that these religious repetitions meant anything to me; they were part of the inevitable day, which was full of glee.
That my mother had any other life of her own, full as I know it to have been of worries and anxieties and of marvelous happiness’s, never, as was natural, occurred to any of us. She was, as far as concerns my memory of her at Wellington, a glorious sunlit figure, living a life which appeared to be the apotheosis of hedonism, the mistress of a shouting houseful of children, all willful, all set on having their own way, and she calmly ruled us all, without even letting us know that we were being ruled. All the time she was a very young woman married to a man, twelve years her senior who was as violently individual as anyone could be. But for us she floated there like the moons of eau-de-Cologne which embellished our handkerchiefs, carrying something of the fairyhood of Abracadabra, and all the wizardry of her own inimitable wisdom. After Beth it was she who first emerged out of the landscape which once embraced trees and people alike, and to us soared upwards like a rising constellation. She could not take Beth’s place, for Beth filled that, but she enlarged a child’s heart and dwelt there. She never ceased from her own enlargements: in my mother’s house there were many mansions.
There were mansions for everybody, and none of the tenants usurped the place of another. As we grew up, all of us, without exception, felt that we were especially hers and were in a unique relation to her. We were all quite right about that, and so were a myriad friends of hers. There was “the best room” for each of them. How she did it, how she conveyed that adorable truth I know now, because I know that love is of infinite dimensions, and has the same perfect room for all. But the childish instinct was right: she cared supremely, and gave her whole heart to each of us.
My sisters, presently to be kindled for me with a great illumination, were for the period of the Wellington days quite dim, so too were Martin and Arthur... now at a private school at East Sheen, where, some years later, I followed them, and the rest of the world at that time consisted of vague visitors, among whom were my mother’s three brothers, William, Henry, and Arthur Sidgwick (remarkable only for their beards and their use of tobacco), and her mother, who is a much clearer figure. She encouraged small visitors when she was dressing for dinner, was generous in making moons, and had a ritual with regard to the dressing of her hair which filled me with wonder. It was parted in the middle and she drew down two strands of it over the top of her ears, and holding each of these in place applied to it a stick of brown cosmetic which I now know to have been a sort of bounding. The effect of this was that the hair stuck together in the manner of a thin board, smooth and in one piece. Sometimes a crack or fissure appeared in it, and more bounding was employed. It formed in fact a little stiff roof, and on the top she put a lace cap. She had long chains round her neck, and carried a silver vinaigrette containing a small piece of sponge soaked in aromatic vinegar. It was chiefly used in chapel when she was standing up during the Psalms.
On the other side of the family there were three aunts who corresponded with the three uncles, sisters of my father, two of whom were very handsome and of a high color; the third, Aunt Ada, seemed to me to be like a horse. They all floated in a sort of remote ether, like clouds coming up and passing again.
In 1873 my father was appointed Chancellor of Lincoln, and the move there was made in the summer of that year, during July and August. We four younger children, Nellie, Maggie, myself and Hugh went with Beth, our beloved Nannie, to stay with my grandmother at Rugby while it was in progress. That visit was memorable for several reasons: in the first place I celebrated a birthday there, and great-Aunt Henrietta had no idea that I was long past fairies, for on the morning of that day she met me in the hall, and said she would go out to see if there were any fairies about, for she fancied she had heard them singing. Accordingly, she went out of the front door, closing it after her, and leaving me in the hall. Sure enough from the other side of the door there instantly came a crooning kind of noise, which I knew was Aunt Henrietta singing, and there was a rattle in the letter-box in the door of something dropped into it. Aunt Henrietta then returned in considerable excitement, and asked me if I hadn’t heard the fairies singing, and of course I said I had. One had come right on to the doorstep, she continued, while she stood there, and had dropped something for me into the letter-box. And there was a velvet purse with a brass clasp, and inside five shillings. This was an opulence hitherto undreamed of. Aunt Henrietta was remarkable in other ways besides generosity: she wore a curious cap with pink blobs on it, and when asked how they were made instantly replied that they were made by coral insects underneath the sea. It was also said of her that she went to church one Sunday with a friend, and found they had only one prayer book, and that with small print, between them. They were both far-sighted and they each pulled so lustily on the prayer book in order to see better, that it came in half about the middle of the Psalms.
One day there came a moment which still ranks in my mind as an experience of transcendent happiness. It had been a delicious day already, for not only had my mother arrived, but the ceiling of the dining-room was being white-washed, and we had our meals in my grandmother’s sitting-room, which gave something of the thrill of a picnic. That evening we were playing in the garden when Beth came out to tell us it was time to go to bed. She took me along the path, and there close to an open window my mother and grandmother were having dinner. We stopped a moment, and I asked if I might not have ten minutes more in the garden. That was granted, and, as if that was not enough, my grandmother gave me three grapes from a bunch on the table. As I ate them a breeze brought across me the warm scent of a lilac bush, and the combination of these things made me touch a new apex of happiness.
Something, the joy of the level sunlight, of the three grapes, of the lilac scent, of having ten minutes more to play in, rushed simultaneously over me, and at that moment some new consciousness of the world and its exquisiteness was unsealed in me. And I doubt if I have ever been so happy since, or if anything, owing to that moment, will ever smell so sweet to me as lilac.
Whatever that unsealing was, the wax was broken forever, and from then a more vivid perception was mine. According to Wordsworth I ought, just about then, to have ceased trailing my clouds of glory, instead of which they trailed in far more radiant profusion. The arrival at Lincoln still wonderfully etched in my memory was an adventure of the finest kind, and the exploration of the new land teemed with unique discoveries. The fact that the house dated from the fourteenth century naturally mattered not at all: its joy lay in its present suitability to the diversions of children. There was a winding stone staircase, opening from a nail-studded door in the hall with pentagrams carved on the steps to keep off evil spirits: there was a day nursery made of two bedrooms thrown into one; there was a suite of amazing attics, steeped in twilight, with rafters close above the head, and loose boards underfoot.
Here in dark corners lay water-cisterns which gurgled unexpectedly in the dusk with mirthless goblin chuckles; cobwebs hung in corners and mice scuttled. Here too was a bare tremendous apartment also under the roof, spread with pears and apples. Up one side of it went a buttress, which certainly contained the chimney from the kitchen, for it was warm to the touch and altogether mysterious.
Instantly, so it seems to me now, we began playing the most blood-curdling games in that floor of attics; people hid there and groaned and jumped out on you with maniacal screams. A short steep flight of steps led down from it to the nursery floor, and how often, giddy with pleasing terror, have I tumbled down those steps, because somebody (who ought to have been a sister, but might easily have become a goblin) was yelling behind me. One’s mind, the sensible part of it much in abeyance, knew quite well that it was Nellie or Maggie, but supposing one’s sensible mind was wrong for once? It was wiser to run, just in case.... From which vivid memory I perceive that though I knew about Abracadabra I was not so firmly rationalistic about the rooms with gurgling cisterns in them. In the dark, strange metamorphoses might have occurred, and when one day I found in the darkest corner of one of these attics, a figure apparently human, and certainly resembling Nellie, lying flat down and not moving (though it was for the hider to catch the seeker) the light of my sensible mind was snuffed out like a candlewick, and I shrieked out, “Oh, Nellie, don’t!” Observe the confusion of an infant mind! I knew the corpse to be Nellie, for I addressed it as Nellie, and told it not to; on the other hand, by an involuntary exercise of the imagination I conceived that this still twilight object might be something quite different.
My sisters were now of an age to sleep together in a large apartment somewhere at the top of the stone stairs, while I still slept in the night nursery, in a bed near the window. Beth occupied another bed, and in a corner was Hugh’s crib with high sides, where he--being now about two years old--was stowed away before the day was over for me. Next door to the nursery was a room smaller than any room I have ever seen, and this was officially known as “My Room.” It had a tiny window, was quite uninhabitable, for it was always shrouded in a deadly gloom and piled up with boxes, but the fact that it was my room, though I lived in the day nursery by day, and slept in the night nursery by night, gave me a sense of pomp and dignity, and I resented the fact that presently my father had the wing of the house which lay above the stone staircase connected with the night nursery by a wooden passage across the roof. This turned my room into part of the passage, and though he called these ten yards of passage “the Rialto,” I felt that I had been robbed of some ancestral domain. After all it was My Room....
The rest of the house was not particularly interesting; it consisted of sitting-rooms and dining-room, and schoolroom and lobbies, the sort of thing that you naturally supposed would be there. But one day my father presented my sisters and me with a room at the top of the stone stairs, with which we were allowed to deal precisely as we wished. We instantly called it “The Museum,” and put in it any unusual objects that we obtained. One day Maggie found a piece of sheep’s wool stuck in a hedge, so that of course was brought home, washed white and carefully combed and put in a cardboard box with a glass lid. Then (to anticipate as regards the Museum) we spent a summer holiday at Torque, and collected various attractive pebbles, and madreporian, and shells. These were dedicated to the museum, and a large earthenware bread-bowl was lined with them, and filled up with water to the top, so that they gleamed deliciously through the liquid. Then there came a memorable day when my mother killed a hornet on her window; she gave us the squalid corpse, and after consultation we put it in the water of the bowl, lined with spa and madreporian, in order to preserve it. It floated about there and was supposed to be in process of preservation. An addled swan’s egg joined the collection, which, very prudently, we decided not to blow. But it began to smell so terribly even through the shell that with great reluctance we scrapped it. My father gave us a case of butterflies, collected by his father, in which, without doubt were two “large coppers.” “As rare things will” that case vanished, and I wonder what fortunate dealer eventually got the “large coppers.”... Then on a bookshelf was the great stamp-collection, and I wish I knew what had happened to that. There was all South Australia complete, and complete too was Tasmania, and complete the Cape of Good Hope, the stamps of which for the sake of variety were triangular? Heligoland was there and the Ionian Islands and New Caledonia (black and only one of it). But the stamp-collection was considered rather dull: the hornet disintegrating in the bread-bowl, and the piece of sheep’s wool were far more interesting. They had the timbre of personal acquisition, and rang with first-hand emotion. Personal and precious too were the bits of oxidized glass smoldering into rainbows which we dug up in the garden and displayed here; there too we found bowls and broken stems of tobacco-pipes which I think were Cromwellian. But Cromwell was no good to us, so we said that they were Roman tobacco-pipes. Then there was a collection of fossils, which, with the aid of geological hammers that my father gave us, we rapped out of stones in lime quarries, or from the heaps that lay by the roadside for mending. Amateur stone-breakers indeed, we were, and often bruised fingers were of the party, but they added preciousness to the trophies that we brought back to the Museum.
On the door of the Museum was a paper label, on which was emblazoned in large letters tinted with watercolor, “Museum. Private.” The privacy was part of the joy of it. Occasionally we asked mother to have tea with us there, and she came in her hat formally. This very proper behavior was duly appreciated.
Indeed, that was a good house for children with its attics and its winding-stairs, and its multitude of passages. Judging the virtue of a house by the standards of hide-and-seek, then, which there is no more authentic rule, I never saw so laudable a habitation. Endless were the dark places for the concealment of hiders, endless also the various routes by which the seekers might get back uncaught to the sanctuary where Beth sat with her sewing over the fire and said, “Eh now, you’ll be falling down and hurting yourselves.” There was the route up the kitchen stairs, the route through my father’s dressing-room and study, only practicable (as on the days when the Khyber Pass is open to caravans) when he was away: there were the stairs up from the hall into the lobby; there were the winding-stairs communicating through the Rialto with the nursery passage, at the other end of which were the nursery stairs.
How rare again was the cul-de-sac, that infernal invention of degraded architects and the ruin of all good hide-and-seek, which makes capture inevitable, when once you are in the trap. For magnificence of design, judging by these standards, I unhesitatingly allot the palm to the Chancery house in the Close at Lincoln.
Gardens, in like manner, must be judged by their serviceable in the pursuit of games, and here again we were fortunate. Adjacent to the house itself was a big lawn, leveled and sown afresh, which was the arena of cricket and rounders. Behind that was an asphalted yard with a stable, a coach-house and a woodshed, erected no doubt in order that we might play fives against them: a covered passage led to the kitchen garden. There was sufficient space here for a lawn-tennis court, the lines of which were laid down with tape secured by hairpins. Occasionally the foot caught in the tape; “zp, zp, zp,” went most of the hairpins and the shape of the court changed for the moment from an oblong to a trapezium with no right-angles. By one side of this was a steep grassy bank with elder bushes growing on the top. Here you laid yourself stiffly out on the ground, and like that rolled bodily down the bank, sitting up again at the bottom to find the world reeling and spinning round you. When you felt a little less sick, you refreshed yourself with elderberries and rolled down again. Beyond this was a pear tree large enough to climb, and high enough not to fall out of, and an asparagus bed. The edible properties of that vegetable were of no interest, but when it went to seed and grew up in tall fern-like stems with orange berries it was valuable as a hiding-place. Narrow grass paths led this way and that between the garden beds, and they had been well-constructed, for they were of such a width that it was possible, though difficult, to bowl a hoop down them without invading the cabbages. A fool would have made them either wider or narrower, and then they would have been useless. In a corner of the garden were our own particular plots, and against the red brick wall grew a fig tree, which I thought had some connection with the biblical tree that withered away, because it never yielded its fruit.
All round the garden ran a high wall, now brick, now ancient limestone, and at the bottom was a medieval tower partly in ruins, where we habitually played the most dangerous game that has ever been invented since the world began. Why no one was killed I cannot understand to this day. The game was called “Sieges,” and the manner of it was as follows:
A flight of some twenty high stone steps led up to a chamber in the tower, which was roofless and ivy-clad. They lay against the wall with a turn half-way up, and up to that point had no protection whatever on one side, so that nothing could have been simpler than to have fallen off them to the ground. From the chamber a further short flight led up on to an open turret defended at the top by a low iron railing of doubtful solidity. One child was constituted King of the Castle, the others were the besiegers. The besiegers stormed the castle and the besieger and besieged tried to hurl each other downstairs. The besieged had the advantage of superior height, for he stood usually at the top of the stairs by the chamber; the besiegers the advantage of weight and numbers. You were allowed to resort to any form of violence in order to win your object, except kicking; blows and pushing and wrestling and tripping-up formed legitimate warfare. Even the rule about kicking must have been rather slack, for I remember once seeking my mother with a bleeding nose, and saying that Nellie had kicked me in the face at “Sieges.” Her defense, a singularly weak one as it still appears to me, was that she hadn’t kicked me in the face at all: she had only put her foot against my face and then pushed. Whereon the judge went into such fits of laughter that the trial was adjourned.
At first mother taught us entirely, and the sight of the schoolroom when lessons were going on would certainly have conveyed a very false impression to a stranger, for close to my mother’s hand lay a silver-mounted riding-whip of plaited horsehair. But it was not for purposes of correction: its use was that if as we were writing our exercises and copies she saw we were not sitting upright, her hand would stealthily take up the whip and bring it down with a sounding thwack on to the table, startling us into erect attitudes again. To these instructions there was soon added Latin, and I remember the charm of new words just because they were new. It was also interesting to grasp the fact that there really had been people once who, when they wanted to say “table” preferred to say “Mensa,” and found that their friends understood them perfectly. I suppose that soon mother became too busy to continue the instruction of my sisters and me, for a day-governess appeared, a quiet melancholy German lady with brown eyes, and a manner that commanded respect. She was not with us very long, and on her departure we three went to a day-school kept by a widow. She had a Roman nose, and though rather terrible was kind. She lived in a house just outside the close which smelt of mackintosh: the schoolroom was a larger wooden apartment built out over the garden.
In between these curricula we had a temporary governess who seemed to us all the most admirable and enviable person who ever lived. This was Miss Bramston, a great personal friend of my mother’s, whose brother, beloved subsequently by generation after generation of Wykehamists, had been a master at Wellington under my father. Never was there so delightful an instructress; by dint of her being so pleasant when we disobeyed her, we soon got to obey her not out of discipline, of which she had not the faintest notion, but out of affection, of which she had a great deal.
She wrote us a play in rhymed verse, all out of her own head, which we acted one Christmas, rather like _Hamlet_, with rhymes thrown in, and ending much more comfortably than that tragedy. There was a king on a throne, only he wasn’t the right king and when alone he soliloquized, saying:
I’m a usurper, though I seem a swell;
The true King lies within a dungeon cell,
and I wish I could remember more of it. She painted not in watercolor only in oils and could make any canvas of hers recognizable. For instance, you knew at once that this was the Cathedral. But not only to us was she not a usurper but a swell; she was a Public Authoress, and wrote stories, printed and published, which she gave us to read. The S.P.C.K. published them, and the whole world could buy them, and she got paid for writing them. One of her early works was _Elly’s Choice_; there was a poor good girl called Elly, and a rather nasty rich cousin called Cordelia, a boy called Alick, and everybody who mattered was about nine years old. A piece of stained glass was broken in the “Octagon Room,” and Cordelia let Elly be punished for it though Cordelia had broken it, and then Elly received apologies from Grandmamma Farmer, and Cordelia learned a lesson, and all got wonderfully happy again. The extreme vividness with which I remember it, surely shows that the book fulfilled its purpose, that is, of interesting children. Later Miss Bramston spread larger pinions, and I do not think she did so well. To our intense joy she came back to us at Truro a year or two later, and was as lovable as ever.
It was in those few years at Lincoln that my father began to be individual, instead of being part of the landscape, and as I got to know him, I, like the rest of us, also got to fear him. For many years we were none of us at our ease with him, as we always were with our mother, and it is tragic that it was so, for I know that he regarded us all with the tenderest love. Often and often his glorious vitality, keener and more splendid than any I have ever come across, enchanted us, and the sunlight of him was of a midsummer radiance. But he had no idea how blighting his displeasure was to small children, and for fear ofincurring it we went delicately like Agag, attending so strictly to our behavior that all spontaneity withered. Nothing would have pleased him more, had we taken him into our confidence, but we feared his disapproval more than we were drawn to intimacy with him. It was always uncertain whether he would not pull us up with stinging rebukes for offences that were certainly venial, and in his watchfulness over our mental and moral education, he came down upon faults of laziness and carelessness as if to explode such tendencies out of our nature. Earnest and eager all through, and gloriously and tumultuously alive, he brought too heavy guns to bear on positions so lightly fortified as children’s hearts, and from fear of the bombardment we did not dare to make a sortie and go to him. Too much noise, an ordinary childish carelessness might, so we believed, bring down on us a schoolmaster’s reproof instead of such remonstrances as we got from my mother, which were completely successful, and with him we were careful to be decorous to the verge of woodenness. We had washed hands and neat hair and low voices, because thus, we minimized the risks of his society. We were never frank with him, we did not talk about the things that interested us, but those which interested him and which we thought he would wish us to be interested in. We sat on the edge of our chairs, and were glad to be gone. If we had been natural with him, I know that his appreciation of that would somehow have made cement between us, but how are you to be natural when, rightly or wrongly, you are being careful? Tearing spirits moderated themselves on his approach, we became as mild as children on chocolate boxes. If he was pleased with us, we breathed sighs of relief: if he was displeased we waited for the clouds to pass. With him I, at least, was a prig and a hypocrite, assuming a demure demeanor, and pretending to be interested in the journal of Bishop Heber of Bombay, which I still maintain is a dreary work, and not suited to young gentlemen of between six and nine years old. But the journal of Bishop Heber was given me as a book to read on Sunday and helped to add to the wearisomeness of that rather appalling day.
Below our lovely museum, and opening out of the winding stone stairs, there was a room fitted up as a chapel. There was stained glass in the windows, Arundel prints on the walls, and a quite unique harmonium that cost five pounds. The keyboard was only of three octaves, extending from which, as it was used if not designed to be as an instrument to accompany hymns, seems to me to be a truly remarkable compass, since in order to accompany hymns on it at all, you had to leave out the bass, or transfer the whole tune to the higher octave. When fully extended for purposes of melody, it stood about two and a half feet high, but on its black japanned front were two steel catches which, if pressed, caused it to subside into itself, the foot-bellows becoming flat, and the harmonium itself so small that a man could put it under his arm.
Sometimes when playing it (as I was presently to do) a too vigorous knee, in the movement of blowing, would touch these catches, and it collapsed in the middle of the hymn on to the feet of the organist, dealing them a severe blow, and necessitating its readjustment before the hymn proceeded. It had two stops, one of which allowed the air to get to its pipes, the other was a tremolo which caused its voice to be transformed into a series of swift little bleats with pauses in between like a soprano lamb much out of breath. Perhaps it was designed to take the solo part of a flute in one of those curious bastard orchestras on which Mr. Oscar Browning, with the help of three undergraduates, used to render quartets in his rooms at King’s College, Cambridge, but here it was as an accompanying instrument at prayers in the chapel of the Chancery, and took its part in the religious exercises of the morning.
Sunday, in fact, began in the chapel for us children after the early service for our elders in the Cathedral. There was a hymn, my father read certain Sunday prayers, and then came breakfast. The collection of hymns which we used in chapel was Bishop Wordsworth’s “Holy Year.” There are many admirable hymns in it, others not so good? For instance, the one for the feast of St. Philip and St. James began:
Let us emulate the names of St. Philip and St. James.
We children, therefore, could hardly help making up another hymn for the feast of St. Simon and St. Jude beginning (and then stopping):
Let us try to be as good
As St. Simon and St. Jude.
Matins at the Cathedral was at half-past ten, so we often bore a crude sausage there, as Juvenal would have said. The service was fully choral, and the _pièce de résistance_, as far as I was concerned, was the litany, chanted by two lay-clerks at a desk in the middle of the gangway between the seats. Together I think (or perhaps separately, while the other was in reserve) they chanted the first sentences as follows:
The choir then repeated it in harmony, and the same simple musical material furnished the whole of the subsequent responses. Sung thus very slowly the Litany took a full quarter of an hour, but when that was over, I was at liberty to find my hat and steal out. I used to put my hat, a round soft felt hat with elastic under the chin, in an aperture at the corner of our seat below the stalls, which had in it an opening for ventilation. Sometimes my hat slipped down this, and after an excited groping for it, it came up covered with the dust of ages. The service had already lasted an hour or more, and I made my jaded way back to the Chancery, while my mother and sisters, and in the holidays, my two elder brothers, remained for the rest of the service. Martin and Arthur occupied stalls near my father and were still dim figures to me, at home only for a comparatively few weeks in the year, and having a sitting-room of their own. I used to be rather glad when they went to school, because my mother invented for me the title of “The Eldest Son at Home,” which could only be used in their absence.
In the afternoon there was a family walk, and then Cathedral service again. Then came a reading of Sunday books, or a reading of the Bible with my father, and we went utterly fatigued to bed. It was not so much the plethora of religious exercises that caused this lassitude, but the entire absence of any recreation. Spare time (and there was not much of it) was supposed to be taken up with Bishop Heber’s Journal, _Agathis_ and _The Rocky Island_. Once a certain brightness came into these Sunday readings, because we were allowed a book called _Sunday Echoes in Week-day Hours_. There was a widowed mother in it, and her boy called Cecil, and their conversation about collects was so excruciatingly pious that it became merely humorous, and we invented fresh Cecil-talk among ourselves. We once indulged in this before my mother, who with a controlled countenance withdrew the delightful volume. I remember waking up after falling asleep one Sunday night, and hearing Compline going on in the chapel with another hymn, and thinking with amazement that they were still at it. In the way of a child, I think I was, from certain evidence that will appear, religious, but to put it quite frankly, I was sick of the whole affair by Sunday evening.
I cannot chronologize the events in our life at Lincoln, which only lasted for three and a half years, and I do not quite know when the Cathedral services began to wear a perfectly new complexion for me. The reason of this was that I was violently attracted by a choir-boy, or rather a chorister, one of four, who instead of wearing a surplice like the common choir-boy wore a long dark blue coat down to the knees faced with white. A similar experience, I fancy, is almost universal: the first romantic affection a girl is conscious of is nearly always towards a girl, and in the same way, a small boy, when first his physical nature begins to grope, still quite blindly and innocently, in the misty country of emotion is pretty certain to take as his idol for secret romantic worship, one of his own sex. It was so at any rate with me, and instead of the Cathedral services being of incomparable tedium, they became exciting and exalting. He, the nameless he, came in procession at the end of the choir-boys just before the lay-clerks, and besides having this soul-stirring effect on me, he woke in me, by means of his singing, my first love of music. He sat at the end of the choir nearest our seat, and luckily on the other side, so that I could see him without the intervention of dull people’s heads. I could hear his voice, sexless and unemotional, above the rest of the trebles, but with what emotion did that voice inspire me! He used to sing solos as well, and I am sure that the sneaking love that I have still for Mendelssohn, was due to the fact that (unaccompanied) he sang “The night is departing, depa-a-art (A in alt) ing.” I would have welcomed the interminable Litany becoming literally interminable, so long as he continued singing, “We beseech thee to hear us, Good Lord,” with his chin a little stuck out, and his eyes roving about the pews. Sometimes I thought he saw me and noticed me, and then my imagination took wings to itself, and I saw myself meeting him somewhere alone, him in his chorister’s cope. What we should have to say to each other, I had not the smallest idea, but we should be together, and there lay completion. It was due to his unconscious influence that I began to sing loudly in the chapel at the Chancery, and never shall I forget my father once saying to me, “Perhaps someday you will sing an anthem in the Cathedral.” That supplied a fresh imaginative chapter to my secret book; I should be a chorister too, and sit next the idol, and we would sing together. I was not egoistic in this vision: I had no thought of ravishing the world by the beauty of my voice: it merely became a sunlit possibility (after all my father had said as much) that I should sing in the Cathedral. But I knew, though he did not, that I should be singing with the chorister. Thanks to my idol, Sunday became, as long as this passion lasted, a day in which joy watered the arid sands of Bishop Heber’s Journal, and made it, literally, “break forth into singing.” That emotion, the fulfillment of which was brought into the realms of possibility by my father’s remark, touched such religion as I had with ecstasy, and I added to my prayers the following petition, which I said night and morning.
“O God, let me enter into Lincoln Cathedral choir, and abide there in happiness evermore with Thee!”
Who “Thee” was I cannot determine: I believe it to have been a mixture of God and the chorister, and, I think, chiefly the chorister.
This quickening of emotion gave rise to a sort of waking vision in which I used then consciously to indulge, promising myself as I undressed for bed a night of Holy Convocation. Two minutes of Holy Convocation were about the duration of it, and then I went to sleep. There was a hymn in the “Holy Year” in which there were lines
To Holy Convocations
The silver trumpets call,
and with that and the chorister as yeast, there used to bubble out, when I had gone to bed, this curious waking vision. I would not be asleep at all, but with open eyes I distinctly saw against the blackness of the night nursery a line of golden rails, very ornamental, before which I knelt. There was the sound of silver trumpets in my ears, there was the sound of the chorister, anthems in the Cathedral, and the presence of God. But all these things were secret and apart, never told of to this day, and they did not in the least interfere with wrestling in the tower, and violent games of rounders and the pleasing terrors of hide-and-seek. The shrine usually stood shut, but when it opened it disclosed blinding splendors.
The Cathedral had, apart from the chorister and the services, certain pains and pleasures of its own. Occasionally assizes were held in Lincoln, and then on Sunday the judges would attend in robes of majesty with full wigs falling on to their shoulders. They walked in procession up the choir, and, reaching their seats, turned around awful pink clean-shaven faces of eternal calm, awful mouths that pronounced death-sentences. Once to my knowledge there was a murder-trial at Lincoln and a man condemned to death and the judge on that occasion became more terrible than death itself, and I slunk out after the Litany with apprehension that I should be called back, and hear some appalling sentence pronounced on me. Again, one day, a canon of the Cathedral stepped backwards through a skylight and was killed and Great Tom, the big bell in the central tower, tolled for the funeral. But the whole circumstances of that were so interesting that, though terror was mingled with them, they were more exciting than terrible. Wholly delightful on the other hand was a scientific demonstration that took place in the nave. A long cord was hung from one of the arches, to the end of which depended a heavy lead weight. On the pavement beneath it there was marked out a circle in white chalk, and this pendulum was then set swinging. As the hours passed, it swung in a different direction from that in which it was started, and instead of oscillating up and down the nave it moved along the transepts, thus demonstrating the motion of the earth. Why that delightful piece of science was shown in the Cathedral I have no idea; certain it is, however, that my mother took me to see the pendulum after breakfast one morning and again before tea when it was swinging in quite another direction. I never had any doubts about the rotary movement of the earth after that, nor, as far as I can remember, before.
Those three and a half years at Lincoln appear to have lasted for decades, so eventful was the unfolding of the world, and all the years which have passed since then, with their travels to many foreign lands, and climbing of perilous peaks, seem to have contained no exploration so thrilling as the revelation of Rusholme, where lived Bishop Wordsworth of Lincoln, who wrote the “Holy Year,” and his wife, and his family and Janet the housekeeper. (The latter, like Mrs. Wordsworth, had ringlets down the sides of her face, and dispensed Marie biscuits and cowslip wine in unstinted profusion.) The family, too, were interesting, for one daughter when she laughed said, “Sss-sss,” and another, “Kick-kick-kick,” and the Bishop himself had a face like a lion, and a hollow ecclesiastical voice. My sisters considered him very formidable, but I was not afraid of him, chiefly because at an early stage of our acquaintance he gave me an ink-bottle of pottery, with a gilded lion (like himself) on top of it, and a receptacle to hold sand for the blotting of your letter, if you had managed to write it. This argued an amiable disposition, and when I came in contact with him, I was conscious of no embarrassment.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree,
but Xanadu was nothing to Rusholme for domes and stateliness. There were two lakes peopled with dace and water-lilies and pike and swans, and an island where the swans nested, and a sluice, around which the water was of fabulous depth, where we fished for dace. There was a boat-house, on the roof of which in the autumn a great chestnut tree used to shed its fruit, bursting the husks, and disclosing the shiny brown kernels; and at Rusholme, as far as I remember, we were allowed to do precisely as we pleased. We used to go out alone in the boat, with paste for bait, and splash the water at each other, and come home with a couple of daces, dirty and wet and hopelessly happy. Swans used to scold and hiss at us, the boat did everything but capsize, and æons of bliss were our portion. There were water-snails to be collected, if the fish would not bite (they seldom did), and wreaths of stinking water-weed, and broken fragments of swan eggs lined inside with a tough kind of parchment, which we called “swan-paper.” Then dace (when there were any) were cooked for tea, and provided a bony mouthful for one; the swan-paper was taken home for the Museum, together, on one glorious occasion, with the addled swan’s egg; and the wreaths of stinking water-weed were laid out on sheets of cartridge-paper and pressed. This pressing resulted in an awful fricassee of weed and paper, and then something else occupied us. On the banks of the lake, at intervals, appeared a sympathetic Bishop with daughters, to whom we shouted the results of our explorations, and one of the daughters said, “Kick-kick-kick,” and another, “Sss-sss-sss.” For larger people, such as Arthur, there was more grown-up fishing, and once with a spoon-bait he caught a pike that weighed three pounds. But not even the sympathetic and combined appetites of the juniors could finish that toothsome dish.
Then there were expeditions into the vast forest that lay below the sluice, where marsh-marigolds grew, and the willow shoots flew back and slapped the faces of those who followed the leader in these excursions. Maggie and I formed a small club or society (I suppose Nellie was too old then, being about eleven) to get lost in this pathless place, but we never quite succeeded in doing so. Just as we thought there was no hope of our ever being discovered, in which case we proposed to live on leaves and drink the water that came from the sluice in a small stream, Beth’s voice would sound quite near at hand, or, by mistake, we came back into the meadow beyond the lake, or into the path that bordered it.
So instead, we collected chestnuts, if there was not a marine or lacustrine expedition, and ground up the kernels into a nutritive powder, or mixed it with lake-water to form a paste. About this time Maggie and I formed a special alliance, which continued till the end of her life, and the light of it was never quite obscured by those dusky years of darkened mind through which her way led, for she was always willing to talk of the days at Lincoln, and the collections and the amazing stories which we invented to beguile our walks. They were compounded of strange adventures, with the finding of gold and immense diamonds, of desert islands and bandits, and the central figures were she and I and the collie, Watch. All was colored with the vividness of dreams, and the seriousness of childhood.
Rusholme was about two and a half miles from Lincoln, and the most exciting experience I ever had in its connection was that of being sent over there by my father with a note for the Bishop. I took Watch with me, and “Kick-kick-kick” and “Sss-sss-sss” were so entertaining and the Bishop so long in writing his answer that it was nearly dark before, with sinking of the heart, I started on my return. “Sss-sss-sss” I think offered to accompany me till I got out of the loneliness of the road and in touch with the lights of Lincoln, but I was too cowardly to say I was afraid of the darkness and the emptiness, and started off alone. Wanting to get it over as quickly as possible, I ran, and was frightened at the noise of my running. Then, one after the other, my stockings came down, and I thought that the strip of whiteness would encourage highwaymen to attack me, and so had to stop every third step to pull them up. Then I talked to Watch in order to hearten myself, saying, in so many words, “Watch, aren’t we benighted?” (new word) and then was frightened at the sound of my voice in the frosty stillness.
But there was pleasure in this sense of adventure, and I was given an egg for tea. There were also expeditions to Nocton, where in a wood of vast extent the whole ground was white with lilies of the valley growing wild, and the still languid air beneath the trees swooned with the scent of them, which, I am told (though never since that day have I been able to believe it), is extremely pleasant. For the last of these expeditions to Nocton had a tragic sequel so far as I was concerned. We had lunch there after picking lilies all the morning, and I suppose I ate too much, and it began to rain as we drove homewards so that the carriage, full of hot children and lilies of the valley, had to be closed. The effect was that I was exceedingly unwell and never since that day have been able to dissociate the smell of lilies of the valley from being sick. To balance that bilious day was a glorious expedition to Skegness, where I saw the sea for the first time, and fell in love with it with a devotion that has never wavered. I took with me a small black handbag in which to stow the treasures of the shore, among which I rather mistakenly selected a dead decaying skate. An odor as unpleasant to others as was that of lilies of the valley to me filled the railway carriage on the return, which was eventually traced to my bag, and the dead skate which would have looked, anyhow, interesting in the Museum, was thrown out of the window. That first impression of the sea was confirmed by summer holidays spent at Torquay, and it was there, I think, that I must have learned to swim, and then have forgotten that I knew how. For when some years later I went to Marlborough and began to learn in the school bathing-place, I instantly did swim, and the old instructor who sat with small boys in a strap at the end of a fishing-rod, said with disgust, “Why you swim already!” Torquay was responsible for a whole host of further activities, for it was there, I believe, that we began those scribblings which subsequently developed into the _Saturday Magazine_ (an industry so important that it must presently have a paragraph to itself) and it was certainly there that there were hot twisty rolls for breakfast which were only to be obtained by reciting some sort of rhyme, of which one of my mother’s seemed to me to touch the high-water mark of inspired wit and poetry. This ran:
Bread is the staff of life, the proverbs say,
So give me of its twisted staff to-day.
Surely that was far better than a miserable effusion by Bishop Temple, of Exeter, who merely said:
and was sycophantically applauded by the grown-up people present. You could have eggs without making rhymes ... but perhaps he didn’t understand, and anyhow it was no use wasting time over him. There, among the diversions of Torquay we all violently embraced the career of artists, and drew miles of cottages and churches and painted leagues of the English Channel. The shell collection was started then, so also collections of wild flowers, and there was bathing and Devonshire cream, and a steep garden with gladioli and aloes in its beds. I think my birthday must have been celebrated there, for certainly I received a present of a terra-cotta teapot with lines of blue enamel on it, after receiving which it was difficult to imagine circumstances that could have the power to hurt one ever again.
Never can I sufficiently admire or be sufficiently thankful for the encouragement my father and mother both gave to these multitudinous hobbies, for hobbies, as they well knew, whether literary, artistic, or scientific, are a priceless panacea for the preservation of youth, and the stimulation of the world-wonder of beauty. At this time, we were all of us draughtsman, ornithologists, chronologists, geologists, poets, and literary folk: we all drew and wrote and collected shells and birds’ eggs, and smashed stones in order to discover fossils. I claim no measure of eminence or even promise in any of us, but that is not the point. The point is that under parental encouragement we did all these things with extreme zest and interest. In sports and games my father gave us less support, for he looked on them only as a recreation which would enable the mind to get to work again, and as having no intrinsic value beyond what a brisk walk could have brought. But we had enough keenness among ourselves for these, and a ball and something to hit it with filled the rest of the vacant hours with ardor. For music, among the arts, he had likewise no sympathy at all: he liked the singing of Psalms and Handel and hymns entirely because of the words, and when he joined in the hymns in chapel, he produced a buzzing noise that bore no relation to any known melody. By this time my own love of music, sown in me by the adored chorister, had taken firm hold, and with help from my mother to start me, and an elementary book of instruction, music became to me a thing apart. I wanted no companionship or sympathizer in it, and though as far as execution on the piano went I was leagues behind my sisters, I felt certain in my own mind that I had opened a door for myself into a kingdom to which they did not really penetrate though they could execute (both counting very loud) Diabelli’s Celebrated Duet in D which I considered below contempt, though it was very clever of them to move their fingers so fast. At that time my mother, who had always an Athenian disposition with regard to the joy of a new thing, went in for a course of instruction somehow connected with Dr. Farmer of Harrow.
There was founded at Lincoln a Farmer Society of some kind, and the ladies met once a week or thereabouts and played easy Bach to each other, and one of the most rapturous Lincoln days was a certain wet afternoon, when the Society met at the Chancery. My sisters and I were allowed to sit in the window-seat, provided we remained quiet, and we all had acid drops to suck, and books to read when we got tired of listening. They were soon deep in _Little Women_ and _Good Wives_, but for me, in spite of a tooth-ache, I listened in an entranced bliss to a series of Gavottes and Sarabands and Allemandes, while the rain beat on the windows, and the melodious dusk gathered. The time of the year must have been near Christmas, for I feel as if I went straight from there to the nursery, on the floor of which was laid out a large sheet piled with holly and laurel and ivy, out of which we made wreaths for the doors.
The remaining leaves, when all was done, were put in the fire and roared and crackled up the chimney, filling the room with an aromatic smell of burning, that ranks next in preciousness of recollection to the smell of lilac.
It was in this last year at Lincoln that I had a fit of demoniacal possession, for I committed three heinous crimes one after the other. On a shelf in the drawing-room with Dresden figures and vases there was an Easter egg which had been sent to my father. It was decorated with a cross and a crown and a halo and some flowers, and was without doubt a goose’s egg. This trophy was singularly sacred, and my father had told us that we were never to touch it. Because of that prohibition I whetted my finger and rubbed off a piece of the crown and the halo. I followed this up by stealing a quantity of sugar from the tea-table in a yellow box which I think had contained sweetmeats, and kept it on my knees under the table-cloth. I suppose I then forgot about it and, getting up, I caused it to fall to the ground, and spill its contents all over the floor.
The third piece of devil work was far more daring and inexplicable. I had a cold one day and was not allowed to go out, but was left instead by the fire in the sitting-room belonging to my two elder brothers. There was a white sheepskin rug in front of it, and as soon as my father with the four eldest children had left the house, I ladled the whole of the burning coals out of the grate and put them on the hearthrug. An appalling stench arose as the wool caught fire; the place was filled with smoke, and I left the room, quite impenitent and merely interested to know what on earth would happen next. The smoke must by now have penetrated to the rest of the house, for I met my mother running downstairs, and she asked me if I knew what that smell was. I told her that I didn’t and went up to the nursery. Presently, having extinguished the fire, she followed me, and again asked me if I was sure
I didn’t know anything about it. Upon which I told her that it was I who had emptied the fire on to the rug. A fine spanking followed, which I did not in the least resent, and I was told to go to bed till I was sorry. I never was sorry--for it was demoniacal possession--but I suppose that some time I must have got up again.
Friendships had sprung up between us and other children at Mrs. Giles’s day-school, and among these was May Copeland, who was Nellie’s particular friend, and told us that she was descended from Oliver Cromwell. This was very distinguished, and I fully meant to marry her. There was also a girl whose name I forget, and she was responsible for one of the greatest surprises of my young life, for one day while she and I were looking for a tennis ball in the bushes, she took my hands and drew them upwards against her bosom. I found to my astonishment that instead of being flat, she had two swellings there, and I asked her if they were bruises. She seemed rather offended and said that they certainly, were not. Then there was Willie Burton to whom I told, in the spirit of bravado, what I had done to the sheepskin hearthrug, and he thought it very magnificent. He used to get phosphorus matches from his father’s table, which was grand, for we only used Bryant and May’s safety matches, and our great game was to retire into the blackness of the tool-house wet the palms of our hands, and rub on the phosphorus which glowed with a mysterious light. He had an awful story which I entirely believed of an aunt of his on whom a practical joker played a dreadful trick, for he wrote up in phosphorus above his aunt’s bed the text, “This night shall thy soul be required of thee.” On which his poor aunt went raving mad, and I got a general distrust of phosphorus.... Willie Burton was dressed in sailor clothes, and I in a short jacket and knickerbockers, and one day with a sense of almost excessive adventure, we undressed in the tool-house and each put on the other’s clothes. We then opened the door in order to let daylight behold this transformation, and swiftly changed back again. That was a wonderful thing to have done, and when we met next day at the gymnasium we looked at each other’s clothes with glances of secret knowledge.
My final remembrance at Lincoln is perhaps the most vivid of all, for the sense of it was not that of a momentary impression, but of a growing reality. Every evening now we came down to my mother’s room and for half an hour before bedtime she read Dickens aloud to us, sitting in front of the fire. She liked to have her hair stroked, so I used to stand behind her chair, passing my fingers over the smooth brown hair above her forehead, and listening to the story of the Kenwigses. Her voice and the contact of my fingers on her hair wakened in me the knowledge of how I loved her.