an ebook published by Project Gutenberg Australia
Title: Before The Knowledge Of Evil
Author: M. E. Braddon (11835-1915)
eBook No.: 2200611h.html
Date first posted: 2022
Most recent update: 2022
This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore
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This book was copied from the original typescript of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's unpublished memoir, which is stored at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas, USA.
Many characters were too light to read or completely blank, and four pages were missing from the manuscript, but an attempt was made to copy it as faithfully as possible.
M. E. Braddon
Chapter 1. - My Earliest Memories
Chapter 2. - The Delanes
Chapter 3. - Papa
Chapter 4. - St. Leonards-on-Sea
Chapter 5. - Kingsington
Chapter 6. - Skisdon
Chapter 7. - Camplehay
Chapter 8. - Back at Skisdon
Chapter 9. - Vale of Health
Chapter 10. - A Day in London
Chapter 11. - A House on the River
Chapter 12. - Christmas on the River
Chapter 13. - My First Desk
Chapter 14. - The Garden
Chapter 15. - Churches
Chapter 16. - Gifts
Chapter 17. - Sarah Hobbs
Chapter 18. - The Day School
Chapter 19. - Schooling With Mamma
Chapter 20. - The Regatta
Chapter 21. - A Visit to a Palace
Chapter 22. - A Visit With Uncle William
Chapter 23. - Our First Summer on the Terrace
Chapter 24. - A New Friend
Chapter 25. - Advent of the Knowlege of Evil
Chapter 26. - Dartmouth Lodge
I might have been born in Cornwall — of the innumerable might-have-beens in a long life, that is one which I look back upon now and then with keen regret. I feel that I ought to have been born in the dear old house where my father and mother and uncles and aunts all made their entrance into this world — and where my grandmother was living at the time of my birth. My father’s race had been Cornish from the days of the Tudors, and an ancestor upon whom we all looked back with pride was member for the County in Elizabeth’s first Parliament, and later in the same illustrious reign for Bossiney. His name may be seen to this day in a book containing — amongst other parochial information — a catalogue of Cornish senators, a book rescued by Lord Wharncliffe and always on view at King Arthur’s Castle Hotel, Tintagel. My father was Cornish to the core of his heart, and in all his London life there was a tender memory of the home of his younger years, and a yearning for news from the West. I ought to have been born in the cozy old house at St. Kew, near Wadebridge, the house that lies in a green hollow sheltered on every side in flower gardens that are a joy, and vegetable gardens that furnish the fruits of the earth with a lavish abundance. Had Fate been kind and hastened my arrival by a day or two I should have entered life in that friendly shelter, instead of appearing inconveniently for my mother after a stage coach journey of two days and two nights, in a house where I was not immediately expected.
I was born late at night on the 4th of October in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession — so I may fairly describe myself as an early Victorian.
Not till I had gone a good way down into the vale of years did I know that I was born upon a saint’s day, the anniversary of my favourite saint, St. Francis of Assisi, the man who after riding past a leper for a little way dismounted and went back, and knelt at the leper’s feet, and kissed the afflicted hands before he emptied his purse into them. The saint who founded the brotherhood of mendicant friars, and whose service was dedicated to our Lady of Poverty, and who went rejoicing through a world in which, after tasting for a short time all the pleasures and extravagances of the idle and dissipated, he knew only the hardships and privations.
Among the wandering and futile thoughts that make up half the sum of life I have sometimes wondered whether if I had been told about that holy life in my childhood and taught to associate it with my own birthday — the mere association might have had an influence upon the thoughts of childhood and youth.
In one thing at least from my earliest years I should have felt myself in touch with the Saint of Assisi, with the Saint who was sympathy incarnate, namely in his love of the brute creation. Could I have then heard his sermon to the troublesome wolf, and how the wolf became ever after gentle and pleasant to live with, that “little flower” would have been better for my infant mind than the much loved and much dreaded story of Red Riding Hood — and the wolf which walked out of the story book to haunt my dreams or keep me awake o’ nights — the grim grey ghost of innumerable nurseries, whom the wiser weaver of children’s books nowadays have laid by giving the old story a happy ending.
I think I should have easily been won to worship St. Francis even in my fourth year — as I was taught by my pious governess when I was seven to adore that Divine exemplar of St. John’s Gospel. Nobody told me — no saintly name appears in the calendar for October in our book of Common Prayer — but in the Roman Catholic world the fourth day of the month is Sacred. In one of Mme. de Maintenon’s letters she writes of her desire to be in Paris in order to assist properly at the Office for that day. I heard very little talk of Saints and Saints’ days in my earliest years, and though I was sometimes taken to see my Roman Catholic Grandmother I do not remember having speech with her. And this is not because I have no memory of what was said to me in those years, as I have a vivid memory of the utterances of those about me. If my grandmother was lax in her dealings with her family, and was content to leave them outside the Papal fold, she was at least severe with herself, strict in observance of Lenten fasts, and all the ordinances of her church. My mother told me how on venturing to make some serious enquiries about the Roman creed my grandmother replied, “It is a very comforting religion.” I have no doubt she died in the odour of sanctity with all priestly ministrations. Her life had not been without trouble, for her husband, Patrick White of County Limerick, was not a satisfactory person, but she had been cared for by friends who had wealth and power, and she had never known money troubles.
I have a more distinct remembrance of the street where I was born, and which I left soon after my fourth birthday, than of many more interesting places seen in my older years — a long dull street of substantial Georgian houses in Soho, which I will call Fourth Street. It had been a handsome and even fashionable street in the days of the Georgian Kings, when Dr. Burney and his daughter were living in the neighbourhood, and it was a prim and respectable street in those early Victorian days. In all its grey length I can only recall one shop — and that of a refined and superior aspect. Windows showing silks or velvets, with an unobtrusive splendour, the side show of a large draper’s round the corner. I cannot remember a door — only those quiet windows with their glimpses of rich fabrics. Very rarely have I revisited that Georgian street — perhaps only two or three times in a long life — for having on my first visit found an Ironmonger’s shop established on the ground floor under my mother’s drawing-room, I felt that the tie between the house and me was broken. Only with my mother’s help could I identify my birthplace, and I have long forgotten the number, which no doubt has often changed since my fourth birthday. To go back now would be to find a world so different from the place of my childhood, and from the Soho of The Tale of Two Cities — that the shock would be more than I could bear.
Measured by my sense of time in later life, when intervals of ten or fifteen years are talked of casually as the other day — those four first years seem to me like a quarter of a century. Strange to have such a memory of endless seeming days and nights, of people and events, of new frocks and new shoes, and of little treats and little troubles. winter and summer, sunshine and rain, fog and snow, the Soho bazaar, and Newport Market, the cows in St. James’s Park, all experienced not once, but again and again, and again, to satiety, yet all these memories spread over what seems endless time, must have been limited to two years — since it is hardly likely that I can have a distinct recollection even of the tinder box in the nursery or my coloured nurse, before I was two years old.
The sensations of those first years were so acute, the sense of vexation, recurring day after day in the long grey street where the sparrows were picking up their provender in the road, at not having brought out a pinch of salt to put upon one of those tail feathers, and so to catch and carry the creature to my nursery. I have suffered from a bad memory all my life, and I think the fact that I never furnished myself with that salt goes to prove that the want was constitutional.
One long Sunday I remember, when my mother had gone into the country on a visit — a Sunday when there was no cheerful family gathering, and no dessert, for me to explore with eyes considering before saying that I would take grapes “first” — a weary Sunday evening, brightening towards the close by the return of the idolised mother, bringing me a fine peach by way of consolation. Wanting her so badly I don’t think the peach made any difference. She had come back, and that was enough.
Could it have been only in the course of two summers that I used to sit on the carpet by the massive mahogany leg of the Broadwood grand to hear my mother singing in the twilight. She had a sweet mezzo soprano voice, and a perfect ear — and she had just a few songs that she played and sang in the summer dusk, and which have always been dearer to me than any other music that was ever sung. Portrait Charmant was one — a tender little ballad which I have never seen in print, and another was “Farwell, oh, farewell to thee, Araby’s daughter”; “Flow on thou shining river” was a third. I had no need to know what the words meant — I loved to hear her sing, I loved to be with her, yet I know those gentle melodies and the sound of her low voice in the summer dusk filled me with inexpressible melancholy — the vague sadness of a child who does not know what sorrow means, and yet is sad.
Surely I must have sat by the old piano, in the old Georgian drawing-room in more than two summers — so long does that old far away time seem to have lasted as I look back, and live it over again.
Such incidents — such events — for instance standing on a chair to have a new pelisse put on — a black pelisse — of some harsh woollen substance — that may have been bombasine, lined with shining unpleasant lining — mourning for my grandmother — once Anne Babington of Limerick, handsome, well-connected, and a Protestant — and whose marriage with a certain Patrick White, a Roman Catholic, was against the will of her people, and almost ranked as an abduction in the good old Irish style.
My only memory of her is of a grave and quiet lady in a cap, sitting in an armchair by the fire, and of the old-fashioned perforated brass fender, that flashed and glittered above the hearthrug. I can remember nothing in the room that interested me — neither dog nor cat — and I think my grandmother’s existence in those days when all the active business of her life was finished must have been somewhat sad and solitary. From all my mother told me about Mrs. Patrick White when I was old enough to be keenly interested in all that concerned her childhood I fancy she was what the Scots call dour, and she was certainly somewhat stern in her dealings with her daughter Fanny. The youngest of three daughters — the most beautiful and the most gifted of the three — died in early youth, sadly and suddenly, and it may have been this loss had hardened the maternal heart, otherwise my mother’s joyous temperament and brunette prettiness might have appealed against an eighteenth century austerity. She has told me of long mornings when uninteresting lessons were followed by plain needlework as dry and severe as okum picking, and how her mother would look up from her own work to watch the pupils progress along the cruel length of a seam — and anon would observe in an awful voice “You are puckering, madam!”
My grandmother had early in her married life become a convert to Roman Catholicism; but she brought up her son and daughters in the faith of the Protestant Babingtons, and my uncle, after an inclination for the medical profession, which did not survive his first experience of the operating table, read for his degree in divinity, and finally settled down as Vicar of a parish in Lincolnshire where — in his son’s words — he vegetated till the end of a life which ought to have been of more advantage to himself and the world — for he was a ripe scholar, and had brain-power which should have won him a better place in the world. He was perhaps too much of a student, too willing to take the line of least resistance, and vegetate among Lincolnshire yokels.
I was the youngest of the family. My sister was my senior by eleven years, my brother by six, and my nursery was a quiet old room where my only companion was my coloured nurse.
She was not highly coloured — there was nothing about her to suggest tropical islands or the wild races of Africa. She was the daughter of a farmer in Norfolk, and there was a tradition that her complexion was derived from some intermixture of North American Indian blood. But seeing that her homely features had more of the casts of Uncle Tom than of Leather Stockings, my mother was inclined to believe that this was a fable, and that somewhere in Mrs. Allen’s pedigree there had come a streak of negro blood. She was always kind to me, and I was fond of her and happy with her. Indeed I believe in those first years she was second only to my mother in my affection. She was my nursery companion, and I sat on her lap in front of the high fender in the gloaming to watch the sparks die out of a bit of tinder, which sparks were supposed to represent people coming out of church. I can remember at this moment how I watched each tiny point of brightness flash and vanish, and I have now a vision of the church porch and the people coming out one by one, which I think I must have had then. I had plenty of dolls, but no small companions, nor any cat or dog to adore and torment after the childish fashion, and yet I believe I was quite satisfied with my life in the grave old nursery with two deepset windows from which I looked out upon the world of Soho, and upon the wonder of the first fog, when I thought the street was filled with milk and water. Whereby that first fog could hardly have been a London particular, but rather one of those white mists that creep out of the river, in whose neighbourhood the greater part of my life has been spent.
There was a room on the second floor in the house opposite which I could see, and which I thought absolutely beautiful. The carpet was of vivid colouring, and seemed to me to go uphill, while the end of the perspective was one of those circular mirrors which are now precious, but which then and for many years afterwards were the trade mark of furnished apartments. I believe that room was my infantile idea of Heaven, why, I cannot imagine, since it was certainly not so pretty as my mother’s drawing-room.
Perhaps the gaudy colouring, the gleaming mirror, and the fact that I had never seen a living creature in the room gave me an idea of something strange and remote, which might be like the heaven I had heard of but never visualised.
I never felt myself a lonely child, never pined for playfellows, while I had Sarah Allen in the nursery, and my mother in the drawing-room below, and while the Sunday evening dessert in the gay candle-lit room was a weekly festival.
There was a cousin who lived with us, an embryo solicitor — perhaps articled to my father. He was very kind to me, and I used to sit on his knee and be entertained with the opening and shutting of his watch, the shining golden disc that beguiles childish eyes with a first vague idea of amusement. I have seen the same performance tried upon innumerable children since those far off days when it was offered to me — and I do not know to this day whether it has ever amused any one of them or whether it amused me.
My mother had strong views about open air exercise — and a considerable portion of my life between two and four was spent in trudging by my nurse’s side about the streets of London. I fancy Mrs. Allen had that preference for streets over parks which seems common to the nurse’s mind, for although I remember being taken to that pleasant corner of St. James’s Park where there were stalls for the sale of cakes and sweetstuff — and where great placid cows stood meekly waiting to be milked — a friendly spot where I was given curds and whey that I much liked and soft sweet biscuits that I hated, because they were poisoned with the caraway seeds that pursued my childish years.
I do not remember ever frisking on the grass, either there or in any other open space. Day after day we tramped those London pavements, my nurse and I, and I never remember being tired or rebelling against the severe regimen. I think I must have loved that old London in those days of awakening intelligence, the poor old London that has vanished as completely as the London of the Plantagenets. Certainly looking back at the quiet streets I love that old London now, because it is so different from the crowded, tumultuous, noisy, and perilous London I see today, where all that it has of space and architectural splendour, all that the millions of public money have done to create the finest city in Europe cannot make up to the elderly and feeble for the quiet and safety of that shabby London where the muffin bell tinkled in the dusk at tea time, and where Punch could be heard two streets off.
Yes, there was Punch, and there were other pleasant things that beguiled the monotony of the long pavements. I remember an organ that had a row of gaily dressed figures on the top, figures that waltzed to the music underneath — an organ that I often saw in our own street; and in the evening dusk I can remember lighted windows in Leicester Square where at intervals mailed knights on mailed coursers charged across the glass. I seem to have stood waiting for that charge very often in the winter glooming. Summer memories are marked by the fruit stalls in Newport Market, a short cut from Leicester Square to Fourth Street, where I was allowed to spend pennies upon cherries tied on sticks, or white currants spread on a cabbage leaf. I remember on refusing to impart the contents of one particular cabbage leaf, being put into durance vile in the toy cupboard — one of those roomy closets only to be found in a Georgian house — as a punishment for greediness — by the brother I loved and feared. The closet was dark, but I was not afraid of darkness, and I do not think I was kept there long, or that I lost many of those currants.
Then there was Covent Garden, an enchanting place where one was shown goldfish swimming in a crystal bowl, and rabbits munching cabbage leaves behind wires — dear creatures one would have loved to take home. The very smell of the fruit and flowers in the warm damp air was worth the walk from Fourth Street. The perambulator in which the modern child rolls through parks or streets at his ease, or lies asleep while his nurse reads her novelette, just looking up now and then to jog her infant charge back to unconsciousness — was still an undeveloped shape in the brain of the beneficent inventor (there were no baby carriages, or at least only the four-wheeled chaise familiar in the comic literature of the period, which the patient breadwinner dragged to Hampstead or Battersea) the chaise was affected only by the proletariat, and was supposed to be comic, though many a kind father must have gone home with aching muscles after dragging a young family to the broad walk on Hampstead Hill.
Better even than Covent Garden, there was the Soho Bazaar, within five minutes walk of the house in Fourth Street. The Bazaar was always a treat, and Mrs. Allen seems to have taken me there rather often. It was so much nearer than St. James’s Park, and I may have been dawdling in front of the toy stalls now and then when Mamma thought I was trudging in the open air. The Bazaar never palled; it was a fairy palace of toys which one might look at but must not touch. Sixpence, spun out by my slowness in making a choice, lasted a long time, and generally ended in my buying the wrong thing. There were little baby four-post bedsteads, curtained with pink glazed calico, and with a waxen baby inside, of which the wax was of so ethereal a nature that the baby perished if one took it out of bed, crumbled to atoms in his tiny muslin shirt. I think I must have bought dozens of those pink four-posters while I lived in Fourth Street. They were irresistible— the best value to be had for sixpence — but they did not last.
I remember another purchase on my fourth birthday, when I think I had a shilling — a shilling to spend, and a little girl to tea, in the small sitting room next the nursery, and a large pot of black currant jam — a very shabby birthday. I had much better ones after. I remember going with Mrs. Allen through the grey October afternoon to the Bazaar intent on spending that shilling — and I remember the hopeless hesitation and absolute inability to choose anything nice for my twelve pennies. I do not believe there was a dressed doll under five shillings, and even her clothes would not come off, and were a fixture skewered into her chest with pins. She would have given me no pleasure.
I think I must have been hustled, or told that the little girl would be waiting for tea, or ever I bought the ridiculous wooden snake, like a string of trouser buttons which absorbed my shilling, and carried it home to tea.
I am sure it could not have amused me or the little girl for five minutes, and it was as dead and done for as wooden buttons can be by the time we had smeared our faces with the blackcurrant jam. I have no doubt there was a cake. But it was a squalid birthday — and Mamma was not there. No modern child of two would put up with such a poor birthday, much less a modern child of four.
I had no playfellows, but I was not unhappy. My sister Margaret — Maggie for short — was at this time with our paternal grandmother and aunts in Cornwall, having spent all her early years in that happy valley of St. Kew. My brother was at a Preparatory School in the Fulham Road, in a terrace of substantial unornamental houses facing the space now filled by the Consumptive Hospital. Mamma used to tell me about that preparatory school, its excellence in every detail, the kind and conscientious proprietor, who was unrivalled as a teacher of arithmetic, and in laying the foundation of a good education, and his daughter who looked after the comfort and general welfare of the pupils.
I remember being taken to the school one autumn afternoon, and though I cannot recall the meeting with my brother or anything that happened inside the house I have a feeling of the front garden and the door, and the coldish autumn evening, when my mother thinking my pelisse hardly warm enough, took me into a draper’s shop and bought me a shawl, my first shawl. Oh, the pride of it, when it was pinned across my chest and I trudged at my mother’s side!
I could not have walked from Brompton to Fourth Street, so I fancy the first prowling four-wheeler or hackney coach must have absorbed us, and that I was fast asleep in my warm shawl by the time we were at home. Anyhow, the remembrance of that evening is in my mind today — and even the feeling of the crisp autumn air — the pavement above the level of the road, the street lamps and lighted shop windows.
Was it a pelisse or a spencer that was not warm enough? I remember both those garments as monuments of torture, only to be compared with the corset of the hobble skirt period. The pelisse was worst because it had to be dragged over my head, and a good deal of hair pulling got through before it was got home. The spencer fastened at the back, and I was pinioned from behind, and I can but think the idea must have developed from the straight or punishment jacket. But on the other hand, one of the spencers, I remember, was green watered silk, and I was proud of it!
Among the events that mark the progress of my third and fourth years I remember the arrival of my sister from Cornwall, and standing on a chair to have my hair brushed and pulled a little harder than usual before being taken upstairs to the large bedroom over the nursery to see this new relation, hitherto only vaguely imagined. She had arrived in the night season and she had but just risen when I was introduced to her. I seem to remember her in her nightgown with a shawl across her shoulders and tied behind her waist — a mode of wearing a shawl (for extra warmth) which I had suffered frequently and to which I had at first objected as babyish and humiliating, till assured it was the French way, which at once made it tolerable — so early in life was I embued with the idea that French anything was superior. Maggie was kind, and I accepted her as a sister, but she was horribly grown up, fifteen at least, and I had no use for her — indeed hardly remember her existence in Fourth Street after that one morning of extra hair brushing.
One other small ridiculous event I remember in this year. For what reason I know not, unless it were that Mrs. Allen had been accorded the rare treat of a Sunday holiday, I was allowed to go out with one of the maids, and to dine with her mother. I remember an upstairs sitting room, bright with cleanliness, and with a pair of black velvet kittens on the mantelpiece, and I fancy somehow that the maid’s mamma must have resided in a mews. Had I been two or three years older I should have wanted to see the horses, but that love of animals which later became a passion, was dormant in Fourth Street; I had not even made friends with the harmless necessary cat, which I suppose must have been on the premises.
I can recall the white cloth and Sunday neatness, the maid’s mamma and two or three other people at table — but I have no distinct idea of the meal, except that it was plentiful. But on being questioned next day by Mamma as to what I had had for dinner, I burst into tears, and explained piteously “There were no potatoes!” It was not that I had suffered at that Sunday dinner from any physical want — it was the mental shock! the something strange and almost uncanny in a dinner without the accustomed vegetable, which would show that I was already the slave of habit.
I remember my first theatre, the St. James’s. I was taken there to see some performance of dogs and monkeys, with Mamma, my godfather, and Mrs. Allen. At the music of the band, and the beat of drums, and the lights and wonder of it all, my first theatre was too much for me, and I burst out crying, whereupon Mamma thought I was frightened and I was handed over to Mrs. Allen, to be taken home, ignominiously hustled out of that wonderful place to walk through the lamplit streets with my nurse, my only consolation for disappointment being a cake made in the shape of a pig with two currants for his eyes, bought at our baker’s — a pig that cost a penny instead of the lights and the music and dogs and monkeys, and all the wonder of the theatre: just because people jumped at conclusions and thought that burst of excited tears meant abject terror.
I had to live a few years longer and go into dark rooms and sit in tossing boats before grown-up people knew that I was not easily frightened.
There is another theatre that I remember — Miss Kelly’s — where I was taken to an amateur performance in which one of my father’s clerks was an actor, but of that I only remember the length and the weariness.
It was in Fourth Street, and as a very remote memory, that I recall my cousins, the Delanes, who were always spoken of with a certain awe, for my aunt’s husband, Mr. Delane, was a person of considerable importance in my dear mother’s mind, and in Sarah Allen’s also, as she had ruled the Delanes’ nursery before my mother’s marriage.
The Delanes had lived at Bracknell in those distant years, and it was at Bracknell that a neighbourly friendship with the Mr. Walter of that period resulted in William Delane becoming the business manager of The Times newspaper.
He had no association with the Press — and he had no business experience — being at that time a country gentleman in a small way, living at his ease with his wife, nee Babington, and his young family. He had suffered a considerable diminution of his income by an unlucky investment in certain mortgages — at the advice of an implicitly trusted family solicitor, and he may have been meditating upon the possibilities of a hard-working career at the bar, to which he had entered himself, before his loss.
Somehow or other in those leisurely walks between church and home, it was borne in upon Mr. Walter that this clever and agreeable neighbour was the very man he wanted in Printing House Square. The Times had suffered a reverse in the popular esteem — had, I suppose, taken the losing side — backed the wrong horse — the tide of unpopularity had risen so high that copies of the offending journal had been burnt alive in public places.
There’s need of a strong man, and of a strong man with a calm temperament, unfailing tact and delightful manners; all of which William Frederick Augustus Delane possessed in an eminent degree.
All this happened some years before my mother’s marriage. She was married from her brother-in-law’s house in 1823, and she was living with her sister in the Bracknell house as a very young girl at the time of the Walter friendship — so young that her nephews, William and John Delane, refused to call her aunt, as a dignity of which she was unworthy. She was passionately fond of them, most of all of the elder William; and in those reminiscences of her childhood which I so loved to hear she often told me how her day-dream was that the family might be reduced to poverty and that she might have the infant William to live with her in an attic, all to herself, and work for his daily bread. How she proposed to earn the bread or the rent of the attic she never told me.
It must have been twenty years later in the century when I first became aware of the Delanes, and was taken to see them in a somewhat stately house in Chatham Place, Blackfriars, a terrace of Georgian houses called after the great Commoner, and situated within a stone’s throw of Printing House Square. For W.F.A. Delane to live in Chatham Place was like a grocer living over “the shop.” How long the family had lived in that house every brick and stone whereof has long been carted away, I know not, but they had to put up with Chatham Place and its disabilities — distance from the Park and the Opera House, etc. for another decade after my first visit, while to my mind the house in Eton Place to which they removed in the early fifties was less attractive than the century old house by the river, with the engines throbbing all night in the square round the corner. I think W.F.A. Delane had done with Printing House Square and the dally Press by that time and was already Treasurer of the County Court in which official position he died without ever being able to say with Charles Lamb Opus Operatum est — ‘I have finished my course.’
I but dimly remember three of my cousins as grown up young ladies, who I think must have felt less interest in me, pinioned in a pelisse, and extinguished under a beaver bonnet, than in my nurse who had been their nurse before she took service with my mother. Dimly I remember drawing rooms larger than those in Fourth Street, and being regaled with certain choice tartlets on which a filigree of pastry veiled a substratum of red or green jam — and this kind of morning call seems to have happened often — but I was not old enough to carry away a distinct image of those handsome young ladies, my grown up cousins, who all married young, with the exception of the second daughter, who was perhaps considered the handsomest, and who announced at an early age that she would never marry without the assurance of a barouche and an opera box, and who died unmarried in a picturesque and artistic house at Ascot, of which she herself was the architect.
I have no recollection of any masculine presence in my aunt’s drawing room, since from the time I was of a reasonable understanding I heard of John Delane as the Editor of The Times, I concluded that he was already established in the editorial chair while we were living in Fourth Street — and that he already had his home apart in Sergeants Inn, while his elder brother, the beloved little William of my mother’s girlhood was established in Norfolk with his partner, Mr. Magnay, joint proprietor of the Taversham Paper Mills, which for many years supplied a considerable portion of the raw material for the Journal that had never been more popular nor more powerful than when it was in a manner run by the Delanes. My Uncle seceded a good many years afterwards on the advent of a young Mr. Walter, not being able to suffer a divided authority, and accepted an important position on the Morning Chronicle.
I have no recollection of the Delane girls in Fourth Street, but I know that they came to a friendly little dance which my mother gave there, whereafter one of the nieces discussing the party with Aunt Fanny, recited the conversational efforts of a Cornish cousin, in the pauses of a quadrille.
“I won eighteen pence at whist last night.” No reply. “I gave it to Mary to buy a doll.” I cannot remember that doll, but at least it was kind of my cousin to give me his winnings, and was the simple statement of facts really more inane than a perfunctory question about the Opera — or some recent art exhibition.
After those earliest years in which I remember only my mother and my nurse there appears in the book of memory another figure in the shape of an agreeable gentleman in spotless linen, who took snuff out of a silver box, and who was associated with brown paper bags of winter fruit, which he would seem to have carried from Covent Garden, and with Sunday morning leisure in empty offices, and Sunday evening dessert. This was Papa. The children of the lower classes had fathers and mothers, but in any house with a drawing room, and three servants, the heads of the family were Papa and Mamma.
Papa had whiskers, and was always what is called nowadays well-groomed. I think he wore a blue or perhaps bottle-green coat, with a suspicion of brass buttons, and some kind of buff waistcoat. As I was never downstairs after five o’clock I did not enjoy the privilege of seeing him in evening dress — but I know from Mama that he was proud of his small foot and arched instep, and very particular about his boots. I have even heard him called handsome — but never by Mamma who said his large brown eyes were like the eyes of oxen. She was not a student of Homer, and did not mean this for praise. I liked Papa, he was always kind, and gave me sixpence when I showed him my new frock with my first pocket. It was in the empty offices on a Sunday morning that I drew Papa for that sixpence.
I do not think he was often to be found there on a lawful day. Papa was nobody’s enemy but his own. That was what I heard about Papa when I was old enough to be told things, a good many years after the drawing room in Fourth Street and the Broadwood grand had dropped into the great gulf that swallows our past years. “Mr. Braddon was his own enemy.” Everybody liked him, so good-natured, so generous, a man who would give his last five pound note to a hard-up friend although he had to leave his clerks without wages on Saturday, and to leave his wife to tell them their employer had gone out of town and would not be home till Monday. It was not altogether a blessing for Mamma when, in those earliest years of my life, the office and the home were under the same roof; as they had been for a good many years before I was born, for the happenings in Fourth Street that Mamma related to me in the days when she told me things must have occupied a long time. Grandmamma and the Aunts had stayed from time to time in the roomy old house, and several young nieces had started from it on their voyage back to India to rejoin my Uncle, the Judge of the Sudder, and his wife — an aunt I never saw. There had even been an attempt at burglary, but that occurred after the Saint’s Day that brought me into the world, for it was the accident of Mrs. Allen, my nurse, having to walk up and down with a wailing infant, myself, and opening a shutter to let in the dawn, that sent the burglar away with his work undone and only a few gold and silver trifles from the drawing room tables, I think there must have been disadvantages always for my mother in that association of offices and home.
For my own part I liked to make incursions into Papa’s room, and creep under the knee hole desk, and play at being a bear on the sheepskin rug, and to run about in the great empty rooms where clerks were supposed to be busy, but where I remember only Mr. Freeman who was Papa’s clerk for a long time and whom I knew in the happy years afterwards.
Mr. Freeman was always kind, and would let me clamber in and out of great empty deal boxes, intended I believe for papers. There were rows of Japanned boxes in Papa’s office, with clients names upon them. Whatever happened to Papa, he had always a handsome array of those dark tortoiseshell japanned boxes, with grand Cornish names upon them, which I read and wondered about often in later years when Maggie and I used to make friendly calls upon Papa and ask him for largesse. Maggie was an inveterate asker, and having asked for money, and having been told that, however well intentioned towards his family, a man could not pick up money in the street to satisfy their cravings for gold, she would go on asking for anything she could think of, for foolscap, for blotting paper, for quill pens, for sealing wax; till Papa would ask her in return if she wanted the teeth out of his head! He was never really cross. He would sit there behind the kneehole desk, trimming his superior nails.
Papa had nice hands, and his nails were a source of amusement which never seemed to fail. He had not much conversation on these visits, and after he had asked us “How’s your mother”— he called Mamma by that vulgar name — and if we had any news from the West, he had exhausted himself. He always spoke fondly of the West, poor prodigal, meaning the old house in the valley, and the little market town on the hill where his brother lived; but I do not think he ever went there or saw Grandmamma after his self-enmity became developed in fatal ways.
People said he was clever — and if he had not been his own enemy might have done well for himself his wife and children, but he had begun to be his own enemy very early in his career, very soon after my mother had married him with the approval of the Delanes, and a settlement of three hundred a year, of which only a rent of thirty to forty pounds from a small farm in Cornwall ever materialised — the rest of the three hundred seemed to have been the dream of a sanguine mind. It is wonderful to think how Papa was able to humbug Mr. Delane, and another substantial trustee.
Certainly Papa, with good abilities, good connections, and a popular manner, might have done well. His mother bought him a partnership in a superior firm of solicitors whose name — which I have now utterly forgotten — was a name of mark in the legal profession. But after a year or two the superior firm had begged to be allowed to return Grandmamma’s capital, and to wish Papa a long farewell. Clever and agreeable as he might be in the bright years of his youth, he did not suit the superior firm, and was left with the world before him where to choose. He had chambers in Verulam Buildings in those early days, where he saw ghosts.
There are people who lift the nose at the lower branch of the law — consider a solicitor hardly worthy to be asked to a dinner party; but when I remember the homes of some solicitors I have known — their town and country houses, their yachts, their hunters, and especially one such solicitor to whose house in Essex I was taken in my girlish days, and who took me round his stables and taught me how to approach a horse in his stall, and how to caress his velvet nose with an ungloved hand; when I remember the successful solicitors I have known whose daughters rode to hounds and were presented at Court by Mamma, the whole family in a bunch, Mamma having been presented first by a dowager duchess, and invited to a state concert the week after, whose sons were allowed a thousand a year at Christchurch and were popular at the Bullingdon Club, I can but think how different life might have been for Mamma and Mamma’s children if Papa had taken root and grown and flourished in that superior firm where Grandmamma planted him in a word, if Papa had not been Papa.
Should I have been happier? I think not. The things I loved when I was young were not things that cost much money. A garden by the river, plenty of books, a seat at a London theatre. Should I have been happy among the Philistines — for must not all rich men who have to live in a groove, and earn their champagne and turtle by toil at a kneehole desk, belong in somewhere to Philistia. Yet all solicitors are not Philistines! one at least I have known who was just as fond of books as I am, and to walk round whose library was a liberal education, and I have sat beside solicitors at dinner parties whose conversation was of the most interesting and made the longest dinner seem short. No, a solicitor need not be a Philistine.
Mamma’s first home with Papa was in Alfred Place, a home that collapsed suddenly in a house-quake that swallowed the nice new furniture and all Mamma’s wedding presents, sliver. jewellery, china, everything except a set of Byron’s poems beautifully bound in white calf which I possess to this day.
How Byron survived where all else vanished I cannot imagine, unless the whole set was lent to a friend who lost the seventh volume containing the Corsair and Lara of which my early years were deprived — though I read the Bride of Abydos with Mamma and always associated Selim with my brother — being unconscious of anything unbrotherlike in the Oriental’s relations with Zuleika.
Mamma’s life after Alfred Place was acquainted with such trouble as a wife endowed by nature with a delicate and scrupulous honesty, must needs suffer when linked to a careless and happy-go-lucky gentleman who is nobody’s enemy but his own.
Glimpses there were of brightness — as for instance when Mamma and Papa, having fabricated between them an article for the sporting magazine with no higher ambition than to see it in print, were surprised by a handsome cheque, and invited to become regular contributors; or rather Papa was invited. Mamma remained unhonoured and unknown, the ghost who supplied the flowing paragraphs and lavish quotations from Byron and Moore. Those were the days when people worshipped Byron, and fondly loved Moore; the poet whose songs were sung wherever there was a voice and a piano — or even without a piano.
Given the pretty voice, true as a bird’s, and those songs were sweetest without accompaniment, by the fireside, in the twilight, or under summer skies at a picnic.
Papa and Mamma collaborated for some years. Papa hunted, and shot, and enjoyed himself immensely, and provided vivid descriptions of clinking runs or tremendous shoots, and Mamma developed his crude notes in magazine English, and all went the better in the home for this additional source of income, till there came an unlucky bill transaction in which his own enemy offended the good lady who was proprietor of the magazine, and never again appeared in the list of her contributors.
All these things and many more I heard as I grew into years of discretion, for I was my mother’s constant companion and confident, and she told me much that is not generally told to a girl before her Kenwigg’s pigtails are exchanged for a coil of plaits in a tortoiseshell comb — but she never told me anything of that side of his own enemy’s character that was unfit for young ears to hear — and there was much that I only learnt later from old letters, when that dear mother was gone out of my life. However nobly a wife may pardon sin, whatever dignified silence she may preserve, she hardly ever burns les pieces de conviction, they remain among her papers — those letters — those sordid letters which tell the humiliating story of a husband’s infidelity.
Among those letters I found ample cause for that change in all my surroundings which as I look back seems to have evoked very little wonder in my four-year old intelligence.
The drawing room and the grand piano, and even the nursery in Fourth Street disappeared. Mrs. Allen disappeared, even Sarah Allen, who might be supposed absolutely necessary to my existence, from whom I had not been parted for a night, and very seldom for a day. The kindly dark face that had looked down upon me vanished from my life all at once, and if I wept and lamented I do not remember my lamentations. What I remember most vividly is finding myself in a strange bedroom with Mamma, and Mamma’s superior friend, Mrs. Walden. The journey that brought me there is dimly remembered as the sound of trotting hoofs, and a feeling of crisp frosty air, bright and cold in the early morning, and the bright high road along which the coach was carrying us so merrily.
I think I must have slept through most of the journey, and must have been only semi-conscious of anything that happened on our arrival at Maise Hill, St. Leonards-on-Sea. But if I was asleep overnight, I was painfully wide awake next morning and many after — wide awake, prowling restlessly about that large airy room where two recumbent forms on two beds might have been hewn out of stone for any notice they took of me. It seemed that I prowled there for weary hours, bored and sick of myself to distraction, yet as the month was February the time between darkness and, say half past eight, should not have seemed an eternity. But it did; and I do not think those two inveterate sleepers can have been allowed to dream their morning dreams quite undisturbed by a crawling and clambering child.
The boredom of that weary morning and others like it is my first impression of St. Leonards-on-Sea. And I think I was always bored there — though Mama was there and I had more of her society than I had ever had in Fourth Street — for now Mrs. Allen had vanished all the duties of my toilet devolved upon Mamma who had severe views on the subject of ablutions, used a good deal of soap, and was much in advance of her age in a passion for cold water. Wherever Mamma went there was a good sized tub for a little girl — for if there was no smart japanned sponge bath available Mamma would purchase a big earthenware dairy pan, dark red and rough outside, and a shining and slippery cream colour inside, which answered just as well for a little girl’s tub.
Oh, those cruel mornings of wide-awakefulness while the two ladies lay like statues in their French bedsteads: mornings that were always getting longer. That was my first experience of the Star in lette e non dormire which has been one of the trials of my long life. The weariness of those empty hours is fresh in my memory today. I have no recollection of even one such morning in Fourth Street, though I can remember bad dreams there, and frightened awakenings, always soothed by my indulgent nurse. Looking back now, I see how sorely I missed her in that new experience of life in which boredom began.
I fancy Mrs. Walden must have taken Mamma in hand after Papa vanished from our lives — by an amicable separation. There was no divorce court open to people of small means in those days; and the best thing man and wife could do when the marriage vow had been broken, and circumstances financial and otherwise had made home life impossible, was to part company without fuss or unkindness. I know Mamma went through the rest of her years without an evil feeling about the husband she had never loved — and that in their occasional meetings they met without any spurt of anger — met one might say, as friends. And looking back now I think Mrs. Walden, who had also disburdened herself of an impossible husband, such noiseless severances being not infrequent before Sir Creswell Creswell took the troubles of married life in his care, may have been a little patronising to Mamma.
“Yes, my dear Fanny,” I can imagine her saying, “I will come to St. Leonards with you on a long visit as you kindly propose, and I will begin your dear little girl’s education. Let me see, she is four years old and doesn’t even know how to read. We will begin tomorrow morning. She has been shockingly spoilt by that black nurse. How you could ever have chosen such a person for your children I cannot understand. The fact that she was in the Delane nursery and had known you as a child, made her altogether ineligible. What authority could you exercise over such a person? Little Mary could not have been in worse hands. Four years old and not able to read.”
Little Mary’s education began on that first morning after bread and milk for breakfast. I have no recollection of breakfast in Fourth Street, or as to my liking or disliking the meal — but I know that from the first morning at St. Leonards bread and milk was my portion for a long time and that I never liked it — submitted to it rather as one of the disagreeables of that state of bondage of an obedient childhood, from which I was early emancipated by Mamma.
As I have no recollection of Mrs. Walden introducing me to the alphabet, I think I must have learnt that pleasurably from a box of illustrated letters which I dimly remember, with useful dear pretty Mamma for teacher, and the useful animals for stimulants to memory. Ape, bear, cat, etc. etc. I must certainly have got at the alphabet somehow before I saw Mrs. Walden’s severe brow with banded black hair, bent over me, and the open book in her hand and the pointing cedar pencil.
What a cruel book it was to set before a four-year old girl. Some of the most unsalable of the Psalms had been reduced into words of one syllable, and it was on one of these Psalms I began, and on these I went on as long as I enjoyed Mrs. Walden’s acquaintance. It seemed as if I should never get away from the wicked man and the green bay tree, and how he contrived to be so wicked and to undergo such a variety of punishment in one syllable is a mystery to me when I look back upon the books but Mrs. Walden kept me to it, and after the reading task came the writing with a pen which the child slave is made to hold in that irksome position in which I believe no free grown-up ever holds it. Then I began to wallow in ink, strokes and pothooks and hangers, the treadmill of infants, the long and weary climbing stairs that seem to lead nowhere.
Yes, I was bored at St. Leonards. Pretty as Maise Hill was in those days, and it is not greatly changed even now. I don’t think I loved it as well as Fourth Street, or that the stone colonnade and the barren beach were as attractive as the cows in St. James’s Park, the armed knights in Leicester Square, the fish and rabbits on the upper stages of Covent Garden, and above all the toy stalls in Soho Bazaar. And now there began for me a new trouble which overshadowed from time to time an otherwise happy childhood. I think it must have been Mrs. Walden who brought against me the accusation that I was bilious, a charge by which I frequently suffered under the insulting name of “that child” from Mamma’s officious friends. “That child ought to have salts and senna every other morning” — “that child wants a powder.” Maise Hill was poisoned for me by physic — physic for which I believe there was no more necessity than there was for the medical Insurance Act. My only recollections of being naughty are concerned with medicine. My only troublesome behaviour had to do with wine glasses and teaspoons. I was threatened, when I had become a desperate case, with condign punishment from a metal spoon with a lid, on view in the chemist’s shop — the chemist under the stone colonnade that is extant — today — though I suppose the spoon has disappeared. That spoon might have mutilated my mouth, but I should have preferred mutilation to the taste of rhubarb or Gregory’s powder.
All my sorrows on Maise Hill had to do with the chemist’s shop. I remember when my kind cousin, the embryo solicitor, was coming to see my mother I was threatened with dire effects from his wrath if I had not taken my medicine before he came — even my kind cousin Henry, on whose knee I used to sit at dessert, and whose open watch I used to finger — even he was to be avenger.
I do not know whether I had or had not swallowed that loathsome dose — medicine for children in those days was always thick and coloured reddish-brown or greenish-greys but I can recall no unkindness from Cousin Henry. All I remember of that visit is that I had new shoes, bronze shoes in which to appear before him, and that these left him cold, for when Mamma asked me if my cousin had noticed my shoes I told her dejectedly that he had not although I “spreaded them out!” I had always a great affection for new shoes without any reference to the feet that wore them. Their gloss, their colour, charmed me. I loved bronze, but I adored patent leather, that smooth satiny patent leather of expensive shoes.
After the wicked man there came a much nicer book for a little girl, a book in which another little girl went for walks with Mamma, or with a maid, and saw things, and asked questions about them, and went to shops and sometimes bought shoes and sometimes bought a cake, only a seed or a sponge cake, nothing really nice, nothing bilious. She was a good little girl, quite a model child, and never wanted to do anything or to have anything that her parents and guardians did not wish: and she lived and breathed and had her being in words of one syllable.
That book and that little girl always live in my memory with the walk from St. Leonards to Hastings — such a different walk from what it is now — though the houses on the landward side are still the same, a trifle the worse for wear but mostly the same houses — only the seaside is changed, for it was then just a barren stony beach, no smooth flagged way, no iron railings, not the faintest suggestion of a pier, just a stony beach with uninteresting flowers growing wild, lavender flowers like the poor relations of the pretty pencilled geraniums that grow in flower pots, in people’s windows — the yellow sea poppies.
I read in that book for a long time after those spring months at St. Leonards, but the flavour of St. Leonards never left it. By and by Mrs. Walden and the wicked man dropped out of my life for a long interval and Mamma was teaching me, and after that it was summer and we were in another house, more in the country but still St. Leonards, and there was a garden that I could prowl in — a garden in which I remember only potatoes — and then with a journey that I have quite forgotten we were in another house, and Sarah Allen was with us again. Mamma had rooms in Half Moon Street; and for the first and only time in my life I was living in Mayfair. Once more I patrolled the London pavements with my nurse, but not the old streets. Piccadilly was now our beat, and our park was the Green Park, and we had no cows nor curds and whey.
It was late autumn, and my most vivid memory of Piccadilly is of evening and our ascending or descending perspective of golden lamps, with occasional lighted shop windows. That Piccadilly walk was attractive, and I do not remember being tired of it, but there came a foggy evening which I rather liked because the sudden grey obscurity, which was dark yet not night, was curious. But after that evening I had a serious illness, and I do not think I ever saw Piccadilly in the lamplight again till I was much older and saw it from the window of an omnibus on my way to our suburban home.
I had a cold on my chest, which was called inflammation of the lungs, which Mrs. Allen was said to have given me, because she had taken me out in a November evening against Mamma’s orders, and I seem to have been lying in bed and rather miserable for a long time, during which I remember blisters that hurt badly, and then lying on the sofa in the drawing room and having calves foot jelly, which was not as nice as pastry-cook’s jelly, and as many grapes as ever I liked. But there were no more walks with Mrs. Allen, and she vanished when we left Mayfair.
After that trouble with my chest, the only occasion on which I ever distinguished myself by a serious illness, we were in London, in one of those streets between the Strand and the river, and there came a pleasant time when my brother and sister were at home, which must have been Christmas holidays, though I do not remember Christmas day. It was always happiness for me to have my brother, who was nearer and dearer than my sister because he was only six years older than myself, while there was eleven years between my sister — who was my mother’s eldest child, and me her youngest — and next because he was a boy and Mamma and Mrs. Allen and Papa and everybody else admired him tremendously, and I, perhaps, most of all. To be with him was my highest privilege. I was allowed to have my cot next his bed one night, and he told me a story. It was about demons in a mine, and all the strange things they did, and I was somewhat puzzled, for I thought they were diamonds — never having heard of the other creatures: but I listened respectfully till slumber overtook me. This was the last holiday in which I ever enjoyed such a privilege.
After those holidays there came another change, and we were living at Kensington within earshot of that old Kensington Church which Lady Ritchie has made so famous, in a house on the hill, in or near Church Street, and from there I went to school at Scarsdale House. I do not remember any preparations, I was not curious or excited about this important change in my surroundings, or if I was those emotions have faded from memory, as I suppose many other feelings and fancies must have been blotted out by time. I only know that when the holidays ended and my sister Maggie went back to Scarsdale House, I went with her.
Maggie had begun her education in Bodmin at what must have been a quite delightful school, since I never heard of one disagreeable incident connected with my sister’s life there, except that she had not learnt much, but that was supposed to be her own fault, and no discredit to the good ladies who were supreme there, or their subordinate mistresses.
Maggie had spent all her early years at Skisdon — the dear family home that I had not yet seen — and without being formally adopted by our grandmother, seemed to belong to the Grandmother and Aunts who had so cherished her, rather than to Mamma and Papa. Grandmamma had sent her to the nice homely school at Bodmin where our Aunts had begun their education twenty years before, and afterwards to be finished at Scarsdale House, where the Aunts had been finished — and now someone had put it into Mamma’s head to send me to be begun at the dignified and no doubt expensive seminary where my sister was being finished.
I can just remember waking in a little white-curtained bed in a room where there were other such beds, but I do not remember the weariness of the year before, with the long long interval of wide-awakedness, so I suppose I was now a better sleeper than in those long mornings at St. Leonards.
That which I remember most at Scarsdale House is the garden, where I used to make daisy chains, the fine old eighteenth century staircase, which I am told is still to be seen at the back of Pontings shop, the ballroom where I had my first dancing lesson, where there was a parrot on a perch in front of the windows, and where I seem to have first beheld Miss Pitt, the head of the establishment, a portentous person, clad in black samite, and I believe the image of Miss Pinkerton, finally the radishes, endless supplies of big red turnip radishes and the thick bread and butter, both of which I hated. I could not eat them then — least of all the radishes, and I have never eaten them since — except in Paris where they are a different shape and very expensive, and therefore nice.
I think everyone must have been kind to me at Scarsdale House, for although I have dim memories of lessons, and something rather difficult which I think must have been the multiplication table, I have no memory of anything very unpleasant in the way of learning, or of ever being made afraid.
I remember vaguely troops of almost grown-up girls, and I rather think I must have been the youngest child in that big school, and, that I did not stay there beyond the half year’s breaking-up festivities, while even during that short time I had been comforted with more than one week-end in the Kensington lodgings with Mamma.
One small event I do remember with singular distinctness. It was a little girl’s birthday — a big little girl as compared with myself but not one of the nearly grown-ups, and suddenly there was a stir in the schoolroom. Her Papa had brought her a present, and the present was taken out of its many wrappings of tissue paper, and exhibited to all the world. It was a box of beads — but such a box — an oblong box, of pink and shining satin paper with gilt edges, perhaps ten inches long, and when the lid was taken off there was a row of small oval boxes inside, pink and gold like the big one, and every one of these smaller boxes was full of beads — beads of one colour in each box. How I gazed and admired and, I fear, envied. Beads were already my passion, though I cannot remember that I had ever strung them. I can see that box to this day. There may have been six or eight of the little boxes but to me such a supply of beads seemed inexhaustible. One might make chains and rings without number — squander them — spill and lose, and still have plenty.
I do not know if that happy girl used them wisely, or became a kind of jubilee plunger in the bead line — I don’t remember ever seeing them or hearing of them after that exciting ten minutes when we all clustered round gazing and admiring. Whether she wasted and ended in bead penury, or whether she took some wonder of bead work home to Papa I know not.
I learnt my steps in the stately ballroom in the sunset of spring evenings; I went up and down the broad staircase, and grappled with the multiplication table, and by and by there was a great excitement, a fever of movement and animation in the big school which must have been the breaking up festivity.
This was neither more nor less than a fancy ball. Maggie, who had dark hazel eyes with long black lashes, and rippling black hair, was to be a gipsy, and I who had Kenwiggs plaits and a green merino frock that could be shortened by a tuck, so as to save Mamma the expense of an elaborate costume, was to be a Little Dutch Broom girl. I dare say my white cap and apron and handful of brooms figured for something in the bill — but not like the troubadours, Neapolitan peasants and flower girls.
These last with their baskets of paper flowers seemed to me the most enviable, and I have a faint, very faint vision of splendour as I look back at the stately ballroom which I believe I only saw lamp or candle lit on that one brilliant occasion — and I remember a luxury of open tarts and cheesecakes and negus or lemonade — and a sense of dissipation as if it had been midnight; so that it must have been past nine when I was withdrawn from the dazzling scene. I ran in and out of that dazzling crowd and asked the dancers to buy my brooms: and what a nuisance I must have been.
Perhaps that was my last night at Scarsdale House, for my next memory is of standing on a chair to be dressed in the early early morning, and going with Mamma and Maggie in a hackney coach to Vauxhall, and finding myself on the railway bound for Southampton, and Mamma was telling Maggie how wonderful it was that now the new railway would take us to Southampton, where we should start in the Exeter Coach, the journey to Grandmamma’s house in Cornwall could be done in two days and one night, instead of requiring two nights as well as two days. We were to sleep that night at Exeter, and at seven o’clock tomorrow we were to be at an inn on the road to Wadebrldge where Grandmamma’s carriage would be waiting to take us to Skisdon.
I had a feverish impatience to see Skisdon and Grandmamma and Aunt Mary, my spinster aunt, who lived with Grandmamma, while my Aunt Priscilla lived in Devonshire with her husband who was a clergyman. This was her second husband; her first was a soldier of whose ways and sayings Mamma had often talked to me, and of her only child, a son who was also to be a soldier. Aunt Priscilla’s first husband was of a very old Devonshire family which had been established on the soil since the time of Stephen. I seem to have heard of Stephen in this connection from the very beginning of things, before ever I had made the bachelor King’s acquaintance in my first English History — a small flat quarto — in which each of the important reigns occupied from two to three pages, while Edward the Fifth and Bloody Mary were cut off in a page and a half.
In spite of the journey being so much accelerated by those first miles by rail to Southampton, it seemed a long long way to Grandmamma’s house, and all I can remember between Vauxhall and Exeter is tramping backwards and forwards from door to door of the railway carriage and wearying of the slow march of time, however quickly the train may have been carrying us.
I suppose had I been the meanest boy I should have been on the alert and intelligent, asking innumerable questions about the engine, the wheels, the iron rails and signal boxes, and endangering my life and terrifying my mother by thrusting my head and shoulders out of the window, straining to get a sight of the locomotive. Being a girl I only fidgeted in a futile way, and yearned for the change from train to coach, which welcome transition being made I can see myself, with revived interest in life, in the act of devouring a large slice of plum cake as the coach passed under the Bar, that ancient Bar which became dear and familiar a good many years afterwards, and is still cherished in all my thoughts of the prettiest High Street I know.
Little do I remember, and I fear little did I observe of picturesque rural beauty on the long drive to Exeter save the stoppages long or brief at various inns, most of which seem to have been even more unsatisfactory than the hostelries which people who pervade England in motor cars complain of today; and certainly even worse as to fare supplied and price charged.
But these were the mere roadside houses, where nobody wanted much. Very different was it at Exeter where I see myself in a spacious parlour, where on my mother happening to remark the Turkey carpet — I diligently explored the floor in search of turkeys and was disappointed at finding no such birds as I had seen in the course of our journey alive and gobbling in roadside poultry yards. Here it was night, and we had wax candles, and a plentiful meal in the midst of which I fancy I must have fallen asleep, and so been carried up to bed, unconscious of my first night in one of England’s good old coaching inns: and have no memory of anything until I was in a coach again — and we were really approaching Cornwall.
That long August day was a day of feverish impatience. Never had I longed for anything as I longed for Grandmamma’s house. My sister had talked of it with affection — though she was curiously temperate in her account of the joys she had known there. All the servants seem to have been her bosom friends, and she spoke of them always by Christian and surname, Daniel Saul, Mary Banes, Eliza Cann — only Jane, Grandmamma’s own maid in whom I discovered afterwards the ruling but beneficent spirit in the costly Cornish home was docked of her surname — contrary to modern etiquette. Grandmamma’s maid was Jane tout court, like a French chambermaid. Everybody at Skisdon depended upon Jane. Grandmamma’s innumerable grandchildren loved her, and even visitors who were not blood relations became Jane’s friends; and when Jane died some years later, after a short illness, her death was like a family bereavement, and to my mother and sister far away in the suburbs the news came as a blow.
Daniel Saul was man servant and general factotum — and was always described by my mother as wonderful, simply perfect in dignity and polish in his high office of butler, yet condescending to tasks which few butlers would have performed, single-handed without footman or page though with various outdoor minions who did his bidding. By the woman servants he was treated with undeviating respect, and on my Aunt reproaching the cook for the needless profusion she had seen on the servants breakfast table where the four cold joints included an uncut forequarter of lamb, Mary Hind, cook, replied that Daniel Saul liked to see plenty.
Daniel was never deprived of that ocular gratification, and assuredly so good a servant was worth much cherishing. Cornish breakfasts are as profuse and various as the morning meals in Scotland, as rich in grilled trout and cold grouse, hot cakes and home made jams.
To hear of these old servants, of the five gardens, and the gardeners and boys, and women who came to weed for six pence a day and the dairy and the much more wonderful brewhouse where beer was actually made — beer which I, miserable little cockney, had supposed to come only out of public houses, had filled me with such a yearning to behold that lap of luxury which my sister had enjoyed for a good many years, that as the coach wheels rolled smoothly along the turnpike road, I absolutely hated Devonshire for being such an extensive county. A friendly fellow passenger did his best to beguile my impatience, and told me to count a hundred by the completion of which number we should most likely have crossed the borderline and entered Cornwall! and I counted and counted with growing weariness and yet I was still in Devon. It seemed to me that I counted — or waited and wearied for an interminable day, when in the first shades of evening the thrilling moment came — the horses trotted through a little splash that hardly wetted their hoofs and we were in Cornwall.
And now I was happy and alert, all eyes to see, all ears to hear, and in a fever of eagerness at sight of every dwelling — homely cottage or stately lodge gates did Grandmamma live there? Was that distant mansion the house I had heard so much about, and the answer was always “Not there, my child,” until we had travelled so far that it seemed to me there would not be enough left of Cornwall for grandmamma’s five gardens, and the meadows with such funny names where the cows lived. Surely Cornwall was being all used up under the sixteen hoofs and the four rolling wheels; and where was Grandmamma’s land, which in my dreams was so vast a territory. But when disappointed expectation had grown about unendurable, here we were at a funny little roadside Inn that smelt of pigs and stale beer, and here was grandmamma’s carriage waiting for us, with a coachman whom Mamma and Maggie greeted as a personal friend; and we left the coach to carry the friendly passenger who was fond of children, into unknown distance, while we drove quietly off through lanes and crossroads that I saw not in the gloaming to that pastoral valley which for a great many years was the central point of affection and happiness for a whole generation of Braddon children — the pale children home from India — the children from a Rectory in Thanet, and the London children, Margaret and Edward and Mary, of whom the last was I. The valley was St. Kew where there was a fine old church, and a vicarage, and only one other house inhabited by gentlefolks and that house was Skisdon.
There was nothing palatial about Skisdon. Had I been two or three years older I might have been disappointed and might have made disparaging remarks. But I suppose I had not arrived at the age when fancy paints an elaborate picture of any dwelling of which one has heard much talk, and Skisdon satisfied me — albeit the cozy parlour where we were fed and petted by Aunt Mary and Grandmamma and waited on by Daniel, was very small compared with the Queen Anne spaciousness of Scarsdale House or the good old Georgian rooms in Fourth Street.
Aunt Mary was the soul of kindness, and seemed much more like a near relation than my mother’s sister, whose manner to children was not demonstrative and whom I always heard spoken of as “Mrs. Delane.” Warmest welcome awaited us all in the pretty little sitting room, where there must have been shadowy corners in that early Victorian age, when a pair of candles was considered sufficient illumination for home life. Possibly there were more even on ordinary occasions — say, a second pair on the chimney-piece — in such an abode of luxury as Skisdon.
And now for the first time in my life I became acquainted with a meal which has become much more generally accepted than it was then — the tea-dinner, afterwards known as high tea. I hope it is not proof of a greedy disposition to remember the menu — the cold roast chickens, the tongue, and best of all the apple pasty or turnover which was an interesting novelty — and the glass bowl of Cornish clotted cream, believed by every true son and daughter of the soil to be vastly superior to the cream clotted in adjacent Devon.
It was a sumptuous meal, glorified by much old silver of Daniel’s polishing — a brace of Georgian teapots and the urn whose handles were the heads of lions with dangling rings in their ferocious mouths, a detail never forgotten, and oh, the rich variety of cakes on that tea-dinner table, cakes of many shapes and many names all made by Mary, cook, whom I came to know so well afterwards, when I could run in and out of her kitchen at will.
It was a very happy time. Everybody was kind, even Grandmamma who had spartan ideas about the education and mortification of children, and who, when my mother was taking me upstairs before luncheon to change my morning frock of starched cotton for the white muslin and sash more suitable for afternoon, would ask severely why she need change the child’s frock. It was clean and that was enough. I fear at such times Grandmamma who was within measurable distance of her ninetieth birthday may have had thoughts of how much Papa had cost her, and was inclined to think Mamma improvident.
I saw very little more of Skisdon that first night; only the comfortable square hall, of which I have an exciting recollection towards the end of our visit, when there was a flood after much rain, and Daniel rang the bell in the cupola on the roof, and I helped him — only the hall and staircase and the narrow corridor out of which Mamma’s room opened. I was to sleep with Mamma. Oh, happy child, youngest and smallest, and so tenderly cherished, always, always with her! And Maggie had a room all to herself on the other side of the corridor — and Grandmamma’s and Aunt Mary’s rooms were quite near — the latter of which I must have had the run of by special favour of Jane, since I remember opening and shutting drawers and peeping at all kind of treasures in a large sunny room with window seats and window giving on the garden. And next day there was the whole world of Skisdon to explore, the gardens, those five gardens, each of which had a name, one on the slope of the hill behind the house with a long wall against which fruit grew with a luxuriance I have seldom seen anywhere else — egg plums as big as turkey’s eggs, apricots and greengages that were riper and sweeter than the finest fruit in Regent Street, a delightful garden, and there was the perhaps genteeler garden in front of the drawing room windows all lawn and pond. I am afraid the pond has been filled up, and my young cousins were playing golf croquet on it when I last saw Skisdon. And Aunt Mary’s own flower garden, at that time the temple and the shrine of the dahlia, her especial hobby, one might almost say her passion, and beyond the dahlia garden a terra incognita of shrubbery through which meandered a trout stream, and lastly there were the two kitchen gardens spacious, and guarded by massive brick walls, and in one of them a wooden door that opened directly opposite the church gate and through which we generally went to church. I associate the church bells on summer Sunday evenings with that garden, where flowers and vegetables grew in friendly contiguity and where there are now great yellow tree lupins, that to see is to covet.
And after I had exhausted the gardens somebody showed me the stables, which were a feature and might have sufficed for a much larger house. I think this must have been Daniel, and that even from that first morning he was my guide, philosopher and friend. The stables were delightful, though my passion for horses had hardly begun. Indeed I may say that at Skisdon I first became acquainted with animals, the frightening ones like cows, the not quite understood ones, like horses, and the utterly lovely and delightful ones such as dogs and cats. Pigs I do not even remember, though vu the pride taken in the Skisdon hams there must have been many, but no doubt these porkers were at Trequite, the home farm on the top of the hill, and where I remember going only once, to see the cows milked, a most humiliating adventure.
And now I was at home at Skisdon, and knew all about it. I had had a standfast, or mid-morning snack in the kitchen — no less than my first slice of “thunder and lightning”, which in spite of its alarming name was only a slab of bread thickly covered with clotted cream and dashed with bold streaks of dark treacle, supposed to represent forked lightning. There was a touch of the Futurist in that audacious design. How many slices of thunder and lightning I ate in Grandmamma’s kitchen between meals I should be afraid to say, and yet I do not remember ever failing at a meal or ever being afflicted with a bilious headache in that land of milk and honey.
I suppose even the least greedy of grown-ups would be likely to remember something of the style and substance of his first dinner on a first visit to a country house: so I need not blush at having so vivid a remembrance of that first dinner at Skisdon — the curious fact of a soup tureen at one end of the table, and at the other end a large silver cover —with an undivulged something under it, which, when the soup plates and tureen were taken away, revealed itself as fish, a thing in which I was never interested. Then I think there came patties, crisp and light and savoury, which appeared often in the Cornish menu, and which I was not allowed to take as coming under the head of bilious things and which I naturally wished to taste.
Then came the wonder of an unaccustomed profusion in two other silver covers larger than that which had hidden a turbot, and I must needs express my surprise.
“Two meats, mamma,” I exclaimed, and wondered why everybody laughed.
My elder sister on first seeing the Skisdon dinner table had expressed herself with even greater force. “Oh, mamma, we shall never die here!” she had said.
And how well I remember the shining mahogany table, in which the silver decanter stands were reflected like moonlight in dark water — and the ample dessert which at this season was all supplied by garden and orchard.
When Grandmamma was in London lodgings (people did not call them “rooms” in those days but just vulgar lodgings, whether in Bloomsbury or Mayfair) she had grumbled sorely at having to put her hand in her pocket for fruit and vegetables, and poultry and eggs and milk and cream, all the things that seemed to cost her nothing at Skisdon.
But what are gardens and stables and fruit and flowers, when weighed against the tender family affection given so freely and so warmly to a little cockney who came to the family nest for the first time to find that love was waiting for her, and that blood is indeed thicker than water; and here for the first time I knew what it is to have an Uncle, a real Uncle, and my father’s eldest brother, himself a solicitor, the old fashioned family solicitor, good at marriage settlements and conveyancing, but a Squire to boot, with farms and tenants of his own, and above all a sportsman.
Many years after that Skisdon visit, when my Uncle John had been lying a long time under the daisies in St. Kew Churchyard, I was to feel his benign influence, for on my thanking Douglas Cook of the Saturday Review, for the indulgence with which my two first novels had been treated by a journal which every tyro dreaded, he told me that my Uncle had been a friend he had greatly esteemed. “My Uncle William Delane?” I said, supposing that it must have been someone connected with letters. No, it was my Uncle John Braddon, whom the famous Editor, an enthusiastic angler, had visited at his comfortable bachelor quarters at Camelford, where he had enjoyed his favourite sport with a congenial spirit. It was as a sequence of these annual visits to Camelford that Mr. Cook built for himself a large stone house at Trevenna.
Uncle John was my grandmother’s most beloved and most devoted son from whom she had never been separated farther than by the space of a ten mile ride. He spent all his Sundays at Skisdon while I was there, and he must have given himself an early ride, as I think he always went to the morning service with us, and sat in the square pew, where the sermon seemed so long and the Psalms that were sung by the village choir were so uninteresting. It was not till five or six years later that the blessed change from Tate and Brady to Hymns Ancient and Modern, gave a new charm to the Church service,
I have no special memory of those summer Sundays at Skisdon. I know there was never a Sunday drive, and the grown-ups just sauntered in the gardens in the afternoon and looked at Aunt Mary’s dahlias. We sat longer than usual over dessert, and in the summer twilight, and then Uncle John rode away to Camelford before it was dark, and it was my privilege to kneel at his feet in the hall and button his gaiters, a difficult task for small fingers; and I fancy he allowed me to perform it solely to give me the pleasant sense of being useful and important, for assuredly Daniel or one of the grooms would have been quicker and cleverer at the job. He was a most delightful Uncle, handsome, manly, well dressed, all that a rural squire should be, and when he came to London he always put up at the Gloucester Coffee House, which must have been the correct thing to do, for Squire Haseldean stayed in that house.
There was only one drawback to my bliss at Skisdon — it was solitary. All the grandchildren who came to that blessed abode suffered for the lack of companions. They came there one at a time, and they had no playfellows. My mother has told me how my Cousin Annie used to look in with pale distressful face at the window of the pretty parlour where the grown-ups were gossiping and laughing over their Berlin woolwork, only to be motioned away with a “Go, and play, child.” How could that pale Anglo-Indian child play without a playfellow? How could I? I had to hang upon the footsteps of the gardeners, and to make a garden for myself with cut flowers stuck in the soft mould, and obstinately refusing to take root. I had to roam from garden to garden, and perhaps some youthful gardener on a ladder, busy with nails and hammer, may have handed me down more plums than were good for me in that garden of abundance on the slope of the hill, for I remember eating as many of those great golden egg plums as I wanted.
I had been a solitary child in Fourth Street, and I do not think I suffered from Mariana’s weariness in those lovely gardens, but I fear I must have been a nuisance, especially when I made inroads into the kitchen and tried to dress up the cat in a maid’s apron. I was in that kitchen pretty often for a snack of thunder and lightning, but I do not remember the tyranny of physic at Skisdon, so I could not have been offensively bilious. Yet never in my life did I do so many things to provoke the Nemesis of childhood. There were sweet rosy apples that were given to me without measure, of which I ate many and stored more, meaning to take them home to London with me, but my hidden treasure in some cupboard in Mamma’s or Maggie’s bedroom was too soon discovered, just as Polonius would have been eventually, and every apple was confiscated.
I do not believe I was ever tired of life at Skisdon, for if there was no child to play with there were always grown ups to watch.
I can recall the thrilling hour, immediately after breakfast, when brewing actually began in one of the long row of offices, dairy, larder, brewhouse, etc. hewn out of the rocky hill behind grandmamma’s house. I was prepared to watch till malt and hops became beer, but I found the process intolerably slow, and had soon to abandon the brewhouse in disgust at the dullness of brewing. Later in the day when I was given some of the new beer in a tea cup, just to taste, I found it extremely nasty, and interested myself no more in its manufacture.
Brewing was a disappointment, and I thought no more of it: but I had another disappointment soon afterwards, which was also a disgrace and which I have never forgotten.
Skisdon was more or less pervaded by cows, one never quite knew where one would meet them, for there were meadows adjoining the gardens and I believe in that Pond garden the cows must have been allowed to graze on the lawn, or at least so near and with so little division as park railings that one hardly saw. The only creatures of this family that I had ever known before were the cows in St. James’s Park, who gave curds and whey, and who were always standing still, and no more alarming than the women at the stalls where Mrs. Allen bought the soft caraway biscuits that I never liked.
At Skisdon I was just a shade nervous when prowling cows came near, though assured by my friends the gardeners that they were always well-intentioned; and soon there had kindled in my breast an ardent desire to see the cows milked. I was too young in the St. James’s Park days to concern myself about the process, or perhaps I might have seen it then, but I had a keen curiosity about everything at Skisdon, and I pleaded with dairy maid and dairy man to be allowed this treat.
Nothing feasible was ever denied to me in that abode of kindness, so one fine evening, an hour or so before my bedtime, when the sky was full of yellow light, I went up the hill with a friendly cowman to see him milk his cows.
The hill was steep, and it was a longish walk through an upland meadow, a walk that would have seemed longer if we had gone by the high road outside Grandmamma’s white gates: but pleased expectancy made me unconscious of fatigue, and I trotted briskly beside my friend Bill, and then we came to a muddy corner that smelt distinctly of cows, and Bill opened a cowhouse door and there rose a roar such as I had never heard before, and I turned in a panic of abject fear and fled precipitately down the hill path, and hardly drew breath till I was safe within four walls, and there were Momma and Aunt Mary asking me if I had seen the cows. Yes, I had seen then, and I had heard them, for a few moments only, and I never wished to see or hear them again. I had exposed myself as a coward of the whitest feather and I was for ever degraded in the eyes of all grown-ups. I ought to have sobbed myself to sleep that night, but I don’t think I did. Mamma’s kisses and one of Mary’s rock cakes with a mugfull of the delicious milk those ferocious animals provided for cowardly children no doubt consoled me.
There was much talk of mesmerism in the early forties, talk which had even drifted down into pastoral St. Kew where I remember an intelligent visitor discussing the subject with Aunt Mary, and by way of trying it on the dog, I was experimented upon, and I can distinctly recall standing up in front of this gentleman, and having his waving hands making passes before my eyes and over my head, and his pointing fingers shooting nothing at me in a mysterious way, and rather liking it because it was mysterious, but if that intelligent visitor hoped to get the smallest demonstration out of my wooden head, he might as well have gone to work upon the nearest Druidic stone in a Cornish field. Then as ever after I was impervious to hypnotic influence, and I was put on one side with gentleness that no doubt disguised disgust. Whether the experiment shook Aunt Mary’s dawning belief in mesmerism, or whether she merely thought that little Mary was stupid, I know not.
Aunt Mary was cultured, or what would be called so nowadays. She loved books, not the mere circulating library novel, not only Mr. Gore, and G.P.K. James, but real books.
She was an ardent Shakespearian, and she worshipped Byron, knew the Giaour by heart, from start to finish. It was her favourite and my mother’s favourite among all those wonderful story poems which were a new thing in literature, new even after Scott’s Lady of the Lake and Marmlon.
Aunt Mary could recite the Falstaff scenes in Henry the Fourth. I do not mean the formal reciter’s fashion, standing up and staring fiercely at the company, but in scraps and amidst the talk by the fireside when Shakespeare was being discussed. She kept herself well abreast of modern literature till her death, and always welcomed a new writer who was worth reading; and I remember no letter of hers that did not contain some criticism of new books read and thought about. She was a wit also and an accomplished mimic, and her little stories of the country people round about were delightful. I remember them as repeated by my mother and sister, rather than as heard in my seventh year.
Cultured as she was, Aunt Mary was not above little touches of superstition. If she had not seen human ghosts at Skisdon, there were at least stories of a strange cat that had been seen in grandmamma’s bedroom, and how Jane had brought the house cat in her apron to prove that the other cat must have been as unearthly as the Poodle in Faust. This cat story I have heard told with the gravest countenance by Mamma who would not have acknowledged herself superstitious.
Grandmamma believed in witches, and paid one of those ladies to charm my sister’s eyes, affected with some passing weakness. As the eyes recovered soon after, I suppose the local witch had the credit of the cure.
Grandmamma had an open hand — and Skisdon being the only house, except the Vicarage, where the poor could come for aid and comfort, they came there pretty often and were not backward in asking. They would bring a jug or a bottle, for brandy or wine, as freely as with money in their hands to the Shades — a pint jug for brandy and a quart jug for wine — but no doubt Daniel’s discretion had a proper measure for alcohol. A stream of benevolence flowed from the cellar and the larder, and grandmamma with her purse in her pocket was the easy prey of any tramp or sham sailor who was lucky enough to meet her on the road, and I believe she rarely went beyond her garden without being fleeced. At the time of my visit she was really old, and I do not think she ever went out alone, nor do I remember her in the big square pew at church, which would indicate that her active life was quite over.
She used to come down to that pretty little parlour which was at once breakfast and morning room late in the morning, and a basin of broth was brought her as soon as she was established in her armchair. She used to pour milk into her broth, which struck me as an extraordinary innovation, but I sometimes kept grandmamma company at this and took a cup of mutton broth with some milk in it more out of curiosity than from appetite. This must have happened on rainy mornings, for in fine weather I was always out of doors, in the garden or, when the garden palled, in the stable yard, watching a carriage being cleaned, or sitting in it during the process. Though I seem to have been always in the garden, there were long drives when I was allowed my place with the grown-ups: very long drives when they paid visits to distant friends, and when I went with them, I hope in my best clothes, for some of these friends were quite grand people of old, old Cornish families, and even ancient baronets. We went to those distant houses, at an hour that a modern young lady would call weird, and looking back I can see a butler bringing in a big mahogany tray — such as was called after him — shrouded in dazzling white damask, a tray that the butler and his minion unfolded upon a table, and upon the outspread damask cloth he would lay out a sumptuous meal of chicken and tongue and cakes and tartlets; I think in all those Cornish larders there must have been always cold chickens and uncut ox tongues or a ham ready for the casual visitor.
And there were the long drives to see old churches or to picturesque spots, drives that did not culminate in a butler’s tray, or demand a best frock, and for these merely rustic drives grandmamma’s second best carriage was employed — a carriage in which I sat beside the coachman, and watched every flourish of the horse’s tail, being much more interested in that animal than the landscape.
What manner of carriage this useful vehicle may have been I know not, but it accommodated Mamma and Maggie and Aunt Mary while I had my perch beside the driver, where all my remarks about the horse were audible, and sometimes provoked laughter.
As I call up the shape of that carriage from the abyss of time long past it seems to me to have resembled a mail phaeton. It was always spoken of as the four wheeler, albeit the superior carriage, a kind of victoria, with a hood, an apron and a glass to let down in bad weather, was also on four wheels. The four wheeler had at some recent period got into trouble, and had required serious and costly repairs: but the amount of the coachbuilder’s bill had been kept from grandmamma lest it should prey upon the mind of old age; and she used to expatiate to my mother on the wonderful restoration of her damaged carriage, and how it had only cost five pounds. Perhaps within measurable distance of a ninetieth birthday such little deceptions may be wise, but few of us relish the idea of a fool’s paradise.
Never was there such a delightful visit for a little girl as that first visit of mine to the West country. Before the joys of Skisdon could even begin to grow stale, behold we were to leave Grandmamma and Aunt Mary, and go to my other Cornish Aunt in Devonshire, a visit within a visit.
Again there was to be the thrilling passage from shire to shire, across some trickle of running water. We were to go all the way in grandmamma’s best carriage, so I suppose the village of Lammerton, near Taverstock, was not very far from St. Kew — since the distance was managed, so far as I can remember without any putting up on the way. But there was, happily for me, a heavy shower in the course of our journey, whereby my curiosity was gratified by the glass front being lowered, an operation which I keenly desired to see.
Camplehay, my Aunt Cowland’s house, was not as important as Skisdon: there were not five gardens but only a flower garden and lawn in front of the house, and a vegetable garden in the background that made a very faint impression upon my mind. There was a drawing room which as I try to remember it seems to have had a more suburban and distinctly modern aspect than grandmamma’s drawing room where all the furniture was old and had histories: and there was a dining room which I recall as much larger, with ample windows looking on the garden, and I fancy our mornings were spent mostly in this room.
But the people at Camplehay, the people! How dear they were! My aunt’s first husband, Captain Kelly, had belonged to the most important family in the neighbourhood — not counting, of course, the ducal house at Endsleigh.
The Kellys had lived at Kelly when Stephen was King, and the parish church was in their Park — two facts that were planted in my mind very early by my mother who loved to talk of Captain Kelly, and how he fought in the Peninsula and came home with a lame leg to enjoy an easy-going life at Camplehay, where he was beloved by his wife and all her family, and a popular personality in that small world in which he spent the rest of his life. He was indeed so beloved by his wife’s kindred that when my aunt took a second husband, after a quite proper interval, she had for some time to suffer from the disapproval of her family, and to see her husband slighted as if he were altogether inferior and unworthy.
The family had recovered its senses before I saw Camplehay, and my Uncle Cowland, who was vicar of the parish, was fully appreciated — and I know that for me he was the kindest and most delightful of friends. He was a man of singular refinement, an exemplar of the apostolic virtues, faith, hope, and charity, and assuredly with him charity was the greatest of the three.
And then there were my Aunt’s two step-daughters, the younger of whom became at once very dear. If I ever knew her age, I have quite forgotten it, but I know she was nearer me in years than the grown-ups, and that she at once became the companion for whom I had, unconsciously, been yearning. Like my sister she was called Maggie — so I suppose in those days all Margarets were Maggie for short, and that neither the pretty “Madge” nor the quaint “Peggy” had become fashionable. Maggie Cowland made me even happier than I had been at Skisdon, and the days were never too long for me, although the grown-ups used to go on distant expeditions from which I was excluded. I think they went to Plymouth one day, which was something tremendous, and a good deal talked about. I should have liked to see Plymouth, without the faintest idea of its attractions, only moved by the much talk: but I was happy at home with Maggie so that even Mamma’s absence made no difference.
In the evenings there was another joy in the society of a perfectly delightful curate, who was fond of children, and upon whose knee I used to sit at the drawing room table — the early Victorian circular table, known as loo — while he drew pictures for me, houses, gardens, ships in full sail, cows, horses, dogs or cats, in short anything I demanded of him. His name was Fowler, and I admired him beyond words. He wanted to give me his silver pencil case, the pencil with which he had filled that inexhaustible picture gallery, but this Mamma would not allow. I do not think I minded her refusal. A silver pencil was nothing to me — I only wanted to see Mr. Fowler draw. He must have used up a good deal of my aunt’s letter paper in that hour between dinner and my bedtime. Being as it were an only child I was a chartered libertine, and I believe was allowed to have late dinner at Camplehay as at Skisdon. Late dinner was much earlier in those days, so this indulgence was not so dreadful as it sounds.
I admired Mr. Fowler beyond measure, and for the next ten years of my life would have loved to meet him again. But I never saw him after we left Camplehay — and whether he was ever made a Bishop as he ought to have been I know not.
If he had drawn horses and ships with all canvas spread for a Prime Minister’s seven-year-old daughter as he did for me, he might have ended his days at Lambeth. The little girl’s Mamma would have insisted upon his being made Primate at the first opportunity.
I do not know how long we stayed with Aunt Cowland. She was Aunt Cowland, not Aunt Sarah; but never in young or older days did I hear her spoken of like my Aunt Delane as Mrs. Cowland. She was the very soul of kindness, and gave sister-in-law and nieces affection and hospitality without stint; and we must have been a long time in Devonshire, for we had left the last ripe richness of summer in Cornwall, and when we went back we found autumn and late dinners by candlelight. But however long we had stayed at Camplehay I left in deep distress, almost broken-hearted at having to say goodbye to Maggie Cowland. It was a long goodbye, for though I often heard of her from her much older brother in London, and of her elder sister who married soon after this happy time, I never saw her again — for the west country was much farther from London in the days of my youth than it is in this age of express trains that do not draw breath between Waterloo and Exeter, and fly over Brunel’s viaducts, disregarding every station between Exeter and Plymouth.
Life seemed quite different at Skisdon when we went back, for my Uncle William was there with his two daughters, Maria and Annie (almost always spoken of in their dual number — not twins, but never separated till the younger married).
My Anglo-Indian Uncle’s visit made a difference, and there was more company, and people came from afar to make his acquaintance. A good many of the friends of his boyhood must have vanished away, for he lived over thirty years in Bengal, never coming nearer home than for a short holiday at the Cape, and had come back now in perfect health, to enjoy his well earned rest and handsome pension as Judge of the High Court, which must have been more than doubled, I fancy, by his private fortune — or he could scarcely have afforded to be as generous to his kith and kin, and live in as liberal a manner as he did till the end of his life.
He had established his eldest son in a commercial house before he came home, a house which prospered abundantly for many years, indeed until the whole aspect of commerce in Calcutta changed.
And now I knew what it was to have another Uncle as kind as Uncle John and Uncle Cowland, and one of whose innumerably favours was to put me on a proper footing with grandmamma’s cows. No doubt he had been told, as a laughable incident, of my panic flight from the cowhouse, where I was to have seen the evening milking. I knew he took me by the hand one sunny morning, and told me what a foolish thing it was to be afraid of these gentle creatures, and he led me through the little iron gate that opened from the lawn to the meadow, and in a manner introduced me to the bovine race. He led me very near them: he showed me that there was nothing further from their thoughts than to lower their horns and hurl an inoffensive little girl into the air. I think he even induced me to pat one of those sleek red Devonians before we left the meadow, and I know from that day I could meet a cow without fears even when ages and ages after that morning with Uncle William in a summer walk from Leamington across the fields to Guy’s Cliff, with mother, coming suddenly upon a vast company of cows in one of the fields we had to cross, she could hardly bring herself to pursue our walk to the picturesque water mill, where there was a rustic bench waiting for us. It was summer and we had no offending scarlet in our garments, and we got safely through the populous pasture and read our books in comfort to the sound of rushing water.
I must have been treated with peculiar indulgence, as I seem to remember late dinner as a general thing while Uncle William and Maria and Annie were at Skisdon. Their visit brought no restrictions for me. There were only more people to be kind to me. I liked those candlelight dinners, and I liked the wintry desserts, in which if there was less fruit, there were more things of a sugary nature — preserved ginger which burnt my mouth, and preserved cucumber which I thought delicious.
I have never seen preserved cucumber, in long slices, darkly green, since that time, and though I tried experiments at home with Mamma’s cook-general in my early years, they never came to good, the cucumber was too soft, or too hard, and was pallid and yellow. Instead of that rich dark green that Mary Cook knew how to bring out of her preserving pan, and which looked so pretty in the sparkling diamond cut glass dish.
Only once when there was a real party do I remumber being shut out of the dining room, and even then I was pampered with dinner on a tray in the drawing room while the company were making a tremendous noise with talk and laughter and jingle of glass and dash of crockery next door. Some kindly maid ministered to me, and I know I took the opportunity to ask for one of those savoury patties which had been denied to me as unwholesome! and I was punished as I deserved, for the patty whatever its other constituents, had cayenne pepper in it, and for me was a failure. But en revanche I had my run of the Skisdon creams that night, Italian cream which was white, and raspberry cream which was a lovely pink, and my queen of creams; and how much trifle, and how much jelly I may have eaten in that privileged dinner, I am afraid to think, but I have no recollection of a bilious attack next day — and I know I have had a racking headache and a metallic taste in my mouth for a very inferior excess.
Grandmamma seemed to have inherited her ideas about the child species, ideas which she derived from a Spartan mother under whose iron rule she had suffered acutely, but whose severities she seemed to remember with a grisly relish. She would tell her pampered grandchildren how her mother would arouse her expectation by the promise of a treat, and would bid her go and be dressed in her best clothes, and how, on coming back to that Spartan parent, with a face that was shining with yellow soap and glad anticipation, she found no appearance of a carriage at the hall door, and Mamma sitting by the fireside.
“Go upstairs and take your bonnet off, my dear. You are not going anywhere today. Don’t pout. Disappointments are angels in disguise.”
Such pleasing traits of motherhood would Grandmamma relate with real enjoyments but what she had thought of them eighty years before we never knew.
Happily for me, with all her inclination to curtail the joys of childhood for childhood’s ultimate advantage grandmamma was not one of those terrible old persons who delight in inflicting nauseous medicine upon any young creature that comes under their control. She would object to my wearing too smart a frock, but I do not think she ever made me show her my tongue, nor did she demand even so much as brimstone and treacle as a morning penance. She would not let me talk too much, but she allowed me to eat what I liked, leaving control in that matter to mamma.
My cousins, Maria and Annie, were the first young ladies with whom I had an intimate acquaintance, and I naturally admired them as the ideal grown-up girl. They may have been in no way superior to Harriet Cowland, at Camplehay, but the fact that there were two of them dressed exactly alike, and with a scrupulous propriety peculiar to themselves, made a great impression, and Maria and Annie became for my mind the model young lady. They were still in mourning for their mother whom I had never seen, but who had been well known to Mamma during her visits to England, perhaps in company with one or other of the numerous children who were born in India and had to be potted out at home. They had each been solitary visitors at Skisdon, putting pale faces against the window panes to peer at heartless grown-ups, when gardens and even gardeners had become wearisome.
I admired their black dresses, and the large collars and deep cuffs of some fine white material too delicate for crape, too opaque for gauze, and for which I can find no name. Collars were large in the forties and an important item in a real lady’s toilette. What Duchesses and smart women paid for them I dare not imagine, but for ordinary grown-ups a pound or thirty shillings was a moderate price for an embroidered muslin collar, exquisitely embroidered, but with embroidery that had the defects of its qualities, being so thick and heavy that it soon began to wear out the delicate muslin foundation, whence arose the art of “transferring” a profitable industry for capable hands.
Too soon came the day of departure, and I hope I was disconsolate at leaving Grandmamma and Aunt Mary: but the mind of the average child is so capricious and so eager for change that I know not whether I felt grief or whether the prospect of another coach journey and a night in the Inn at Exeter weighed against my sorrow at leaving all those dear people. How could I know that I should never see Grandmamma again, and that in the far-off day when I was to revisit Skisdon, which for a few years was to be my own property, those dear Uncles and several of the Cornish cousins would have gone beyond these voices, and my husband and I were to be entertained by hospitable tenants who told us that the house was haunted, and who wanted much in the way of repairs. To think that that dear place was mine and that I had no use for it and was glad to part with it when my cousin, the East Indian merchant, and head of the family, wanted it for his son’s marriage settlement. I thank God that a Braddon still owns the dear old place and that the gardens are cherished and kept in all their old beauty, though flowers which our aestheticism holds far more lovely than dahlias are growing in Aunt Mary’s dahlia garden.
The last day of our visit was made memorable to me by a shower of quite unexpected tips — my first acquaintance with an avuncular custom which became afterwards pleasantly familiar. Seeing me at last with more of the baser metal than I could comfortably carry, Uncle William asked me if I would not like to change it all for gold, and on my jumping at the offer, gave me my first half-sovereign, and then asked “Isn’t that very little in exchange for all those shillings” — and lest I should have the same idea, which I had not, he gave me back a few of the smaller coins — and that is the last I remember of Uncle William at Skisdon. Happily I was to see him in London very soon after, and at intervals for a good many years of my life, and every time I saw him it meant a treat and a tip.
There seems to have been no events on our homeward journey after we left Camelford where we were regaled by Uncle John with a breakfast, wherefore I conclude we had been driven to that place in the four-wheeler, and that it was there we were to take our seats in the coach.
I remember running all over Uncle John’s house and garden after that abundant meal — and no doubt I had done justice to the generous fare for which the bachelor establishment was noted.
I find nothing on the tablet of my memory, till we were established in a pretty little inconvenient house in the Vale of Health at Hampstead. Everybody knows the Vale of Health, and how Shelley or Keats or both, once lived there, and how it was near there that Leigh Hunt held Keats’s hand in friendship, as they parted company, and went away murmuring mournfully “there is death in that hand.”
We were in the Vale of Health, where that cluster of pretty little houses belonged to Mr. Greene, a gentleman whose family were before long to become my mother’s cherished friends, and almost as near and dear to me in all the years of childhood as my kith and kin. It was one of those accidental friendships come upon in the chances of daily life, that are sometimes a stronger bond than an acquaintance led up to solemnly by letters of introduction, from people one knows to people one ought to know.
My mother had taken one of Mr. Greene’s houses furnished, just to give her time to look about her before she settled herself in a house of her own. Mamma always wanted a longish time for choosing a permanent abode. She had a passion for looking at houses; even when she did not want one, and when she did how doubly interesting the pursuit. There were houses and gardens that we looked at ever so many times in the days of my childhood which we sometimes made, as it were, our own with tips to caretakers — gardens which I roamed in at my own sweet will — and about these empty mansions and weed grown pleasances I built castles in the air, dreaming of the life we should lead when we came to live in them.
Those mansions were mostly in a hopeless condition, and would have needed big money to make them habitable, and the caretakers had lived in them so long that they had given up all ideas of tenants and were grateful to anyone who would bring a little human life into the desolate gardens, and drop a shilling into an expectant palm when they went away.
He were at Hampstead, and I had a governess, and it was winter, quite winter, with white frosty mornings, and Maggie and I and the governess walked on the Heath before breakfast, which was one of Mamma’s counsels of perfection. It was very cold on those white mornings, and we were sustained by little brown ginger cakes, made by Mary of Skisdon, and of which we seem to have brought a store home with us. These little cakes, and a freak in natural history which marked that winter on the Heath, have remained in my memory. A plague of frogs had come upon the Heath, and little brown frogs in multitudes covered every hillock and rustic path. Where they came from, or why they came, I don’t think anybody knew, but I know I liked then, and no doubt wanted to take them home and cherish them, and I know when they disappeared as mysteriously as they had come, which they did soon after that first white morning, I found the hillocks and sandy hollows less interesting without them.
I never saw anything so curious as that shower of frogs till more than half a century later when, after sleeping with wide open windows in my top floor bedroom on the sea front at Ramsgate, I awoke to find dressing table, chimney piece and even fender and fire irons thickly sprinkled with ladybirds, an unusual phenomenon in that dear old watering place, which only lasted for a few hours, just long enough to provide a paragraph for the local newspaper.
My governess, Miss Parrot, was one of my dear mother’s new departures. Perhaps Grandmamma had impressed upon her that at six years old a little girl ought to know something more than how to read, which I knew pretty well thinks to “the wicked man and the green bay tree” and that much nicer fat square book about the little girl who went for walks with an amiable grown-up, position undefined — the little girl like me who went sometimes to buy new shoes and to have them fitted on by an agreeable shoemaker — conversing in words of one syllable, sometimes to buy a cake for the nursery tea, and who asked intelligent questions and received monosyllable and easily understood replies, and absorbed a vast amount of general knowledge without stumbling over one break-neck word. Perhaps Aunt Mary, who was so keen upon cultivating her own bright mind, and had Italian lessons from Signor Doea when she came to London for shopping or a little gaiety, thought that her small namesake ought to be moving on, and Mamma, so influenced and told by my sister Margaret of the virtues of Miss Parrot, one of the minor English mistresses at Scarsdale House, who was aweary of the monotonous grind of a third and fourth class, of the monotonous life of a boarding school, and accepted Mamma’s offer of an engagement to chaperon Maggie and begin my education.
Miss Parrot, comfortably married to a widower with a grown up daughter in a cathedral city, came to see me, oh, so long afterwards, and I know I was glad to see her and corresponded with her, off and on, until her death, till her life of quiet usefulness ended peacefully in the same cathedral city, and I could not have been too grateful to her for that first year or so of my education, for I cannot remember one unkind word from her, and I am sure she took great pains with me.
We seated ourselves at a Pembroke table in the pretty little parlour after breakfast with an unfailing regularity, and Miss Parrot had books and pen and ink all ready for me.
I wrote a good deal in copy books, in the large round hand which my mother insisted upon as the foundation of good penmanship! and I shed a good deal of ink over those innocent pages — but no tears. Our reading was, I think, confined to four square books, of the same shape and also, price a shilling, quite nice books, which I never disliked, but about which my memory has grown cloudy now, though I possessed the dear old books not many years ago, and know not why I do not possess them now. The one I remember best was an English History, with a portrait of each monarch at the beginning of the reign — and I can see Henry the First with a kind of drapery about the size of a Bandanna handkerchief under his crown, as I write these lines. I was very much interested in our Kings and Queens, for there was no dry-as-dust information about their parliaments, not too much about their wars. Nor was the pathetic story of Charles the First encumbered with a dry-as-dust account of those unconstitutional acts, and deviations from exact truth, which conduced to his unhappy fate. Nor did wearisome details of conspiracies, nipped in the bud, Petition of Right or Great Remonstrance encumber the pathetic story, or weaken my interest in the lovely captive at Fotheringay. I tasted English history first in a concentrated form, and it was full of personalities who appeal at once to my heart or to my organ of wonder. The little Princes in the Tower, Mary Stuart, and her luckless grandson, that shocking creature Mary Tudor, and even Guy Faux, whose effigy I had seen in my early London walks. They were all full of interest in that delightful book, and I was surprised to find a few years later that they could be occasionally dull in Dinnock’s fuller records.
One of the other books was about common things, the business of every day life, metals and glass, but even these had a kind of interest, and I was glad to know how my silk frocks provided for me by worms and mulberry trees, and much more about brewing than I could learn in that disappointing experience of grandmamma’s brewhouse, Geography on the other hand left me cold, and in the study of grammar by line and rule I was always hopeless: but I don’t think Miss Parrot tortured me with that occult science, nor did she make me learn by rote except little poems in a book which every child loves, albeit the delightful lady who wrote the verses and who had a genius for understanding the child-mind is very severe on naughty children.
In fine I think that in my education Miss Parrot must have taken the line of least resistance, since I can remember no dislike of my lessons so long as they are confined to books.
But there was another branch of education that I found distasteful in the extreme — and that was plain needlework. Miss Parrot was much too conscientious to omit that necessary element in a little girl’s training, and when our books and pen work were put away, there came the work basket and endless strips of cambric which had to be neatly hemmed with a small needle and fine cotton, and a severe regularity in the stitches, and were I conclude to be made into the cambric frilling which in those simple Victorian years was considered a sufficient trimming for feminine under linen.
How I hated those endless seeming strips of cambric! How I boggled over the narrow hems and wounded myself with the needle, digging the point into my finger as often as into the cambric! What an amount of dirt I contrived to transfer from my fingers to the fabric, although I had touched nothing dirtier than my books since my hands had been washed. And how badly my thimble fitted me, and what hangnails made my fingers a burden. My mother at the same tender age had been put to work upon a shirt, and had been reproved for “puckering”. The long straight strips did not lay themselves open to being puckered. They could only be cobbled and soiled. I thought hemming the most odious branch of the needlewoman’s industry; and to intensify my hatred of those cambric frills, Miss Parrot made extra hemming her only form of punishment for anything I had done amiss in my book work. An additional length of that dreary muslin filled me with despair, but I am glad to remember that I never rebelled — and toiled through the allotted length,
I know I must have been fond of Miss Parrot, as I ought to have been, for she never scolded me, and she always treated me as a reasonable being, and to her I owe something that I am glad to look back upon with affection and gratitude, my first intimate acquaintance with the Gospel.
I had prayed at my mother’s knee from the first faint dawn of consciousness, and I had been taken to church at a very early age — too early I think, for of that first bleak church in Soho I remember nothing but the hardness of the cushionless seats, and my fear of the Beadle.
It had been impressed upon me by Mrs. Allen that if I was naughty, the Beadle would come and take me away; and this being taken away conveyed an idea of penance. To what dark abode of punishment he would convey me my mind held no distinct image — but that I should be speedily restored to parents and home did not enter into my notion of the Beadle-nature.
I had been taken to the dear old church at St. Kew, and had so conducted myself that the Beadle was not even mentioned; but I had not derived any more benefit from the service than David Copperfield at Blunderstone.
To Miss Parrot’s conversation and my assiduous reading of the Gospel with her, I must ascribe my earliest knowledge of the Divine life and the Divine teaching.
I dare say Miss Parrot was low church — almost everybody was in those days, except a sprinkling of superior minds, belonging to people who were spoken of as Puseyites, and regarded as harmless eccentrics for whose ideas there was no accounting.
Miss Parrot gave me my first idea of religion, and there were no fire and brimstone in her teaching, no such tremendous pictures of lost souls in hell as gave my mother dreams of horror in a school where everybody meant to be kind. The times had changed, and though one learnt Dr. Watts’ milder hymns, one did not know that poet in his Genevan severity.
Miss Parrot gave me her favourite chapters in the Gospel of St. John, and looking back, it seems to me that it was in St. John’s Gospel that all her teaching was contained. She told me that the fourteenth chapter of St. John was the most beautiful chapter in the New Testament, and even in those childish days I think I felt the music of those Divine words, as I have never ceased to feel it, ‘Let not your heart be troubled’ — across the long years of strenuous work and perhaps too eager a desire for success; the thrill is in the Master’s words of comfort and hope as when I first knew them.
Miss Parrot made the story of our Lord’s life and death very real to me, and nothing I have ever read or heard in the pulpit since that time has heightened the lights or deepened the shadows of that story as I knew it when I was six years old. It may have been simply a case of “suggestion”, and that my governess put all she thought and felt about the Divine History into my mind: I think that story of our Lord’s life and death appeals with a peculiar power to the child’s imagination and to that organ of wonder which is strongest in children; and still more to the tender heart and quick sympathies of childhood.
I brooded on the image of the Redeemer, and on the premise that He would come back to earth, and my almost passionate desire was that He would come now, now in this day in which I lived, that we should see Him as in His earthly pilgrimage healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, moving about among us a radiant and splendid form of Divinity in human shape.
It was my first hero-worship: but I said no word of this dream to my governess — for I was always silent about things that interested me profoundly — silent even with my mother.
I have many pleasant things to remember at Hampstead. To begin with there was the Heath, which I had every day in fine weather, and I do not remember bad weather in that spring and summer. The Heath was my playground. There were very few holiday folks coming to Hampstead in those days, and still fewer who came down to the Vale of Health. Health for those Londoners was to be found on the hill, and upon the breezy walk from Jack Straw’s Castle to the fir wood, behind which that more retiring hostelry, The Spaniards, in a manner hid itself: and for amusement for such strangers there was the pond where toy boats could always sail and dogs could always swim. There was nothing in our quiet valley to attract the stranger, whereby I was allowed to dig in the sandy hollows within sight of home, and to play at shop, with a pair of scales, and grey or brown sand to represent black tea and green tea, of which I had heard much talk — because Uncle William drank undisguised green tea, to the wonder of his friends.
I was able to play alone in the Vale of Health, better than I had played at Skisdon with all the assistance of gardens and ripe plums. The scales, and a spade, and the sand, were such good materials: and I dare say my playtime was of the shortest, for my lessons, and frill-hemming must have nearly filled the morning — while at Skisdon there were no lessons and the solitary child had to get through a long morning before the welcome diversion of luncheon.
Among the pleasant memories of the Vale of Health there is a very happy afternoon when our landlord’s daughters the Miss Greens came to tea. Anybody coming to tea would have been a treat and looked on almost as a party, for the gaieties of Skisdon were far away in the dimness of last year, but the Miss Greens and the varieties of cakes and sweet biscuits on the tea table had all the elements of a treat. It was the first time I saw these ladies who were to be my life-long friends, and from whom I was to learn much.
They had been educated upon peculiar lines by a somewhat eccentric father, who had given his four daughters a tutor instead of a governess, a tutor, I believe, of no mean powers, and it may be said that they had enjoyed exceptional advantages in a period when there was no Harley Street, no Girton, or Newnhan, no South Kensington or Guildhall for art and music — nothing but a Scarsdale House for school, or a Miss Parrot at home.
Much of real culture, no doubt, that learned gentleman had imparted to his pupils, who were all of exceptional intelligence, but although he had not produced that unpleasant type of woman known as strong minded, he had imbued one or two of them with democratic opinions and a dislike of the privileged classes, from the Queen downwards. All that was generous and tender in their nature had been enlisted in the cause of the nameless poor against the titled rich, and that warmth of heart gave a bitterness of speech in argument which I remember a few years later — when I was old enough to listen to grown-up conversations.
But the Miss Greens at that tea party, coaxing a little girl to eat more than was good for her, listening to childish prattle, were all sweetness. Ellen the youngest of the sisters seemed sweetest of all to the little girl, for it is true that a child always takes as by instinct to the youngest person in company. Could there have been anywhere, in the world more delightful people than the Miss Greens then? — or, indeed, through all the changes and chances of this life ever afterwards in different degrees. Ellen to the last was a creature of exceeding gentleness and self-abnegation, fated to be cheated and imposed upon, but also to be loved, dying in a foreign land among strangers who cherished her to the end of her lonely life — when sister and niece were dead and she was stranded in her old age upon that lovely shore of the Maritime Alps.
They were all kind, they were all dear, and I remember no bilious penance after the tea party, though I had to own that I had had ‘one of everything’, when Ellen invited me to try another piece of cake.
Another treat which was quite divine, was an afternoon in a hay field, where it was rapture to bury myself alive in the hillocks of new mown grass — an afternoon steeped in joy and sunshine.
I don’t remember that I had any child to play with, I can recall no one but Miss Parrot and Maggie: but the haycocks and the wild flowers were enough. I fear I must have done some damage to the farmer’s hay in that relentless clambering and tossing and tumbling in which my exuberant joy demonstrated itself; but who he was or how we came to have this license in his hayfield I never knew. I had never seen a hayfield till that warm June, for all grass had been cut and all stacks had been built and thatched before I saw Skisdon, and the pastures populous with cows.
Then for another treat there was a visit to London where my dear old Godfather, of whom I shall have more to say later, entertained my mother and me at Grange’s in Piccadilly.
Of what else happened to us in London that summer day I have no recollection. Grange’s strawberry ices obliterated the rest. Alas, for those vanished Victorian days! The march of progress has swept away the Piccadilly I knew when I was a child, and Grange and his ices and strawberries and cream — delightful shop — has gone the way of all bricks and mortar in an age when progress means perpetual change. In the new London of hotels and restaurants, there is no room for a quiet shop, where people could meet their friends, and eat ices of every kind in perfection; and where for two shillings Grange gave his patrons a soup plate filled with the finest strawberries in Covent Garden, a jug of cream, and pound cake à discretion. There is no such summer feast to be had in London now for two shillings. If there is something low and grovelling in thus remembering the charm of Grange’s old-fashioned shop, so sober and tranquil as compared with the crowded tea rooms of today, my excuse must be that the strawberry ice I ate there was the first I had ever tasted, and had all the charm of novelty. The fashion of the glass that held it, cup-shaped and of a liberal depth, thick and semi-opaque, frosted with the intense cold of its contents, the pyramidal form of that creamy-pinkness which was set before me on the marble table — all conducing to coolness on that old-fashioned summer day — were things to be remembered. There had been no ices at Skisdon: creams and jellies, trifles and junkets had been there in abundance, but this last particular grace of the party dinner was not attainable there. People had to be satisfied with cream and junket.
The kindest and most indulgent of parents will sometimes jump to conclusions to the disadvantage of a child. I was hustled out of the St. James’s Theatre, because the tears of startled emotion were ascribed to terror, and a sudden faintness in church on Sunday, which I feel sure must have been due to the heat, was set down to the Saturday feast at Grange’s, and my first ice was to be my last.
If I had been ill in the omnibus coming home, Grange might have been blamed, but that I should have to be taken out of an ill-ventilated church on Sunday ought not to have been debited against that public benefactor.
Other treats there were in the course of that happy year in the Vale of Health, one which remained long in my memory. For many and many a year driving from Richmond to London I used to look with affection at a large red brick house at Hammersmith — a house of the later Hanoverian period. It was a square substantial house without pediment or any architectural dignity, but eminently respectable, and it stood at a respectable distance from the high road. For years I watched its progress towards decay, and wondered why it should remain untenanted, when for anyone who liked an old well-built house with unassuming aspect and spacious rooms better than the jumble of Flemish and early English styles dear to the young architect, or the bay windows, plate glass, and “streaky bacon” affected by the speculating builder who is his own architect. It might have made such a comfortable abode — with a garden large enough to be distinctly precious within five miles of Hyde Park Corner. No one wanted to live in that good old house, or to gather gooseberries and currants in the garden — and it grew sadder of aspect year after year — till looking for it one day I found that it “was not” and that on its site and on other spaces a mighty fabric was rising of such proportions and solidity and medieval aspect as to suggest an English Bastille: although it is only one of the Rowton Houses which I think must be amongst the most beneficent inventions of modem philanthropy.
It was to that fine old red-brick house that I went with Miss Parrot one afternoon in the full blaze of summer. It was a far cry from the Vale of Health to Hammersmith, and must have required two omnibus journeys — yet of those journeys I have only the faintest recollection — while the garden behind the Georgian house lives in my memory a bright and happy picture in all its plenitude of flowers and fruit, yea, actually fruit, which I had not seen in a garden since last year at Skisdon, fruit which I picked and ate in the company of a girl and boy of about my own age — both very agreeable, and with whom I was at once on familiar terms. We seem to have spent a long afternoon among the gooseberry and currant bushes, and I suppose we must have played at games of some kind, but memory only holds a vision of sunshine and bright colour, narrow paths between flower beds and fruit trees, a pink flush over everything from the wealth of roses — cabbage roses, I fancy — the glory of an old fashioned garden. I do not remember the room where we had tea, or the cakes or the jam with which we were no doubt regaled; I do not remember the grown-ups who must have received us and by whom Miss Parrot must have been entertained while I was at play. I remember nothing but the garden and the two children, and the joy of it all for a little girl who had no play-fellows.
Then there was another treat, but less exquisite, remembered only because to be taken on any kind of visit always counted as a treat in my childish experience. Novelty, a strange house, different cups and saucers and teapot, perhaps some kind of cake that was new — all went to make a treat — and then I think the long omnibus drive to London must have been pleasurable, for I know that a little later in my life the very smell of the straw on the floor of an omnibus was agreeable from its suggestion of what modern servants call an ‘outing’.
Miss Parrot had a friend at the Hummums, in Covent Garden: it might be a visitor there, but the vague memory inclines me to suppose it was rather someone who lived there, someone in authority, a manageress for instance or the landlord’s wife. I hope it was not beneath her dignity or mine to be entertained by such a person. I know I enjoyed the visit, and I have a faint memory of being taken about and shown things; but not Parson Ford’s ghost, the one interesting feature of that old Hummums for any member of the Psychical Society, I seem to remember rooms and corridors dimly seen in a wintry twilight, which would have suited Mr. Ford, whose ghostly appearances to a waiter and the strange story following thereon may be read in Boswell’s Johnson.
The Hummums had begun life as a Turkish Bath — early in the eighteenth century, and was so called from the Arabic word Hammam, but was now a hotel — the hotel where Pip slept in a time of peril to his benefactor Magwick. I suppose the hotel has vanished, and even Evanses, that other famous institution which I remember in my later years as a place where my friends and I were hospitably entertained with supper and especial baked potatoes in a private box, where one could hear sweet music and look down upon the supper eaters below. I believe that to see that arena and those supper-eaters upon the night after the Oxford and Cambridge boat race was a sight to be remembered ever after as one of the things worth living for.
The sands of our Hampstead life were running through the glass, but before we left that pretty valley there came a bigger treat than any of those recorded above.
Uncle William and his daughters were in London on one of their annual visits, and Mamma and Maggie and I were to spend the day with them — an invitation never forgotten however brief their London holiday — so once more I rode in the useful omnibus which carried us to the West End, and lo, we were walking in Pall Mall with Maria and Annie, and my uncle was taking us all to an exhibition which he had fixed upon as the best kind of entertainment for all of us, and assuredly the choice was a good one.
Somewhere among the grave old houses near Marlborough House where the Queen Dowager Adelaide was then living, we found ourselves in a large room where on a table that seemed of tremendous length, but was low enough to be well within the vision of a little girl, there was a model of the Church of St. Peters at Rome, a model so elaborate, so complete in every detail of form and colour, that to have seen it was to know that mighty church by heart, so that in going to Rome fifty years afterwards there could be nothing left to astonish the eyes that had looked at that model, and the ears that had listened to the courteous gentleman who explained and pointed out all the wonders of the tremendous building. How it came that we could see the interior of the Church and the outside, with the colossal dome, and perhaps even the fountains and the colonnades and the obelisk, I know not, but I am sure that miracle was achieved, for vaguely pictured in my memory across the mists of time I see the gold and colour of that inner magnificence, the high altar and that seated figure of St. Peter with his sacred foot worn away by the lips of the faithful. How much I saw standing on tip toe, clinging to the edge of that vast table, or how much belongs to the vision of half a century later I know not, but I know that from the day I saw the model in Pall Mall nobody could tell me anything surprising about St. Peter’s, not even Augustus Hare in his delightful book.
After we left the exhibition we strolled towards Regent Street, and Uncle William said that the next thing he had to do was to buy Mary a doll, and what a thrill of rapture ran through me at that magic word, for already the passionate love of the waxen race had taken hold of me. Even beads were of small account when a doll was possible. Brief bliss: Cousin Maria, who was quite as kind as Uncle William, but whose kindness was tempered with just a shade too much common sense, murmured in her father’s ear, “Don’t you think Aunt Fanny might prefer something useful?” I heard her say those words. Oh, how I hated common sense and usefulness that afternoon in Pall Mall, Besides the present was to be for me, not for Mamma. But at those words my doll vanished into the potentialities that are never to be facts, and presently we were in a furrier’s shop at the bottom of Regent Street and a fur victorine was being tried upon my indifferent shoulders.
It was quite a nice victorine, lined with brown satin, and was of a smooth shiny fur the colour of a dark bay horse, and it was always called sable; but I can but think that victorine and many others of the shining dark brown may have come from some noble upstanding sixteen hands carriage horse pole-axed untimely after some disastrous performance. Perhaps the dear creature was “a bit above himself” and brought his doom upon himself, running away with his brougham and smashing into a shop window or against area railings.
Anyhow, there was the useful fur, and I was proud of it and ceased to regret the wax doll that had never been born: yet I knew that Uncle William would have bought a handsome doll with waxen arms and legs and eyes that could open and shut. Whether we all dined with Uncle William or whether we went back to the Vale of Health after the furriers’ shop memory tells me nothing. I only know that I wore the brown boa for many years, and did not lose it, which is the only wonderful point in its history.
I may add that my Cousin Maria was always benevolent, loving and serving all her kindred, and fondly loved by them, the most devoted of sisters, the kindest of aunts. She never married, giving to her younger sister all the care that she might have given to a husband and children. She lived till her ninetieth year, and I think that in all the earlier years of her life in England she regretted the life in India and the gaieties of Government House. All Uncle William’s daughters had tasted the joys of Indian life under the best possible conditions, had danced at Government House, and known all the nice people in Calcutta. Mary, the eldest, had married a soldier, and was the mother of a family before I knew her, but Maria and Annie had come back to Skisdon as grown-ups, single and heart free.
And now Mamma was really busy, looking for a moderately rented house, in which she might settle, and where there would be room for a piano, but never, alas, for the Broadwood grand by whose massive mahogany legs I used to sit in the twilight, hearing her sing “Portrait charmant, portrait de mon ami—e—”
How many houses Mamma looked at while on that quest I have no idea. I never heard her complain of the work, and as I learnt in due time that she had a passion for looking at houses — a not uncommon idiosyncrasy in the feminine mind — I have no doubt that she looked at a good many and was difficult to please and capricious, finding almost the exact thing on Monday, and seeing something infinitely superior on Tuesday. She had gone through many phases of liking and doubting, I dare say, before, when passing a modest terrace of sober unpretending homes on her way to Chiswick Mall, she was attracted by an open street door, through which and through other open doors she had a vision of blue rippling water that sparkled in the afternoon sun. The house that belonged to the door was to let, and that vision of running water made it worth looking at. No sooner said than done, Mamma looked at the house, interviewed the landlord, who was a doctor, and owned other houses on the terrace, and lived in one of them, which answered well for their merits from a medical point of view. The rent was moderate, about half what would be asked for so convenient and pretty a house nowadays, and Mamma made up her mind. I think my sister must have been her companion in this house chase, for Maggie was now eighteen and enjoyed all the privileges of a grown-up. I do not remember hearing anything about the house or the furniture that was being bought for it — but I can imagine now that Mamma and Maggie had a high time hunting brokers shops in quest of bargains, for next to looking at houses, Mamma, who had a fine taste in old china, old Sheffield plate, and old chairs and tables, loved groping about in broker’s shops and ferreting out the inconsidered relics of good old houses that had long been empty, the jetsam and flotsam from lives that had long been finished.
It was winter and our year as Mr. Greene’s tenants was soon to close, and I was in the Vale of Health going on with my education and hemming muslin frills, with my kind governess, who was to leave us when we went to Loutherbourg Terraces that is not its real name, but the painter had lived there, and the Terrace was worthy of his name. There would be no space for dear Miss Parrot in the new home, for there must be a room for my brother Edward, Mamma’s only and adored son, in his holidays. He had been spending his holidays with Papa, who also adored him, and he oscillated between his parents until he went to India, but spending the greater part of his holiday time with Mamma. Papa lived in London, and there was the advantage of the theatres, which were the delight of my brother, and to which he went very often with Papa’s confidential clerk, Mr. Froman, who afterwards told Mamma how in the upper boxes at the Adelphi one evening, on enquiring what Master Edward was doing with a small black object in his waistcoat, my brother explained that it was only his kitten. Certainly the child is father of the man, for I have seen my brother at sixty stoop down at an area gate on the Paragon at Ramsgate to caress a strange cat.
I do not remember the details of our removal from Hampstead Heath to the banks of the Thames, nor do I remember my parting with my companion of a year, which certainly ought not have been, as my reading lessons had been, ‘without tears’. I ought to have been sorrowful enough for tears when that kind friend said goodbye. But somehow the Vale of Health went out of my life in a flash, and I was running about the new house, and in the small garden and through the little iron gate and out on the terrace, to gaze with rapture on the adorable river, in my earliest childhood I had a passion for pond or stream, from the day I was taken to Hampstead as a treat, long before we lived there, in the dim distance of my third or fourth year, when, as Mamma used to relate, I wanted to walk into the water. And now to live beside the river was ecstasy. It was winter, and the wealth of roses and syringa of the summer, and the lilacs and laburnums of spring were things of the future — but even in winter, that long gravel walk above the river, seemed the most delightful place for children to run about upon, with a hoop for preference, a nice large wooden hoop, like an upstanding horse, that flew at the touch of the hoop stick, and made one think it was alive, and ready to run away with one.
The house pleased us all, Mamma, Maggie and me, and Edward just as much when he came for Christmas. There were three nice old fashioned deep set windows in the dining room, one of which was really a half glass door, like the garden door in the lobby at Skisdon, but here the garden door opened on a flight of steps, for the dining room, though nominally on the ground floor, was considerably above the garden. Happily the domestic servant of those early Victorian days had not found out that she could not live in a basement, and was quite contented with her kitchen if there were plenty of light and air, and enough of the garden on the level with the upper sashes of her windows. The drawing room, and Mamma’s bedroom, which was also mine, like the dining room, commanded the river, and had each its three old Georgian sash windows: but, alas, no window seats, that distinctive grace of a Georgian house. How I should have loved window seats!
How familiar that drawing room became during the five years that we lived in it — the three windows never heavily curtained, for Mamma loved light and air better than picturesque draperies; white muslin curtains at most screened us from the south, and the room I remember on summer days was full of sunshine. Its contents are as fresh in my mind as when I looked at them that winter afternoon for the first time — the capacious sofa, long and broad and substantial, which became a noble East Indiaman when Charley and Polly and I were playing at a sea voyage, after our cozy tea with Mamma: the rosewood circular table of the nature called ‘loo’, and at that time de rigueur in a drawing room, and the pretty Italian desk of rosewood inlaid with ivory, which is in my drawing room now, Mamma’s desk, loved by her as by me, though I do not think she wrote many of her letters on it, or that it was ever quite as convenient for that purpose as a table — the old French armchairs with white enamelled, oval backs and touches of pink, and roses at the top of the oval frame, chairs such as Madame de Sevigne might have sat in — those dear chairs were covered with apple green damask, not to be called easy chairs but so comfortable — and all the pretty ornaments — the Dresden lady at her harpsichord, the Dresden gentleman whose occupation I forget, the old Dresden jug with a tiger on one side and a lion on the other, just a plain white porcelain jug with a pointed spout, and those two animals for sole decoration. I believe it had once been a chocolate jug, for some petite maitresse who gave herself airs in a boudoir in the Faubourg St. Germain, but it had drifted to a brokers shop in Newport Market, where Mamma bought it for eighteen pence, and cherished it ever after, as I have done to this day; and there were bits of old French china, cups and saucers and sugar basins with covers all white and gold, and a few other trifles all of which were dear to me.
When the piano came it was a hireling, and changed its shape occasionally, for it was a long time before Mamma had a piano of her own, after the Broadwood Grand vanished with the house in Fourth Street — and when that piano was bought it was only an unpretending cottage, by Stodhardt, and punished for years with Les Hirondelles, and Les Cloches du Monastère, and Schuloff’s Carnival de Venise, and with much other cruel treatment, all of which it survived to be punished afterwards by children and grandchildren. That was the drawing room as I remember it from the beginning to the end of our life in the old house on the terrace by the river. The dining room was simply furnished with an oval table, an unpretending dinner wagon — on the lower shelves there used to be books, and a set of old mahogany chairs with horsehair seats, and richly curved backs. If they were actual Chippendale, they might have lived to be worth a good many more pounds than the shillings Mamma paid for them: nothing else that I remember particularly, except a dumb waiter, with which I used to amuse myself sometimes laying out my little bits of toy furniture upon the three shelves and treating it as a doll’s house. This room was morning room for Mamma and me, and I suppose for Maggie, though I do not remember her often there of a morning.
The rooms that did not command the river seemed of no account, and I have few memories connected with the small sitting room on the ground floor, though the bedroom above it, the spare room for our staying company, and my brother’s room in the holidays, presents vivid memories,
And now come two little friendly ghosts out of the long ago, Charley and Polly, important factors in my life on the terrace, my first real playfellows. I wish I could remember how our acquaintance began for I think the preliminaries must have been comic. Whether in my earlier wanderings on the terrace; while all things were unfamiliar, I came unawares upon the inhabitants of the Cayne nursery, the head nurse, Susan, who was lame, and whom I always thought of as elderly, the nursemaid who was young and lively, the two little girls, Charlotte — always called Charley and Mary, alias Polly, the two boys their junior, Dick who was vivacious and mischievous — and Jimmie who was dull and fat, with no marked inclination for anything except eating, both too young to be of any use as playfellows, and a round fat baby who, of course, was a negligible quantity — though the all important personage in the mind of Nurse Susan, and oh, what a different time a nurse with a year-old baby had when Queen Victoria was young, to the nurse under Queen Alexandra. No perambulator in which the little darling could slumber peacefully through the morning hours, while nurse sat by and read her penny novelette. What luck for a child who had never had a playfellow, except for one summer afternoon in the garden belonging to Miss Parrot’s friends, to discover two little girls who were eager to adopt her as their companion, and to submit themselves to her rule as their superior, by that tremendous fact of seniority — I was older than Charley by two years, and Polly was younger than Charley by one year — which seems, considering that I was not eight, to place her in a vanishing perspective, and reduce her almost to a “little one”, a useless and incapable species from my point of view. But I never considered Polly in that humiliating light. The little ones only began with Jimmy, the stupid and greedy. Polly was very young but a pukka playfellow. They were nice looking children, almost pretty — Charley thin and sharp-featured, Polly inclining to plumpness and dimples. Whatever Mr. and Mrs. Cayne may have thought of the new people next door, their daughters considered me an acquisition, and they were at the little garden gate next morning before we had finished breakfast, shouting ‘Mary Braddon, Mary Braddon’ with untiring repetition, in their shrill young voices, till I could run out and join them. This ear-piercing invocation was repeated every morning during those early days on the Terrace, for I was just then at a lose end as to lessons, my dear Miss Parrot being gone, and Mamma too busy to pick up the thread where my governess dropped it, so as I was free as air, free as Charley and Polly whose education did not begin till some time later, and even then with no very severe discipline.
What our games were in that winter season, I know not but as winters were cold when Queen Victoria was young, I conclude that we kept ourselves warm by racing up and down the terrace with our hoops, and that the delightful pretending games, the dinner parties, the long sea voyages, the sick dolls, must have been reserved for spring days and warm sunshine, and for that ripening friendship when the Cayne nursery and the Cayne dining room were as familiar to me as my own home, and when Charley and Polly were very often with Mamma and me.
Mrs. Cayne was amiable in all the relations of life, and I look back upon her kindness to a little neighbour with an aching regret at the thought that I can never see her again, never tell her that I was grateful and fond of her. Most vividly I remember how proud I felt sitting by her side in the candlelight when my playfellows had been sent to bed, and she would keep me in honour of my superior years to share her light supper, after looking at fashion plates in old magazines, which she produced for my amusement, and seemed to enjoy as much as I did. I have those pictures in my mind’s eye as I write, and I know the fashions at which we laughed most were so like the fashions of today that their exact reproduction on the modern figure would give no reason for laughter.
Charley and Polly’s grandpapa, whom I never saw or heard of as being on the Terrace, was Dr. Cayne, a person of importance at Doctors Commons, where our neighbour, Mr. Cayne, also held some official status, and whither in summer and fine weather he used to convey himself in his skiff, for Mr. Cayne was before all things an oarsman, and his boats were his chief occupation and delight. Whether he was clever, or excelled in any other art than rowing, I cannot say, but I think the consensus of opinion on the Terrace made light of his mental power. He used to come home late for dinner when wind and water were adverse, and I have seen Mrs. Cayne waiting for him and looking down the river with patient eyes as late as seven o’clock on a summer evening, and seven was a very late hour in those days — a dinner party hour — there were even people who dined at eight when they gave a party. But it was winter, and as yet I only knew Mrs. Cayne as my playfellow’s Mamma, and I had never sat in Mr. Cayne’s boat, and had tea in Mrs. Cayne’s kitchen, where Mary, the cook, was allowed to entertain us sometimes before a more stately form of juvenile party had become established. Looking back I do not know whether the kitchen tea was not even better than the real party tea in the dining room where one generally spilt something on one’s best frock, before going upstairs to dance the first set in the drawing room, where one was painfully conscious of the stain in setting to partners. A cold December night, and a roaring fire at which Eliza the nursemaid toasted muffins, or added to the stack of thick buttered toast that fizzled in the hot glow.
There was nothing genteel about fat Mary’s teas, no pretty tiny kickshaws, but the very smell of that buttered toast frizzling in the fierce red light of a generous open grate, in days when the kitchener was not, would revive the appetite of a nevrose, and Mary’s Yorkshire ‘fat rascals’ thick little pastry cakes, stuffed with currants and candied peel, hot and buttered, smothered with powdered sugar, were something to be remembered for a life-time, fat Mary was a Yorkshire woman, and had the secret of many cakes, and Mrs. Cayne was also a native of that vast and comfortable shire.
Mr. Cayne had a certain prestige on the Terrace as a boating man, for it seems to me looking back, that nothing gave such dignity to the Terrace people as to possess boat or boats, and to have, as it were, a stake in the river.
Opposite Mr. Cayne’s garden gate there was another little iron gate opening on to the landing at the top of Mr. Cayne’s stairs. Some people might call those stairs a ladder, and they could be drawn up at night to secure the Terrace by invasion from muddy boys — a class of reprobates always so denominated. And Mr. Cayne had also made for himself a Causeway by which he could go to his boat dry shod at low tide, and he had a large raft always moored near the Causeway, on which his boat reposed, so it will be seen that he was a person of importance, though hardly equal to Mr. Callingford at Number One and Major Campion at number 50, each of whom had a yacht — a yacht that was moored in the offing, and which gave dignity to the Terrace as a whole.
We had not been very long in the new home when Christmas Eve brought my first thrilling experience of a hamper from Skisdon, Such a Christmas hamper came to us every year while Grandmamma lived, and it seems to me that there were many Christmas Eves made rapturous by the expectancy and realisation of that noble present — yet there could not have been more than four such evenings, as Grandmamma died before we left the Terrace, and there were changes at Skisdon after her death, and no more hampers.
From the first lighting of candles till my bedtime our minds were fixed upon the hamper, and our ear listening for the carrier’s peremptory knock. Perhaps I was the only person who concentrated every thought upon the good things from Skisdon, and I suppose Mamma and Maggie gave their thoughts some distraction and their fingers some employment in the way of books and work, but even they were agitated by doubts and fears, as the time wore on and the hands upon the clock had passed the hour when the hamper ought to have arrived. For my brother and me occupation of any kind was out of the question. We were waiting for the hamper. It came, when our spirits were sinking, and when hope deferred was changing to despair, it came and all was bustle and excitement. It was a very large hamper, and the edge of the lid scraped my chin as I stood against it. Nothing was too good for it, and it was unpacked in the dining room and tables were pushed into corners to give ample space for the operation. Cordage was unlaced with feverish haste, straw flung about recklessly till the dining room looked first like a stable and afterwards like a farmyard. There was a turkey and there were chickens and ducks, and in the interior of these birds there were new laid eggs which had to be extracted gingerly, and the straw was full of apples that rolled about the room while the major operation of unpacking went on, to be collected by Edward and me, afterwards. And there was always ham, one of Grandmamma’s hams, cured in the Skisdon kitchen, which Mamma declared to be superior to the best York that was ever smoked, and there were at least two cakes, those large oblong cakes, not rich cakes that would have to be kept for company but cut-and-come-again dough cakes —with plenty of plums and currants, and they were yellow and tasted of saffron. There are people who have no Cornish blood in their veins and who do not like saffron in a cake, but to me the yellow tint and the saffron flavour made those cakes like a page out of my happy life at Skisdon, and in my later years the mere appearance of such a cake can conjure up the vision of Rough Tor and long drives over the Cornish mountains and wind-blown moors and scratch luncheons at homely inns: and last treasure in the hamper — there was always a tin of clotted cream, the real Cornish cream — which every Tre Pol and Pen knows to be superior to Devonshire.
Life seemed a little flat when the big basket was empty, and the pleased and astonished cook-general had carried all the good things down to the larder, and the straw had been swept up and taken away. The dining room was tidy; and the evening’s excitement was over. We had stirred the pudding before the hamper came, and there was no excuse for asking to sit up any longer.
The Christmas days of my childhood were very quiet. The only relations we had within visiting distance were the Delanes in Chatham Place, and they had too large a circle in the Christmas of family affection, the Christmas which Charles Dickens was soon to bring into fashion with that little book which gave a new meaning to the twenty-fifth of December.
Our Christmas Day was a home feast, and I knew I never felt that there was anything wanting, though there were neither crackers nor company. There was the pudding, and I wore my best frock, and either on Christmas eve or Christmas night there was Snap-Dragon, an amusement that never failed to amuse, personally conducted by my brother, but which would have been flavourless without that exuberant spirit. Do any children snatch raisins from a dish of flaming spirit in this superior age, I wonder? I think not. Snap-Dragon would be too cheap an amusement for the twentieth century child. A conjuror or a magic lantern of the most complex and costly order is the very least that could be offered for a Christmas eve party — 4 to 9 — and then the result may be boredom, and base ingratitude — little boys and little girls alike pronouncing the whole show “rotten”. But for me the big dish of blue flame in the darkened room, the fearsome joy of snatching scorched raisins out of the flames, and Momma and Edward enjoying the fun, with faces that looked strange in the blue light, was a delight that came each year with undiminished pleasure.
The extra Church going seemed hardly fair when Christmas day and Sunday were too near each other, but even Church on Christmas day lost something of its dryness, for if there was not so much as a sprig of holly to relieve the drabness of St. Peters, or to flash against the warm tones of the font at Chiswick, there was at least the joy of the Christmas hymn, which spared us one number of Tate and Brady.
My best frock, late dinner, Edward, and the pudding were enough to make a festival. The pudding was an event, for Mamma always made it, and her feelings while it was being taken out of the copper and dished by the perhaps incompetent cook were like the feelings of Mrs. Cratchit.
The pudding was not always a success, because however faultless the compound that we had all stirred in the big yellow basin, the ultimate issue depended upon the boiling — and the perfect pudding was not to be counted upon every year. It might be feeble and sprawl over the dish, or it might be firm yet break, and appear in halves, or even the flavour might not satisfy Mamma, too sweet or not sweet enough, too much British brandy, or too much noyau, with the faint suggestion of prussic acid — something wrong according, to Mamma who was hypercritical about her own work. But in whatever shape the Christmas pudding appeared, floppy or split asunder, for me and I think for Edward, though he was six years older, that pudding was the summum bonum — and we ate it to the last valencia raisin, the last morsel of candied peel, in hot frizzling slabs powdered with sugar-snow, or best of all, cold for lunch. It left nothing to be desired. Charley and Polly were invited to partake of it, when their Christmas pudding was finished, and they always approved! Jimmy was not invited, for he would have precipitated the end of our Christmas fare, though I know what Mamma would have said to him after his second helping, as she used to say to a wee little boy, our landlady’s son at our Kensington lodgings, with whom and his sister I used to play at church on the staircase — “You won’t take any more cherry pie, will you, Teddy?”, and that little boy always answered discreetly, “No, thank you, ma’am.”
I believe Jimmy would have said, “Yes, I will, please,” and that would have been the end of the Christmas pudding.
It was during that first Christmastide at Loutherbourg Terrace that I became possessed of my desk — my first desk, which was the delight of my childhood, and which I used and abused by cramming it with more paper than it would hold comfortably, for nearly thirty years, before I gave it to my son, shabby but not dilapidated.
I had a desk, and now I felt that I could really write. I know that desk must have been given to me by Godpapa, who was fond of me and gave me many presents, and always the right things, always seeming to know exactly what I most ardently desired, at seven, at eight, at nine, at ten.
Godpapa was not really my godfather. He belonged to my brother Edward, to whom he was always kind, and of whose talent with pen and pencil he was an admirer, never knowing what a clever caricature of himself, fast asleep in his armchair that wicked pencil once produced. My idea of a godfather was vague — and I thought godpapa belonged to all three of us, like our uncles and aunts, and perhaps as I was the youngest he was especially kind to me and liked me for taking possession of him. He was a remarkable old man, with wonderful gifts for social success, and he had enjoyed wide experience of life and of society in the golden days of the Prince Regent and the wits. Almost all the good stories that I find in the innumerable memoirs, reminiscences, and other bookmakers books which the modern publisher produces ad nauseum were familiar in my childish years as household words. I am afraid Mamma and Edward were a shade weary of some of godpapa’s stories, and were not always sorry when he dropped asleep by the fire towards the end of the evening. They did not mind the crisp little stories of Sheridan, Brummell and the Prince, Theodore Hook, Braham and Incledon; but there were some of his personal reminiscences which they had ceased to appreciate, notable among these were his madhouse stories, which made a long chain of reminiscence, very interesting when not too familiar; but the joy of the accomplished raconteur in the exercise of an art in which he knows himself a master is apt to make him forget that familiarity may diminish the pleasure of his hearers. My godfather began his madman stories with an opening sentence that served as a signal for my brother’s quiet disappearance. “Madmen never combine,” godpapa would remark with a certain solemnity, and Edward stole away, while Mamma and Maggie knew they were in for the whole series. A stranger always liked the stories, was thrilled or tickled as the theme varied from tragedy to comedy: and godpapa liked an audience. For me playing quietly in a corner the stories were only words, and made no difference. But godpapa’s Christmas present made the joy of my winter evenings. There was a stock of pretty note paper in my desk, and there were envelopes and wafers, not such vulgar red ones as tradesmen used in those days but pretty fanciful wafers, gold or silver, that did not always stick on the envelope, but which at least indicated that a lady had written the letter. The adhesive envelope had not come yet, and when it came it was a nice thing and expensive; but in the meantime one of the treasures of my desk was a stick of sealing wax that looked like tortoiseshell, speckled with gold, a superior thing, with which it was rapture to seal a letter with my pretty glass seal — a ship in full sail — and the motto ‘Such is life.’
Every evening saw me at my desk in the light of the two candles in Sheffield candlesticks, just mould candles of mere vulgar tallow, the only nice thing about them being Mamma’s quaint old Sheffield snuffer tray of an uncommon design.
Very soon there was to be no more snuffing, and we were to be no longer surprised by cauliflower heads on the candles, and a diminished light. Soon we had the newly invented composite candles, that did not require snuffings but even now it is a wonder to think how I could have been able to amuse myself in long winter evenings lighted by a pair of candles, while Mamma worked and Edward drew or wrote at the same table.
He was always doing something with that pen of his — the first page of a magazine, with illustrations in the text — endless beginnings that were never to have an end. Or he was at work on an arithmetical puzzle or a problem in Euclid for the Family Herald, where his only reward would be to see his initials E.N.C.B. in the list of those distinguished few whose resolutions had been accurate: there were no money prizes, no freehold houses to reward the successful competitor — nothing but fame.
Mamma was proud of the initials in the Family Herald.
I was never tired of my desk, and I was always sorry when it was bedtime, and I had to shut that magic casket and creep unwillingly upstairs with Mamma, to be seen comfortably established in the large old four-poster which I shared with that beloved mother, and the curtains whereof were lined with bright pink chintz, so that on sunny mornings I found myself bathed in rosy light.
Comfortably settled with head on pillow and coverlet up to my chin, and Mamma’s tender goodnight to make me happy — and her final injunction, “And now, go to sleep, Mary.” She bade me sleep as if slumber were within the compass of human will. But it is not. How many miserable hours, how much weary reiteration of painful thoughts and unhappy memories might be spared mankind if one could sleep without the drowsy syrups of the East — without Veronel.
But I knew too by experience before I was nine years old that one cannot: and the knowledge that Mamma would reappear at eleven o’clock and be very disappointed almost angry at finding me wide awake, helped to keep me so.
Thus early began one of the troubles of my life — the frequent loss of that “gentle thing beloved from pole to pole.”
I wrote my first story at that desk — a pale copy of one of those old fairy tales that were deeply imprinted upon my brain. The proud elder sister who treated her younger sister cruelly, made a scrub of her, till the fairy came along, disguised as a shabby old woman, and put both sisters to the test, and everything was set right in a flash.
I was not thinking of Maggie when I wrote that unoriginal story, but Maggie was an elder sister, and the whole race of elder sisters from Cinderella’s downwards was an evil, and though Maggie was not actually cruel to me, she sometimes sent me upstairs to fetch her handkerchief, a liberty which I resented.
I wrote letters, and took pride in writing the address at extreme length, Number 10 Loutherbourg Terrace, Hammersnith the Middlesex. I doubt if the county was necessary, but it was a nice long word to write. Mamma hated the name of Hammersmith and thought it a hardship that it was part of her address, when we were close to Chiswick Hall and really had no connection with King Street or the Broadway.
Before the joy of my desk had begun to pall, Edward had gone back to school, and the spring sunshine was on the river, and Mamma said that the garden must be taken in hand, with which design she engaged a jobbing gardener by name Judd, who was to improve everything, mend the little lawn with turf, where there were bare patches, dig the borders, and restore the gravel path that led from the bottom of the stone steps to the little iron gate that opened on the terrace. Judd accepted the engagement, with alacrity, and duly presented himself one spring morning with his tools, laid the tools down in a comfortable corner and vanished, nor was seen again or heard of for a week, when upon a Monday morning he reappeared, ready to begin his task. When remonstrated with and asked what he had been doing while his tools lay rusting in the dews of the night, under the trees at the bottom of our garden, he replied with a sheepish smile — “Well, to tell you the truth, ma’am, I have been upon the drink.”
For a week that sheepish Judd had been drinking his earnings of the week before last, and now, perhaps goaded by an indignant wife, he had come back to earn another week’s wages in our garden. It was lucky for us that Judd did not dig the border conscientiously — for when the summer came it was full of hardy perennials that a previous tenant must have planted — everlasting peas, hollyhocks, marigolds, tall blue larkspurs, and all manner of homely flowers. Nasturtiums sprawled over the borders in rank luxuriance, and there were scabian that I especially loved, and lupine, and dragon’s mouths.
The garden was always full of flowers, though Judd was never called in again after that first engagement. Other jobbing gardeners appeared from time to time just to mow the tiny lawn or to nail up a creeper, but the flowers came without care and flourished and multiplied from summer to summer, and the lilac and laburnum, and roses and seringas, grew with a generous abundance.
Was it the river that made our garden such a paradise of bloom and perfume, with so little labour, so little care? I think it must have been the river, for afterwards when we lived at Barnes and had a much larger garden, there were so such flowers — gooseberry and currant bushes in plenty, but very few roses,
Mamma always complained of Middlesex, it was flat, and she hated a flat country, and she said there were no nice walks. Yet, with a splendid courage, she took me for a long walk almost every fine day; but as little as possible into Hammersmith. We turned our faces away from London, turned to the west, towards Chiswick or Kew. I can but think there were pretty walks Chiswick way, meadows between the road and the river, in which one was allowed to walk, meadows beneath whose hedges I gathered violets. That was my favourite walk and my brother’s also, and when he was at home for the holidays my footsteps went where his feet led, if I were permitted, and I deserted even Charley and Polly.
The Chiswick that I remember in the forties was a village. If there had been a single shop in the little street with any object in its window that could attract the human eye I believe I should remember that shop. I have a dim idea of a butcher’s — red joints of meat hanging under a penthouse roof, a rustic shop — but if there were a baker’s there could not have been buns, much less attractive looking tarts and cheese-cakes, in his windows, or he would have engraved himself deeper on my memory. When I try to conjure up that old high street I have an impression of white houses and green doors with brass knockers, and windows that were always shining with vermillion flower pots behind the lower panes.
But the wonder of it is that among all the quaint old-fashioned places the suburbs of London that were old and rural when Charles Lamb and his sister were holiday-making in their simple, unsensual, economical fashion, looking for the little clean wayside inn, and the good-natured landlady who would let them eat their little picnic on her table, and perhaps even spread a tablecloth when she brought them their pint of sixpenny ale, of all those old world streets and rural places Chiswick alone remains, just as I remember it when I was seven years old.
Bracknell — the Bracknell that William Delane knew — is gone, and has been replaced by a street as unpicturesque as Tottenham Court Road: pretty old village streets in the Isle of Thanet are gone, to make room for the abomination of desolation in its worst shape, the jerrybuilders row of shops, but the dear little Chiswick High Street is still there, and though the fine church is only thirty years old, the church yard is still there as when the first daisies grew over Hogart’s grave.
Even Black Lion Lane has escaped the teeth of all-things-eating Time, and I can see the semi-detached house — not called a villa in those days — in which I played with a little friend as a child, and the highly respectable terrace where I went to school. Black Lion Lane which I expected to find a slum, is-still reputable, and not too horribly ugly — still just the Lane up and down which my feet have so often gone to find the red omnibus that would carry Mamma and me to London — or perhaps only to Kensington Gardens, to hear the band play, and see the smart people walking on the grass in their prettiest frocks and bonnets on a summer afternoon. That military band in Kensington Gardens was a delightful institution when I was a little girl, and the June afternoons seem to have been always fine — one could saunter or sit, criticise faces and bonnets, while the riders looked over the railing at the end of Rotten Row — and heard as much of the Bohemian Girl as their horses would let them.
Even Mr. Sich’s garden is still to be seen at Chiswick, though not so carefully cultivated as in the early forties.
That garden lives in my mind as a place of exquisite neatness, with prim gravel walks and flower beds. The garden belonged to Mr. Sich, but the house where Mr. Sich lived was somewhere else, and I cannot remember ever seeing it, and only once do I remember walking in that garden. Just one summer afternoon with my mother. I suppose Mr. Sich had seen us looking at his flowers, and had invited us to walk round the half acre or so of grass and flowerbeds. Perhaps we were on speaking terms with Mr. Sich, as an important Chiswick person: but he was not one of our friends, and I never saw him in our house. When we were leaving his garden he cut a yellow rose and offered it to my mother. He said it was the first yellow rose that had been grown in England — or did he say in Chiswick? At this distance of time I cannot be sure. I only know that the flower impressed itself on my memory as something wonderful — the first — the very first yellow rose. There were no yellow roses at Skisdon. My summer life on the Terrace had been full of roses — Mossroses, blush roses, China roses, growing in unpruned luxuriance all along that walk by the river.
My mother told me that Mr. Sich was a brewer — I think she said “the Brewer”, for at Chiswick and in a far-reaching neighbourhood, the Sich brewery comprised all that was richest and most admirable in the way of beer. He was tall and slim, and dressed like a gentleman, and was altogether astonishing, since my only idea of a brewer was a man who wore corduroy and coarse blue worsted and rolled huge casks through chasms in the pavement and told little girls to get out of his way — not a bit like the courteous gentleman who cut a rose with such delicacy, not ruffling a petal, and offered it with such grace.
We were what I must call Sunday morning Christians, for whom one service seemed enough for duty, and for that Sunday service we used to go to Chiswick Parish Church, for ever associated with Hogarth, or to St. Peter’s Church in Black Lion Lane, associated with nothing.
Oh, what a bare cold church it was in those early forties — how bleak the building with its straight lines of gallery, where I think I mostly sat, and its table of Commandments on each side of the Communion table. I believe St. Peters was our pis aller, for I fancy we only went there when the weather was impossible, or when somebody was late. Chiswick was a mile from our Terrace, a mile’s walk by the shining river past the good old Georgian houses and gardens, past that substantial red brick house where Thackeray was at school ages ago, and where Sir Herbert and Lady Tree lived the other day. The tree upon their letter paper while they occupied that fine old house must have been a willow — a willow trailing its lowest branches in the flowing tide. How well I remember that Sunday morning walk in a best frock, and in white silk gloves that set my teeth on edge. I never remember finding the mile too long unless I had tight boots. Mrs. Allen and the long trudges over London pavements had made me a good walker. It seems to have been always summer when we were going to Chiswick Church.
After the Thackeray school there was a little break in the patrician air of the Mall, made by an old Inn, in front of which there were always lounging boatmen, who would take you over to the sunny shore in a clean and spacious skiff moyennant two pence per passenger, to which easy transit there was only one drawback, namely that they who would go back to Middlesex had to stand on the pebbly shore and shout till the jolly young — or more often jolly old waterman left the comfortable taproom, and the dip of the oars sounded across the river. By which time if one were tired after a walk through a cornfield, and a ramble on Barnes Common, the idea of having to walk to Hammersmith Bridge came upon one with a dull sense of despair — and, oh, what a nice person the jolly waterman seemed!
I had never heard the word aesthetic — indeed, I do not know that anybody else had outside the charmed circle of the higher culture — but I knew somehow that Chiswick Church was better than St. Peter’s. The materials of which it was made were rich and mellow, instead of glaring drab, and it had all sorts of ins and outs and light and shadow. There was a great deal for a little girl to look at — and the pew we sat in was cushioned and comfortable — and there were marble tablets upon the walls, tawny with age, or sometimes of rich colour or of gleaming brass. I do not remember reading the inscriptions as David Copperfield did, and we were not rural enough for a sheep to look in at an open door. There was nothing to disturb the placid monotony of those summer mornings, or to interrupt the Rev. Bowerbank’s sermon.
The Reverend Bowerbank’s sermons were long and my mother complained that they were dull, He was elderly and stout, and I fear she said that he was pompous — which was un-Christianlike on her part, as out of the pulpit and the reading desk she had no acquaintance with him. We were not seat-holders or parishioners and she had never met him at the tea parties of her Chiswick friends.
The church in which the Rev. Bowerbank preached those lengthy sermons in his handsome black silk gown disappeared thirty years ago, and a new and much finer church arose in its place — so I had a pang of regret for the homely interior of my childish memories, while I looked along the south aisle, where we used to sit not very far from the pulpit; yet I could but admire the new building which might easily be mistaken for a fifteenth century church carefully restored. For my own part I cannot remember ever listening to him — only sitting and wondering how long he would go on. The oration seemed endless, but congregations were very patient in those days, some of them went to sleep, no doubt, but I do not think they looked at their watches in the audacious way people do nowadays. The bracelet watch had not been invented.
Then there was the walk home, and a kind of Church Parade on the terrace, where most of us knew each other well enough for friendly greetings and where the men who had boats and had not been to church were lounging in boating trousers — and in sad contrast to the spick and span respectabilities in their haut de forme hats and lavender gloves. Of course, all the wives and daughters had been to church — the black sheep were the heads of families or reprobate elder sons, which latter perhaps may have been too much Eton collared and Eton jacketed and had been made to carry too many prayer books and hear too many reverends in their earlier years.
One peculiarity of Sunday afternoons was that if I was allowed to go on the terrace by myself, as I usually was, I inevitably got into disgrace. There wasn’t much to do on the terrace on Sunday afternoon, after watching Mr. Cayne’s skiff get under way, which was rather a long business! If the tide was out there was always the terrible temptation to go down Mr. Cayne’s wooden stair and explore the mud, and, once on the long narrow causeway that led deep down the edge of the lowest tide, there was always something, some unlucky slip upon a shiny green stone, some tempting bit of rusty iron or bright coloured crockery lying in the mud just within reach of an outstretched arm, and lovely childhood stoops to folly, and the white muslin frock is spoilt — and, oh, to go home to Mamma for her to see that the frock her industrious fingers made, and gauged and pleated, the India muslin that patient Hindoos embroidered, sitting on the floor outside the mem sahib’s boudoir, has been made nought by a disobedient daughter who has been told never to go down those easy wooden stairs, never to set foot upon those shiny green stones, never to touch that dismal swamp of greasy brown mud. I believe I used to add deceit to the sin of disobedience by trying to wash the front of the embroidered muslin at the kitchen sink where Sarah Hobbs used to feed her tame rat — a process that only made things worse, and the frock had to be taken off me with angry twitches and maternal reproofs, for that was a thing which made the tenderest and most indulgent of mothers angry — a new frock spoilt at the first wearing.
It was always a new frock! Sometimes it was ink, sometimes it was mud, sometimes a rusty nail that tore the skirt from seam to seam. The catastrophic nail sometimes happened to me when I was in my later teens and I used to hide myself in the back drawing room with a reel of fine cotton and darn and darn for an hour, surreptitiously, and I really was a beautiful darner, but it was no use and the darn always showed itself and gave me away.
It was from my grandmother and my aunts I received this perennial supply of India muslin frocks, sent home by Uncle William, who was always sending gifts as long as he remained in India, and when he had come home for good there was another William, his oldest son, to carry on the pleasant custom. Many things besides embroidered muslins flowed down to the kind old grandmother in the Cornish Valley from far off Bengal, and flowed up the hill, and up and down many a green English hill to London and the Terrace; delicious jams and jellies in heavy earthenware jars, wrapped in curious hairy matting — one jam to be specially remembered, made of a small rough gooseberry with a sub-acid flavour, the jam my mother liked best, always preferred therefore by me, who took all likings from that beloved exemplar — except parsnips — no, I could not like parsnips, and I wondered at my mother’s depraved taste.
My cousin, the Calcutta merchant, sent cardcases, and envelope boxes, and chessmen, wherewith my mother’s drawing room was adorned — for his own enemy’s wife was never forgotten when Indian presents were distributed — Uncle William had always sent something for his “sister Fanny” — and Cousin William remembered his Aunt; and there were cashmere scarves, embroidered in rainbow silks, small scarves among them that a little girl could wear, brilliant of hue and fine of texture, scarves that served for “dressing up” when they were no longer “best”, and made picturesque turbans in which one looked in the glass and thought oneself lovely, and fancied oneself Byron’s Zuleika. All good things came from India and the good uncle — and thirty years after when I had a fever and was delirious — one of my dreams was of my Uncle William coming home, and of our going to meet him as he came up some long narrow passage out of the ship. That long dark passage was the way from a better world, for he had been dead many years when I dreamed that dream.
It was while we lived in the Terrace that I became acquainted with Sarah Hobbs, our cook general of some years.
She was by no means equal to the Immortal Pegotty, but she was a faithful creature, stout and thickset, and I do not remember her first appearance in the pretty old house but I know that on those long evenings when my mother had been spending the day in London, or visiting friends in the neighbourhood, and was not expected home till nine or ten o’clock, and when for only possible consolation I was allowed to sit up for her, Sarah Hobbs was my resource, and I sat and watched her needlework in the kitchen just as David sat with Pegotty.
She was more literary than Pegotty — a devourer of the Family Heralds and Reynolds’s Magazine, and she had a good many numbers of a little stunted duo decimo magazine which published condensed editions of famous novels, and which she lent to me, whereby in this curtailed form I read “The Last Days of Pompeii” and other famous fiction with great enjoyment.
Sarah Hobbs used to sit at the snow white deal table making her caps, by the light of one tallow candle in a large brass candlestick, a tallow candle whose light was dependent upon snuffers. If snuffers were neglected, no light there was. Heads like fiery cauliflowers blossomed on the wick, and all was dark.
I think of our gas “brulent à plain bee jusqus à faire sauter les murs,” just as in Nana’s kitchen, or of the electric light with every burner switched on — and compare that flare which is seldom enough to satisfy the modern light hunger — with all the light we had to see by on the Terrace.
Sarah pleated endless yards of net for her caps quite contentedly by the single dip in the brass candlestick — while I sat and watched her, and asked her to tell me things. Her repertoire was not extensive, but it beguiled the hour from nine till ten — while I waited for my mother’s double knock. There was no Mr. Murdstone to see her home, thank God, never living man to come between her and me — memories she may have had, memories which she told me later, of far off days before her loveless marriage: but of living man not a thought.
Sarah always began with her ballads — by request. She had two ballads, which she recited in a sing-song with a powerful twang, which to my mind made her as fine a contralto as Alboni. I fancy those ballads must have been pre-Victorian. I place them, on the evidence of style, in the earlier years of good King George the Third. Each is the life history of a young person of the privileged class who while enjoying every advantage of beauty, rank, and wealth, and possibly of fashion, was seized with an insane romantic desire to marry beneath her — choosing in the one case a youthful private soldier, and in the other a sailor. I know I leant towards the girl who chose the sailor, my own passionate love of the sea making him heroic.
Of all that wealth of poetry in those love stories I remember only one line — the starting point of the A.B’s lady:
“Caroline was a nobleman’s daughter”
but I know that the end of each romance was happy. There may have been vicissitudes, the noble father may have cut up rough, the high born mother may have wept floods of tears, but in the meanwhile the blue jacket and the red were performing miracles of valour on sea and land, and came home to Caroline and the other girl, whose name I have forgotten, covered with glory, whereupon there was a grand wedding, cake, joybells, fine clothes, and everything that a little girl could wish to hear about.
The ballads lasted for some time; and then Sarah and I conversed, and I drew from her the story of her life in service with a butcher’s family at Chiswick, where the only salient feature that remains in my memory is the fact that in summer Sarah and the butcher’s male dependents were fed almost exclusively upon meat. No bread was served out to them at dinner or supper — lettuces they might have but not loaves. To me the idea of a plethora of meat, and nothing noticeable in the way of pudding was revolting, but Sarah said she did not mind, and perhaps the splendid muscular development and strength of limb which made her so good as a general, so valiant in carrying furniture about on cleaning days, such an adept in turning out bedrooms and turning them in again, may have been derived in part from this abundance of animal food in the time when she was a growing girl. She was never fond of kickshaws. The most delicious dainties of the creamy kind, the sort of things that are handed on trays in fashionable tearooms, left her cold. She preferred “something to bite at.” I never remember her being ill, and I never remember her being out of temper.
When her talk of her first place was exhausted, if the long hand of the broad-faced Dutch clock at which I looked so often when my mother was out still lagged behind the hour, with perhaps a whole quarter to be got through before the clock struck, we had to fall back upon the corpses — the last feature in Sarah Hobb’s repertoire. She was an amateur of corpses — and whenever there had been a coroner’s inquest in Chiswick Sarah had contrived to see the subject of the enquiry. How she got away from her work at the butcher’s I don’t know, or how she got herself admitted to the chamber of death, but alone she did it. She had fourteen corpses, and she would in the most good-natured way recite the whole list and in the same rotation while the Dutch clock ticked out the last quarter before ten, and I knew them all so well that I am sure I should have missed one if she had omitted him from her death roll.
I think of myself sitting by the kitchen table listening to her, and I think what strange creatures children are — and how odd it was that I who had never seen death, could sit and listen with a ghoulish gusto, and that it never occurred to Sarah that her collection was hardly a nice thing to exhibit before the mind’s eye of eight years old, and then came the double knock on the solid old eighteenth century door, and I tore up the stairs in advance of Sarah and ran along the passage, and slid back the chain and opened the door, and in the next minute I was in my mother’s arms — Caroline and butcher’s meat and Coroner inquests were all forgotten, and I am afraid I sometimes forgot to say goodnight to Sarah.
She did not mind, trifles never disturbed her. She was stolid all through. Carrée par la base — like Danton and other great men.
I seldom took my walks abroad with Sarah, for I was in no manner a part of her service, but there were occasions — treats — when Sarah and I went out together, happy in each other’s company, which would indicate that she was not “walking out” in the technical sense with any accepted swain.
One occasion and the first I think, was what I may call a religious party. There was a tea drinking one late autumn afternoon at Mr. Miller’s chapel in Chiswick, and Sarah out of pure kindness to me, I am sure, asked my mother’s leave to take me with her. Anything in the way of a party appealed to me, for juvenile parties were events that one had to look forward to for a long time, and it was not till I was approaching the golden age of thirteen that my mother would take me with her when she went to tea and talk with some intimate friend, when I generally found a book and crept into a corner to read while the grown-ups conversed: but I was quite a little girl in a short white frock and blue sash, and trousers a la Kenwiggs when I was taken to Mr. Miller’s tea party.
Mr. Miller was a Nonconformist — I doubt if I ever knew of what denomination, though I heard much of him from Sarah, who had never sat under the Rev. Bowerbank in the old mellow parish church, and who had an immense reverential regard for Mr. Miller. I have a sketchy memory of that tea party in an upper room — the whiteness of the cloth on the long table, the piles of seed cake, a kind of cake which in general I detested, but which I liked at this party. I remember how kind everyone was, and how affable Mr. Miller: there were prayers, and sermonettes, but not long enough to make one weary, being so well fortified with cake, and the hymns were pleasant things as compared with Tate and Brady. Altogether I tripped away from Mr. Miller’s party feeling that I had enjoyed myself, and with lots to tell Mamma.
The other treat to which I went with Sarah Hobbs was the Fair, Chiswick Fair, a treat I dearly loved, and for which I saved up my shillings and sixpences to spend them lavishly upon presents for my beloved grown-ups — gifts that I fear must have counted only as marks of affection and not even as portable property — cardboard boxes, adorned with gilt paper, baskets with handles that seemed put on only to come off — imitation tortoiseshell — caskets of painted glass and cheap metal work — expensive things that cost as much as half a crown and which I carried home proudly and put in my mother’s room as surprises, buying presents was the first rapture of the Fair, but too soon finished, and the hoard exhausted.
Then there were other joys — shows that were apt to be disappointing — Maria Martin — Peep shows — merry-go-rounds and swings, and last thrilling experience a two-penny ride on a real horse, the first horse I ever sat upon, and one of the professors gave the poor old dear a whack with his stick, and he galloped, actually galloped, the length of the field, and I didn’t fall off him, and was applauded when he took me back to the starting point, after which I thought myself a born horsewoman and was disappointed when nothing startling happened to me at my next Fair.
There was not only Chiswick Fair, first and best, but I had sometimes two Fairs in a summer. There was a Fair at Barnes and at Shepherds Bush, and a Fair at Putney, in a field where there was cricket off and on all through the summer, a field that lay between the high road and the river, and on which youths in white raiment played cricket more or less all through the summer. Whether they played football there in the winter I do not remember — I have no consciousness of ever seeing such a game from any of those rural roads familiar to my early years. That cricket field between the river and the road from Barnes to Putney Bridge has long been eaten up by small houses, and that which was an almost rural inn is now a glaring Metropolitan public house, and many a rustic detached house in a good sized garden has made way for the small suburban semi-detached villa; or the row of squalid houses of the same depressing pattern, and the rural looking white omnibuses rolling behind well-fed horses have gradually given way to motor vehicles of imposing redness and alarming speed. Only Barnes Common is left, changed but not altogether lost, and the grave old church tower at the foot of that tremendous stone thoroughfare, which has replaced the quaint white timber bridge with its queer old archway entrance under which the white omnibuses used to carry me when I was a child to Fulham — that no longer exists — past an Italian villa with picturesque gardens sloping to the river, on the right, going towards London, and the house where Theodore Hook once lived, on the left. Of all that was old in Fulham when I was a child, I think there is nothing left but the fine old church and a row of houses behind it, gradually crumbling away, but inside those last I fancy one might find high chimney pieces, and solid six panelled doors and quaint skirting boards.
It was while we were still newcomers on the Terrace that I went to a day school, my first and only day school. It was a very nice little school, kept by two young ladies, and I have not one unpleasant memory associated with it. I liked going then, and I never had too much to learn, and I was never scolded or even reproved, unless it were with such mildness that it left no impression on my mind. This modest seminary was situated in Black Lion Lane, in a terrace of white houses with little gardens in front, and flights of stone steps leading up to the hall door and parlour floor and in back and front parlour divided by folding doors, that were usually open, and was not more than five minutes walk from home, and I think after the first few mornings I was allowed to go there alone, unless it were on days when my mother went there to take a singing lesson from the elder Miss Roslyn, who was dark and tall, and had a certain dignity of carriage and gravity of demeanour that inspired respect, but never fear.
The younger sister was short and plump, a rather pretty Miss Fanny, of whom we dozen or so of girls of various sizes from seven to fourteen were no more in awe than if she had been our schoolfellow.
It was a dear little school — I do not remember the exact routine of study in the two parlours or whether Miss Fanny had anything to do with the lessons — but we learnt little bits of grammar and little bits of geography, in fat little books, but I do not remember any study of foreign tongues, and it was later than this when my mother introduced me to the French language in the person of a certain “Charles”, in whom I was keenly interested, and possibly because his life history opened at his dinner, and I became acquainted with knives and forks and vegetables, meat, and pudding in that delightful tongue. Oh, what a long long road to travel between Charles’s turnips and potatoes and Pascal, Balsac, Flaubert and Anatole France. But that was always a pleasant road, while the stony way from Addition to Subtraction — I never got as far as Multiplication — was full of thorns. My mother never attempted to teach me arithmetic: but I have a dim idea of having learnt Multiplication table at Miss Roslyn’s.
Yes, we had our little lessons in most of the walks of learning, but what I remember best is our little bits of fancy work — our netting — made memorable to me by tumbling off a form while engaged in acquiring the art — and alighting on a netting needle that broke under my leg — an interval of bare leg below the Kenwiggs frilled trousers, and which I carried about on my person for a considerable time until a certain lameness, at first suspected as malingering — led to a doctor being consulted, who at once discovered the fragment of steel embedded in the halting leg, and I was no longer considered an impostor, when I began to limp during one of the long walks which Mamma insisted on as a first necessity for health. Our wool-work and our bead-work was for me the most interesting part of Miss Roslyn’s curriculum. In this latter it was my great ambition to excel — seeing my elders achieve wonders, with beads sewn on to little squares of net, to be made into purses or sachets. It was the kind of work that has been revived of late in the fashionable handbags: and vividly remembering my futile struggles to place even one bead in its proper position on the little bit of net, I am not surprised that these elaborate floral designs we see nowadays should cost a good many pounds. The most complicated design I saw at Miss Roslyn’s was a shower of little gold stars on a blue background like the roof of the chancel in a church I know. To achieve this, to have a bead sachet to take home to Mamma at the end of the term would have been the triumph of life.
Did we learn poetry? I do not remember. Reading could have given me no trouble, since I had read novels, without having to whisper the words before I was seven, and at Miss Roslyn’s I was eight.
What I most vividly remember, as if it were yesterday, is my first music lesson. I had performed in the free childish manner upon any piano in my reach, and had delighted in the discords produced, just as I had been ravished by the sounds that could be drawn from a comb with a piece of paper over it, with which I was made acquainted by an unremembered servant girl, and which seemed better than the tuneful twanging of my brother’s Jews harp.
But now I was to learn music, actually to learn to play, and I looked forward to my first lesson with rapture. If I did not expect to be a proficient when I went home, I expected at least to be able to take my seat in front of the home piano and play. Little did I think what a pathway of thorns — or shall I say boxed ears I was entering, when I ran joyously upstairs to the Roslyn drawing room — sacred apartment never before entered — to take my first lesson in the pianoforte. There was the music stool, and there was the piano: but it was not even open.
There was only Miss Roslyn sitting at the loo table, with an open book in front of her and a pencil in her hand. I will not dwell upon that mortifying lesson. I sat by Miss Roslyn, who was kind, and watched while she pointed out black dots, and ovals and circles like a bird’s egg — and I had to be taught how many black dots with a plain tail went to an open oval, and how many more with a highly ornamental tail. I walked home dejectedly, fallen from the empyrean in which I had fancied myself a proficient pianist. Things were a little better next day, when Miss Roslyn placed me on the music stool, and showed me the keys, and explained the two blacks with the whites between them, and introduced me to that important personage the middle C. I went home more cheerful when that lesson was over for I felt that I knew something. Later I had to learn the difference between semibreves and minims, and to make myself familiar with quavers, semiquavers, and demi semiquavers, a troublesome family and almost as bad as arithmetic — while semibreves had a way of confounding themselves in a little girl’s memory with semiquavers, and it might seem that both these and minims need hardly have required so much attention since one so rarely met them after the instruction book.
I did not like this book work as it was not what I expected, but my pleasantest experience of pianoforte music came very soon after when I began upon that delightful selection of classical and other melodies which, in my instruction book, followed close upon the preliminary work. When I could play, “Ah, vous dirai-je Maman,” and “Woodman, spare that Tree” with the proper fingers, I was in the land of music without tears. The utmost practice required of me — ten minutes to a quarter of an hour — brought no sense of weariness. I little knew what was waiting for me in the next three or four years of my life.
And then I was so proud of myself, because I did not need to carry a music roll when I went on a visit, but could play everything I learnt, “Ah, vous dirai-je,” and “Woodman,” and “Buy a Broom”, and even “Home Sweet Home” — none of which exceeded three lines in the instruction book, by memory, a fact which I proclaimed boastfully, when spending the day with those kind friends the Greenes in Russell Place, when some older girls confessed to not being able to play their ‘pieces’ without the text. Miss Agnes, my great friend, reproved me in her gentle way, “You should remember how short and easy your little pieces are, Mary, and that no little girl could fail to know them,” she said.
I have never forgotten the reproof, the justice of which I felt somehow — and I looked at the young ladies who had come down to Russell Place from a boarding school on Maida Hill, greatly my superiors in age and learning, to enjoy the day of their lives in a visit to the British Museum. It was to be the day of my life, too, and had been looked forward to with fond expectation, as I had never seen the British or any other museum; but on looking back I rather wonder that I should have so heartily enjoyed the long succession of rooms filled with brown shiny beasts of the buffalo family, all so very brown and so very shiny and so very numerous. That was in the old and much less magnificent museum of the early forties — but I have seen the brown beasts, endless rooms of them since that day, in the magnificent new building, and I shouldn’t wonder if they are there still just as brown and just as shiny, and just as much alike. But if the beasts were monotonous, there was an intense interest in the mummies, for a certain juvenile adaptation of Belzoni’s explorations, a book I loved, had made me keen about those long departed Egyptians.
After the Museum there was dinner in Russell Place, a dinner of generosity — tarts and custard puddings, and custard in glasses, of a much higher calibre than baked custard pudding, which was never to my mind a company dish — and a dessert which might have come out of as many brown paper bags as Papa used to bring home from Covent Garden. It was a great day, but the young ladies had to go back to school early, with the governess who had personally conducted them.
I do not see myself very much longer in the parlours in Black Lion Lane, nor enjoying the dignity of private music lessons from Miss Roslyn in the drawing room. I was now ripe for Mamma, and I began my education in real earnest.
What an easy-going happy education it was with that bright intelligence, that loving teacher who could most truly be called guide, philosopher, and friend. For she never treated me as a child — a creature without understanding — but talked with me as if we were on the same plane, and made me familiar with the authors she loved almost from the beginning of her curriculum.
I had very few books to learn from and none that were difficult or dry. For history, English, Roman, and Grecian, I had Pinnock, Goldsmith’s pleasant unpretentious style, and the adorable Walter Scott’s “Tales of a Grandfather” which made Scotland the most interesting of all my histories, even more than that of Greece, which I had found so delightful after the dryness that was Rome. For French I had first Charles — his dinners, his nurse, his little games, his bath and putting on clothes, and taking them off at bed time — all interesting in a foreign language — and to call his cat. Then came Berquin and his enchanting stories, beginning with the optimistic child who was so happy sliding on the ice in December that he wished it was always winter, and then so delighted with a daffodil field that he wished it was always spring, and in July burying himself in a haycock, wished it was always summer, till he found out somehow that he had been happy all round the year — and there was a book I liked even better than Berquin, though it demanded more dictionary labour — a book of dialogues in which the speakers had all courtesy titles — I remember Lady Barbara — and their governess after conversing sagely for some time, told them stories — Beauty and the Beast, and other old fairy tales, and one had the critical expatiations of these noblemen’s daughters, whom the author had contrived somehow to individualise, till one seemed to know them, though it would have been only kind of him to tell one a little more about their frocks. Those were not even mentioned, unless an inkstand was turned over or a big dog tore a skirt. And one would have liked to know whether Lady Berbers wore shoes with sandals, and whether Lady Rosamund was still in pinafores, or had been promoted to a silk apron.
French as represented by these blue blood young people had a certain attraction, though it was always difficult. But when it came to the useless unnecessary verb, useless because learnt by rote, and with tears, it left no impression upon the tablet of the brain, and occasionally ended in a boxed ear.
With those other attributes which are believed inherent in Irish blood my mother had inherited what is called a quick temper, but as it was neither a sullen nor a sour temper it had never made her a less lovable creature than Heaven meant her to be — and those occasional boxed ears which were the sauce piquant of my education never diminished by one iota my affection for that devoted mother. Her generosity, her candour, her unselfishness and utter absence of vanity or self-esteem, mean thoughts or envy, made up a character that I have rarely seen surpassed for sweetness and charm. She had the Irish wit and the Irish sense of humour and quickness of imagination. Perhaps it was the last quality which engendered its particular defect. She was suspicious and was apt to impute motives, and she was generally right. Yet it irked me in those childish days when some new acquaintance took notice of me and excited my interest — gracious manners and pretty gowns — to hear Mamma say that Miss X. or Mrs. Y. was not really nice. Mamma didn’t like this or that in Miss X’s conversation, she had not spoken kindly of her father and mother, she was self-seeking, and had her own reasons for such prodigious friendliness — she wanted this or that. The breath of cold air across that pleasant warmth of a grown-up’s notice disconcerted me.
But I did not think much about new acquaintances in those early days when Charley and Polly were all sufficient as playfellows, and when my lessons and piano-practice took a large slice out of my life.
The days were no longer spent entirely in play. The two little girls next door were younger than I, and their Mamma who had to supervise a household and look after her husband and three or four quite little children, had no leisure to do the work of a nursery governess, so Charley and Polly’s education had not yet begun, and they were free to run and play from morn to dewy eve, when Susan, the head of the nursery came stumping along the Terrace to call them home, what time Mrs. Cayne stood beside the privet hedge at the top of the river staircase waiting for Mr. Cayne’s skiff to appear round the bend of the shore by the Mall, bringing Mr. Cayne home to dinner. I think there was a good deal of watching and waiting in those long summer evenings when Mr. Cayne was feathering his oars with skill and dexterity between Doctors Commons and the Terrace.
Even after my education had began, with Mamma there was a handsome surplus of my time left for play. The bookish portion, the reading and writing, could not have occupied more than two hours at a stretch. I had no dry-as-dust lessons to learn by rote, but I had to write a good deal — little bits of history, geography, a good deal of French, from dictation always in a bold round hand, nothing less than round hand was permitted, and my dictée filled a goodly pile of exercise books in the course of my studies! Mamma who wrote a fine and distinctive hand and never used steel pen, had no admiration for the delicate pointed penmanship of the average young lady, and kept me severely to my double line copybooks.
My only learning by rote consisted of long passages from Shakespeare — Wolsey’s farewell to all his greatness, which cost me strenuous efforts, some grand tirades of Constance in “King John” — ‘I am not mad, this hair I tear is mine:’ Juliet musing in the moonlight after the ball, and Juliet preparing her mind for the opiate — not altogether easy speeches before one’s tenth birthday.
Then came reading which was all pleasure, and spelling which was much pleasanter for me than for other little girls who had to learn dreary columns of words, some among which they not often met with, nor could see the use of. Mamma’s method was of the simplest. She would make me spell a great many of the words in the day’s lecture, exercising me particularly in those humble monosyllables that make so much of the sum of daily life for a letter-writer; dwelling upon all those words which have the same sound but a different meaning, when spelled differently. The system answered pretty well, I believe, and was an easy way which I would recommend to mothers if not to governesses.
The morning lessons were never a burden. I went to them cheerfully and seldom felt them too long — but the piano, that piano which I had so longed to play, hung upon me with a leaden weight — came between me and play on the Terrace, the hoop, the swing, the beloved river — between all these and my eager mind the piano came till day was done.
It was that dear mother’s ambition that I should play better than a child of ten — and to that age she not only taught me herself but as soon as she felt I was getting on, induced a young spinster friend who was a fine musician to give me regular lessons for a consideration, which, however modest, no doubt was an agreeable addition to the young lady’s dress allowance.
My mother had a fine ear and wanted me to play better than other children. When Mamma taught music there was no nonsense about it — one had to learn. I was whisked out of the instruction book, straight off “Ah, vous dirai jet”, put upon the bass part of a little duet, a waltz out of the Barbiers. My mother opined that playing duets would improve a child’s idea of time. I dare say I gave her no little trouble over these two pages of the waltz from the famous opera, but my second excursion into operatic music was La ci darem la mano, and then I came to know what Mamma meant by time. How I loved the sweet old opera tunes — dear Rossini — then living gaily in Paris — the delight of la Ville Soleil then and many years afterwards — and my adored Mozart! Wasn’t it good to leap out of the instruction book, although there were so many alluring tunes waiting for me on the later pages — “Home Sweet Home”, “We’re all Nodding”, “Blue Bells of Scotland”. Better to be launched into duets or pieces, even though after the dear little four page arrangements came overtures, “La Gazza Ladra” which was very long, and “Semiramide”, which was much longer. Years of my pianoforte life seemed to have been given to the bass and treble of those two overtures.
When Mamma was going to London to visit old friends, of whom she had many in that City, when Hardwick’s green omnibus was taking the light of my life away from the door, where I stood on the threshold, with Sarah Hobbs, watching, watching, till Hardwick turned the corner, I knew how my day was to be mapped out till a more blessed Hardwick brought Mamma back to the Georgian door.
“I’ll excuse you all your lessons today, Mary, except your music!” That was Mamma’s measure of a holiday — no nice reading with her. No long soliloquys of Wolsey blundered through! To be let off that was something. No pen work — but all my practise, two hours and a half per diem — that was my tale of bricks — scales and weary exercises, and the overtures with any more interesting solos had in my repertoire — some of them had to be played over and over again, to get through one of those five weary half-hours. And all the time I could hear those shrill voices of Polly and Charley on the Terrace, and other happy backward children at play — the backward children had all the best of daily life — though they could not come near me in the way of treats. Those five half hours! One in a despondent state directly Mamma was gone, and with all the long empty day yawning in front of me; one before my one o’clock dinner, when I was hungry, and I believe played my best; one after dinner when I had eaten too much and could hardly stagger up and down the piano in dreary scales; two more to be dragged through somehow before Mamma came home; and the final practice perhaps after a long wild afternoon on the Terrace, nay, even on the river.
I had no kitchen to adjourn to now, for though Sarah was still with us I could not find comfort or amusement in watching her quill her cap-boarders, or listening to her ballads but I could sit with my nose in a book, when I had finished my “practice”. Did I ever complete my tale of bricks without straw, music without pleasure? I am afraid not. I have a remorseful memory of some occasions when I cheated — even though Mama was at home. How then could I be conscientious, when she was away?
My recompense for all this labour was first to be able to tell other little girls, who had no superior young lady to sit by their side twice a week for an hour that seemed semi-eternal, and who only practiced one miserable half-hour a day, disgraceful creatures still in the instruction book, innocent little tea parties by splashing through “Semiramide” with Miss Ford’s fiancé and being complimented on my fine stretch, whereby I have been obliged to wear number seven gloves in all my adult life. If my hand for the piano had made me an Arabella Goddard I ought not to have minded that discreditable circumstance.
In spite of those five half hours, and other two hours for morning lessons to be deducted from the summer day play on the terrace I was happy, utterly happy, and it was not strange in a little girl who had playfellows and dolls and a swing and a devoted young slave in an Eton jacket who owned a dinghy and could take her on the river whenever Mamma would say yes — and now and then when Mamma was away from home or busy in her pretty three-windowed bedroom at the top of the house. There would be no time to run all the way upstairs and shout a breathless “May I go on the river with Johnnie?” at Mamma busy lengthening one of my muslin frocks — for here was the Hampton Court steamer forging up from the Suspension Bridge, and Johnnie wanted to row me into her wake, and in a minute we were down the steps and in the dinghy, and three minutes after that dear boat was bobbing up and down on summer waves behind the Cardinal Wolsey or the Catherine Howard, and sometimes rude men would shout at Johnnie from the deck, and he would tell me he was liable to be taken in custody by the Thames Police, which gave the last delicious zest to the whole thing.
When I think of those years on the Terrace, and the little of sorrow that I knew in them, sheltered and fenced round with love, I can but wonder if I was ever grateful enough to the Power that ruled my unthinking life and gave me so much of good.
I wonder that there was so much sunshine and so many flowers, so much more brightness than gloom in days that cost so little. In looking back there seems to have been such a long spell of summer in every year — absolute summer — long days of sunshine, roses blooming and going on blooming, whatever improvident hands were always cutting them; syringa that shed its orange flower perfume on all the air, and the humbler flowers, the tall hollyhocks, spikes of colour, yellow or red or white; laughing at the blacks from the tall chimney of the neighbouring waterworks, waterworks which show today a drove of chimneys where we knew but one.
The flowers in our herbacious border defied that unbridled smoke, and grew as nowadays they grow only in cottagers gardens forty miles from London, or massed and assiduously cultivated in the gardens of the wealthy. For us they grew as if in sport, heedless of a little girl’s depredations, and wherever there was a blank spot of mould in the border a nasturtium sprawled over it and painted it orange and gold. Mamma considered the nasturtiums a nuisance — gaudy, common things; but she loved the roses, those dear fat cabbage roses, with their odours of the romantic East.
To look back at summer on the Terrace is to remember our great festival, the Regatta.
Everybody had visitors for the Regatta, which came in the very quintessence of the year’s delight, just the core of summer, the week when July was hottest, and when a thunderstorm might be momentarily expected. Everybody had visitors for the Regatta — light talk and laughter floated out of all the open windows, strange young ladies in muslin dresses and their prettiest bonnets — drawn silk, white chip, leghorn, ereophane, all that millinery could devise: strange men who had been wet bobs at Eton and were keenly interested in the rowing — every kind of stranger congregated on the Terrace when the boats were coming, shepherded by the proud householders who felt that these races which did not cost them sixpence, was their show. It was our regatta, and it lasted three days — and from all the windows came those joyous sounds of knives and forks clashing, plates clattering, corks popping laughter and good cheer.
For me that Saturnalia of three days was a dazzling time — no lessons, not even the piano, no practice, nothing to think of but my muslin frocks, my very best and thinnest and most richly worked by those mild Hindoos of whom I knew so little — nothing to think of but my frocks and my sandalled shoes, bronze generally, and perhaps my sash — and the trifle, which Mamma made with her own hands, and with much anxious thought — Mamma’s trifle was always something to remember.
We had different visitors on the three days so as to provide drawing room windows for all of them. But the Greenes — those dear Greenes of the Vale of Health, were always invited, and even Mrs. Greene would come, a rare delight, for that unselfish lady’s life was chiefly absorbed by her invalid husband, much of whose business she transacted for him, going about from pillar to post with sublime patience while he nursed his chronic complaint at home.
In all the years that I knew him, more by hearsay, than by actual contact, Mr. Greene had this chronic malady, and never owned to being more than “a shade better”. That was his reply to obsequious enquiries, “a shade better”. He had no superfluous adjectives, in seething dog days he would say it was as hot as hot, in January as cold as cold, and of himself he frequently remarked that he was as ill as ill. He had put a good deal of money into house property, and it was Mrs. Greene’s task to go about among agents and builders, and keep these houses up to the mark, and interview tenants, and order legal proceedings when tenants refused to pay, and as Mrs. Greene was a woman of superior mind, caring only for the things that really matter, the pure delight of life — there could not have been a more uncongenial occupation imposed upon her. Yet she bore her burden with a sublime patience, and would come home to her house in Fitzroy Square after a weary day, cheerful and uncomplaining, and when anxious daughters questioned her about the long day, the omnibuses or cabs, the dusty offices, and her lunch — what lunch had she had? Oh, yes, she had had some grapes and a bun, a very good lunch!
She was tall and very thin, a long delicate face, and she loved books and music and the country, and all beautiful things; but she had to look after Mr. Greene’s house property; and to spend a good deal of her days with Mr. Greene in his rooms adjoining his business premises, though her own home was with her daughters in Fitzroy Square. We made much of her when she came to the Terrace, but her visits were rare, perhaps two or three times in a year, although her daughters were with us often as staying company, and we were as often their guests in Fitzroy Square, their house so hospitably open to my mother that it was as if she had a pied à terre in London.
Mrs. Greene came on one of our three great days, and looked out of the window at the boats flashing past, or stood on the Terrace to watch them.
For us the summer Regatta was everything — the Oxford and Cambridge race came almost unaware so far as our house was concerned — a swift passing of boats in the chill spring morning, a sound of distant shouting beyond the Brewery at Mortlake — but no company, no lobster salad, no trifle, no best frocks.
During that summer festival one felt oneself privileged in living on Loutherbourg Terrace, and all along Hammersmith Mall and Chiswick Mall there must have been the same joyous movement, the same open windows and open houses.
Godpapa was always an important figure on these festive days — more like Major Pendennis than ever. He spoke of our luncheon as a cold collation which made it seem more, and having discovered that Mrs. Greene liked Perry he contrived that the innocent beverage should always be offered to her.
Happy days, when the sun seems to have never left off shining, a fierce light that crimsoned long bare neck and arms; but what did sunburn matter when one was so happy?
We had another and more exclusive treat every summer, and that was Mamma’s affair altogether and a quiet business.
Once a year we took Mrs. Greene and one of her daughters to Hampton Court Palace, for which excursion Mamma engaged a carriage and pair, a roomy landau in which there was always a corner for me. What I should have suffered had I been left out of that treat, I dare not picture to myself even in so remote a retrospect. It would have been too keen an agony. I have a faint idea that they went to Windsor Castle once without me — and that I bore it — but to Hampton Court never.
Everything we passed upon the road was a joy, and almost all was new and strange. We seemed so soon to leave our world of every day, and the houses and gardens were lovely — almost every one a house one would have been proud to live in, a garden that was like a fairy tale. One would have liked the drive to last for ever, but too soon we had passed the square white house by the roadside where Pope, the poet, once lived and which had always to be mentioned and looked at — and we were going through the chestnut avenue, the wonderful avenue that King William had planted, and past the round pond with the golden statue in the middle of it, and were alighting at the homely wooden door in the palace wall.
Those grand gates of iron and gold that every tripper knows today were not there, had not even been designed or estimated for or discussed perhaps, but one was admitted through a homely wooden door which made the whole thing more wonderful — to go by such a door to the first palace one had ever seen. All that came after was wonderful: the long procession of splendid rooms, the endless pictures which made one’s neck and eyes ache before they were all done, and splendid as those royal rooms were, and the canopies that suggested thrones, and better still the tall pillared bedsteads and embroidered satin curtains, and the room where the beautiful ladies smiled down upon us, and the quaint little rooms with chimney pieces in corners; but there came a time when one was glad to find there were not any more of them.
And after the Palace there was the garden, and the pond full of goldfish, and then, sad to think how glad one was to leave the enchanted abode, to go back to the Park, where some useful person had taken the basket that had been packed in the carriage, and if there were no failure of salt, or bread, or harmless liquids, how delightful the picnic luncheon under those noble old trees that King William planted.
This Hampton Court treat came every year, and though it was always the same I do not think even our friends, who were also the same, were ever tired of it, and to Mamma and me it was always new.
The Regatta and the drive to Hampton Court were two great events of every summer, but one that was almost as big was the visit with Uncle William and his daughters to London, when they had rooms in the West End and we all went to spend the day with them, a most delightful day for me, including late dinner and all the dignity of a grown-up entertainment, for which my very best India muslin was only just good enough.
With that inevitable muslin frock I recall the black silk outer garment, and the changing fashions which left it practically the same. One year it was a Cardinal, and it was made of watered silk and had a border of rather deep fringe, another year it was a Visite, and then came a name I forget, but it was always black silk and expensive and had none of that careless grace of the modern child’s garments. My bonnet was an important matter, and generally came from Regent Street, and was more expensive than it ought to have been, but in my mother’s many talents millinery was not included.
Charley and Polly and all our play on the Terrace were non-existent on that solemn morning when I was being dressed to go to Vere Street, or Brook Street, or Hanover Street, to spend the day with my Uncle and Cousins. We went in Hardwick’s omnibus, the green omnibus which started from Chiswick, and passed our door, an exclusive omnibus which did not go often, perhaps once an hour, and which I think must have charged twice the fare of those red omnibuses which circulated freely along the Hammersmith Road.
On these particular occasions the red omnibuses were not good enough, as we should have had to walk the whole length of Black Lion Lane, and wait at the corner, not to be thought of in company clothes, so the maid watched at the open door till Hardwick come in view, and we all three stepped daintily into the omnibus, where we were apt to find a great lady enthroned before us, and occupying more space than my mother approved by the egregious spread of her starched muslin flounces. The lady’s husband was the principal of a very superior school for young gentlemen in the upper part of Chiswick Mall — not that fine old red brick house close to the river where Thackeray was a pupil, but a house withdrawn and secluded with a grander aspect, and Mamma suspected the lady of giving herself airs, and would take a malicious pleasure in encroaching upon her muslin flounces. This lady was talked about in Chiswick and the neighbourhood, being considered to dress more extravagantly than became that station of life etc. etc.
I have very little to record of those visits to the dear kindred from the West, except that everybody was kind and that the late dinner was superior. There was nothing to be remembered like St. Peter’s at Rome: only kindness and grown-up talk of friends in Cornwall, and things that had happened there since last year.
One summer there were more cousins, for Major Chowne and my cousin Mary, and their children had all come from India in a bunch, and the Major had left the Company’s service and was going into the Church, which seemed a curious thing to do: but which proved a very agreeable thing for my sister Maggie, who enjoyed much hospitality at Cambridge while her cousin’s husband was keeping his terms there.
That day stands out for me as different from, and I fear inferior in my estimation to other visits: as I dined with my second cousin, somewhat younger than myself, in a back parlour, a room which, with the dinner of stewed chicken and rice I remember distinctly. I think we went for a walk after this juvenile repast, under convoy of nurses, or governess, and we only went up to the drawing room after tea, where my second cousin, in a holland pinafore, on being questioned about that meal provoked mirth by saying we had had buns and jam. Those buns and jam made no impression upon me, for they were the everyday fare of my indulged only-childhood, and I think I should have preferred the formal late dinner with the grownups, which does not show a nice disposition on my part.
Another treat, unexpected, unpretentious, I remember, in one of our long summers. We were now established on the Terrace, and though Mamma had kept herself very much to herself, having no taste for running in and out of other people’s houses, or for discussing other people’s affairs, I knew almost everybody, grown-ups as well as children, and I had even enjoyed the privilege of sitting in Mr. Cayne’s boat, one never-to-be-forgotten Sunday afternoon when he took his elder daughters and me for a little excursion on our adorable river, and if that treat were rare and precious for me, I think it was just as rare for Charley and Polly, as I never remember them sitting in that boat before or after. If they had been so blessed after that Sunday, and I had not shared their bliss, I should certainly have been green with jealousy, and should have remembered the event.
Some new people came to the Terrace, who had some distant connection with the Caynes, and whose daughter Mary Jane, who was half a year older than me, a superiority for which I hated her. They had come from the West Indies, I think, and Mary Jane wore a hat, a broad-brimmed white straw hat, innocent of trimming, the first hat I had ever seen upon a female head, and which I envied her, as something new and strange. I never liked Mary Jane, for she seemed at first inclined to dispute my supremacy over Charley and Polly, but I soon reasserted myself, and when she vaunted her six months seniority, I was rude enough to tell her I was the taller, which was true. Suddenly, when the newcomers at Number fifteen were no longer new, there flashed upon the horizon Mary Jane’s uncle, and at once made himself popular with every child on the Terrace.
How long he may have stayed at Number fifteen I cannot say, but I fancy his visit was meteoric, and hardly exceeded the modern measure. Yet he left a lasting impression by the very simple proceeding of taking Mary Jane and her playfellows for a walk, through the dust and sunshine of a summer afternoon, a walk along Hammersmith Mall Upper and Lower, and over the old Suspension Bridge and along the willow-shaded Surrey shore towards Putney, that willowy bank where there are new tall piles of residential flats and commercial buildings — but where then there was only a sloping shore on which the grass grew deep, and where the white bells of the wild convolvulus wantoned over every hillock.
What made that walk so delightful to us all I have no power to explain, but I know that we all went with Mary Jane’s uncle as the children followed the Pied Piper, and I can but think we should have gone with him all along the river as far as Putney or as far as London, if he had led us. Was it just the gaieté de coeur of a man who loved children and who could keep them amused without the smallest effort? We halted upon the Surrey shore, and he distributed a bag of large acidulated drops, as big as brandy balls, which he had bought upon our way, threw pebbles into the river, and made ducks and drakes, an art in which he was past-master. I can recall his tall loosely built figure as he stood on a point of the bank and flung the stones that skimmed on the face of the tide, and dipped under and rose in a sparkle of water-drops, and he bound a wreath of convolvulus round Mary Jane’s hat, and he took us all home in good time for tea — and except his niece none of us ever saw him again. He was gone with tomorrow morning, and we should have liked him to have lived at Number fifteen for the rest of our lives on the Terrace.
I had more friends after that early year. I had our landlord Dr. Purdew’s grandson and daughter, Gertie and Johnnie Girolamo, whose father was of Italian lineage, but established in the West End of London as a doctor. I never saw Dr. Girolamo, but his daughter was my great friend, while his son who owned a dinghy was by way of being my cavaliere serventes, that is to say as far as the dinghy went, for he would take me on the river at any hour I liked, and Mamma, having been somehow, perhaps from Dr. Purdew his grandfather’s testimony, impressed with a strong belief in his capability as a water man, gave me full license to sit in Johnnie’s dinghy.
I think that license would have been forfeited had she known the desperate things Johnnie did with that boat of his, giving chase to Hampton Court steamers, till the dinghy tossed merrily in the swell of their backwater, behaving more like some piratical craft in the Pacific than a schoolboy’s well-behaved little boat. I knew it was a moment of triumph when the man at the helm burst into vehement language, and threatened us with the Thames Police.
What a dear river it was, and what wonderful things happened upon it, the swamping of an eight-oar prize boat, her crew, who emerged dripping but in no way discomfited, to shake themselves dry, and row away merrily in the sunshine.
And then there was the state barge from the City, a vision of splendour which gratified us now and then in the course of a summer, and there were the swans, many swans, fierce and threatening if our boat went too near the eyot where they had their nests, and there was the excitement of watching the preparations for a cruise of one of our yachts — Colonel Denmark’s at the top of the Terrace, or Mr. Culverley’s at the bottom. Once or twice in the summer one of those gentlemen would make preparations for a cruise — and the going to and fro of their servants with stores would occupy a long morning. Again and again their dinghy would be loaded and unloaded, and the plish plash of the sculls would sound merrily as the crew rowed between the causeway and the yacht. What would it have been to have been invited to a sail on that yacht? I never even figured such bliss as within the realm of possibilities, although Mr. Culverley and Mr. Gulverley’s ancient black and tan terrier were my particular friends.
That long narrow gravel walk between blossoming trees and the river which was the exclusive property of the Terrace tenants conduced to easy friendships, and I had many friends, but Mr. Culverley’s son was skipper on the yacht, and it was he who conducted the lengthy preparations for the voyage.
They were going to the Nore — it was always the Nore, I remember, I thought they would be away a week, but no. However gaily the yacht skimmed with swelling sails past Hammersmith Mall, she was always the victim of unkindly winds or no winds, and crept home dejected before late dinner time. I doubt if she could ever have rubbed her nose against the timbers of Battersea Bridge.
Nor was Colonel Denmark’s vessel more fortunate. With her again there were the same elaborate preparations, the same brief absence. The Nore seemed equally inaccessible to both those respectable crafts — the yachts were more of a distinction than a joy.
I made Mr. Culverley’s acquaintance one Sunday afternoon when I had left home in disgrace, feeling myself an outlaw. I had split gravy over the front of my new silk frock, and Mamma more in sorrow than in anger had punished me by taking off the now-impossible best frock and exchanging it for my oldest and shabbiest. Mamma did not scold me — the deep disgrace of the old frock was enough; yet no sooner had I left her hands than I flew out to my beloved Terrace, and as it was a dull autumnal afternoon and none of my playfellows were about, I came into the company of Mr. Culverley at his end of the Terrace, and by the intermediation of the old terrier became possessed of his friendship, which with that of his most amiable wife, was mine as long as I knew the Terrace which he adorned by his gracious presence. He was said to be like Sir Robert Peel, and I recall his bland and pleasant countenance as resembling the statesman’s face in the Punch cartoons of those days. He was lame, and I do not remember his walking up and down the Terrace as Colonel Denmark and his son used to walk, with a quarter deck regularity. He would rather lounge near his garden gate. His house was Number one, and his garden was some feet longer than the other gardens, and at high tide the adorable river seemed to belong to him more than to any of the other inhabitants. To me he seemed highly privileged.
One more treat I remember in that first summer of my life on the Terrace — a treat which had I been asked my candid opinion I should have called a treat that was not a treat — and I believe that particular experience lies at the root of my life-long disinclination for all spectacular appearances of royal personages, from Coronations and funerals to opening of Parliaments and City Banquets. Never since that eighth year of mine have I stood in the sunshine to wait for the passing of a Potentate, whether Cham of Tartary or emperor of France.
It was delicious summer weather, and Agnes Greene, my dearest beloved of the Greene sisters, was staying with us, and we were all going to see the Emperor of Russia — even little Mary was to share in that ecstatic sight, of course, in a pretty muslin frock and best bonnet. The splendid Nicholas was to be banqueted by the Duke of Devonshire at Chiswick Cottage, and was to inspect those Horticultural Gardens which were the pride of our neighbourhood, since all the rank and fashion of London drove down every summer to the Chiswick Botanical Fete. The high road used to be full of open carriages — and smart bonnets. It was like the Derby without the Derby commonness — only the refined and elegant came to see the Chiswick flowers. And on this occasion there was to be a blaze of royalty — Prince Albert, the Duke of Cambridge, a cluster of Princes, Statesmen, Generals — the great Duke. They were all to be there to make an entourage for the great Emperor. “And what a treat for little Mary,” dear Agnes Greene said in her kind grave voice.
She was always my particular friend, and I went for walks with her in the Chiswick meadows, and on my visits to her mother’s London house I was her constant companion, and allowed to range at will over Mr. Greene’s bookcases’ But this Chiswick treat was early in our friendship.
Oh, that long hot afternoon, and the weary standing amidst a group of well-dressed watchers, waiting for that door in the wall to open, the door that policemen were watching, prepared to thrust anybody away, who dared to go an inch too near when the great man appeared.
I had never in my life been so tired of anything as I was when that door opened and I saw a group of gentlemen, no more splendid as to their raiment than Mr. Culverley or Colonel Denmark, who passed quickly to their carriages amid the voices of acclamation and martial music, a cluster of men in just the common clothes that men wear every day of their lives — one man a good deal taller than the others — and in five minutes all the carriages had driven off in a cloud of dust, and the foolish crowd was melting away, and we were walking home, Mamma as pleased as if she had seen something remarkable. She talked of the splendid Emperor all the way home, how he had dwarfed all the rest, made our handsome Prince Consort look a poor creature. Was there ever so magnificent a human creature as that lord of all the Russias?
I feel sure my dear Miss Greene must have said something scathing, for she had been taught a noble scorn of Potentates by her radical tutor.
My eighth birthday stands out distinctly in my memory, not because of any festivity, for the time of birthday parties had not yet come, but because it brought me a new friend.
I was eight years old when I became acquainted with Maria Edgeworth. Mamma had been to London, and had brought home a prettily bound book in three volumes — that was the delight of it, three volumes that seemed inexhaustible. The Parent’s Assistant — not a lesson book, as one might suspect from the title, but a collection of stories, surely the most enchanting stories that ever were written for a little girl of eight — better than even the beautifullest fairy tales, because they were all so real, like slices of life.
I read those stories over and over again for years and I never tired of them. I read them even after I had become familiar with the Wizard of the North and Amy Robsart, but never lessened my love of Simple Susan, though I was not more than nine when I read Kenilworth, my first Scott novel, chosen for me by Mamma as her favourite.
With Maria Edgeworth’s stories Mamma brought me Mrs. Leicester’s School, a book that she had loved in her childhood, and which I adored. It was nearly half a century later that I came to know the inimitable Ella, who wrote three of those child narratives — or the tragic history of the gifted woman who wrote all the rest.
Until this blissful birthday my stock of books had been very small. Belzoni’s Egyptian explorations, ghastly gropings in labyrinthine tombs — adapted for children — was one of my favourites, but not so dear as the histories of a parrot, a dog, or a monkey, related by themselves — nor was either quite so precious as that book which had been the joy of many generations of children, the delightful Swiss family Robinson! That was a book of which I never wearied, while the superior Robinson Crusoe exhausted my interest before I had read twenty pages, and was never finished. I did not even want to know what became of Friday. In contrast to the unattractive form in which Defoe’s immortal work was presented to me — a forbidding little volume of small print, without a single picture, the Swiss Family was a fat octavo of open print with many engravings, and at once endeared itself to me. I had found it on one of my visits to Russell Place, and it had been given to me, as well as another classic, Æsop’s Fables — which even my brother did not disdain — several of the illustrations had been neatly coloured by his light brush before the end of the holidays.
These are the last of children’s books on which I was dependent for happiness, for before my ninth birthday Mamma had opened the gates of that wide region of romance and history, chivalry, tragedy and comedy, which Sir Walter Scott created for the joy of mankind and the abiding glory of his name. The Betrothed was the first of these wonderful stories that I read, and then quickly followed Kenilworth, Mamma’s favourite. The opening chapters of that historic romance seemed a little dry, but I read every page conscientiously, and soon the magician had woven his spell around me, and I was with Amy pining in her splendid prison, with Elizabeth and Leicester and Suffolk and Raleigh at Greenwich, and then at Kenilworth where with every page the story grew more thrilling, the shadow of doom darker. And Scott was not my only magician, for it was about this time that I read Nicholas Nickleby, and from that hour became a worshipper of the homelier weaver of spells, Charles Dickens. If Kenilworth had hung fire at the start, my interest was awakened directly Amy Robsart appeared and I followed her to Kenilworth and through all her sad fortunes was deeply moved by her tragic fate. But with Nicholas Nickleby there was not a dry page. Squeers and the little boys at the Saracen’s Road, and the coach journey through the winter landscape, and the stories by the Inn fire, and the queer people, and Dotheboys Hall, and Fanny Squeers, and John Brodie were all delightful. The book seemed written for children, so bright and vivid was every page, so full of life people who talked, and of objects that one could see. I had peeped into Martin Chuzzlewit, and had been able to make nothing of the opening chapters, but with the first chapter of Nicholas Nickleby the Enchanter’s spell held me and after that came those delicious short stories, Sketches by Boz, which I read again and again, taking first my favourite stories, as I would have taken the nicest cakes at a tea party, and then the others till the very least admired was read to the last line, and I was left longing for more.
Martin Chuzzlewit was above my head, as Barnaby Rudge, a favourite with Mamma, would have been.
How could I pine for change where life was so full of Joy — but, in this little paradise of my own, I happened to hear of another existence whose joys seemed far to surpass the pleasures of the Terrace with Charley and Polly, and Johnnie and the boat.
In that great company of evil spirits whose name was legion, might there not have been the infinitely small and trivial as well as the infinitely great, near the bottom of that sulphurous ascent upon whose mighty crest sat Moloch and Beelzebub. Might there not be a colony of mischievous imps, gnomes or pixies, whose business it was to pervert the minds of over-indulged little girls, to whisper of something better where all was good, to spread highly coloured fancy pictures of a life unknown, of joys untasted. Looking back remorsefully in the light of a recent wisdom at that foolish episode in my happy childhood I can but think that Miss Godfrey was one of those malevolent spirits masking under the semblance of an amiable elderly spinster.
Mamma’s curtains, chaircovers, and even mattresses and pillows required renovation, and an upholsteress who worked by day or week at ladies’ houses, came to the Terrace to stay with us, and seems in my memory to have stayed a long time.
I think it must have been in wet weather or after dark when Charley and Polly were shut off, that I used to sit and watch Miss Godfrey at work.
She was a little elderly woman, to my idea absolutely ancient, and looking back at her I perceive that there was something of the elf or gnome in her keen dark eyes set in a sallow face, her shrunken little figure, and crooked shoulders — yes, decidedly the female form of gnome. But I was much attached to her, she having known Mamma for half a lifetime, as was the case with most people Mamma employed. I loved watching her at work, to see how she could reduce a serviceable mattress into an inchoate heap of horsehair, and than spread it on shining new linen tick, and stab it about with her tremendous needle, and punch it, and pierce it through and through, and decorate it with little stars of bright red leather, and labour over it till it became like the new mattresses at the upholsterers. I disliked the smell of the linen tick, but I loved the smell of the beeswax, with which the gnome anointed her thread, and I was pleased when Miss Godfrey gave me a bit to rub my thread up, which before had been rubbed automatically upon dirty fingers.
And when Sarah Hobbs had shouldered, and carried it up to the spare room, I was surprised to see that the bed in that room was ever so much higher than it had been before Miss Godfrey attacked the bolster.
There was lighter work than mattress making — chintz covers for chairs and sofas, that required less concentration in the operator and left Miss Godfrey at liberty to amuse a little girl with her discourse, thereupon the kindly-seeming gnome told me about her last big job.
She had been employed for a whole month at Dartmouth Lodge, Old Brompton, a very superior boarding school for young ladies. She must have had all the choicest gifts of a descriptive reporter, so brilliant was her colouring, so graphic her style, profuse but never wearisome, detailed but never dull.
First she described the house and grounds, a mansion ample as to size, and luxurious as to appointments. The five bedded room, the balcony room, the yellow room, where the grown-up young ladies slept; Miss Barnet’s room, where that great lady and her sister occupied a stately four-poster, and where there were two small beds in which two select and highly honoured little girls slept in the shelter of that imposing presence.
Some little girl who was delicate and required extra care would be selected for one of these privileged couches. If I went to that school, I might be so chosen, since I was
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effect, and the dancing frock was a sky blue cashmere with more criss cross cords over white muslin — altogether Swiss — and white glass buttons. The only frock I could remember at Scarsdale House was the little dark green merino which had a tuck run round the skirt for “Buy a Broom”. But then in those infantine days I had no memory for frocks: I only remembered beads.
Lo, the golden afternoon came, and I was taken to Dartmouth Lodge in a fly, with my new trunk, full of everything nice for a girl of nine, so carefully and beautifully packed by Mamma, with all manner of little comforts and luxuries, including presents from those dear Greenes — something especially pretty — writing case or work box, be sure, from Mrs. Greene, and everything that Mamma could devise for a spoilt child — honey soap and lavender water, and pretty pocket handkerchiefs, and silk or satin for the neck — those pretty handkerchiefs of which I had shed so many on autumn evenings on Chiswick Mall. I could not go for a little walk in the dusk with Edward without coming home minus something — a glove, pocket handkerchief or the thing round my neck, fur or feather, silk or wool. If my mother moaned over a servant who was a born “breaker”, she had reason to lament over a daughter who was a constitutional loser.
A new spirit, Mamma thought, would be breathed into me at Dartmouth Lodge. I should be taught what it meant to be orderly, and to take care of things. Vainly had Mamma striven to impress upon me something of her own orderly habits, and love of neatness.
Dartmouth lodge even on a winter afternoon was as pretty as I had expected to find it and as dignified and superior. It lay a little way off the old Brompton Road, and was approached by an avenue of two or three hundred yards where (waiting for the door to be opened on dark Sunday evenings after church) grown-up girls would talk loud, and address impalpable brothers, to scare any marauder who might be lurking under the trees: but that is a memory of a later period. I only recall on that first arrival a general impression of a house, of rural appearance, with a long verandah and a spacious lawn, and everything that suggested a country house.
The drawing room in which Mamma and I were received impressed me as particularly splendid. There was in those days a fashion of papier-mache, a rage for tea trays and drawing room furniture that sparkled with inlaid work in mother-of-pearl, and the drawing room table flashed upon me as a stupendous example of that elegant art. Occasional chairs, envelope boxes, and such small deer I had seen without number — who could avoid seeing them? But a drawing room where everything was of that darkly shining surface, sparkling with embellishment of rainbow hue, was a surprise, and I never ceased to admire Miss Barnet’s papier-mache suite, or her art collection of water colour landscapes and flower pieces, by gifted pupils, nor the choice books and ornaments that adorned her reception room, whereof the spacious bow window opened on the garden.
Miss Barnet welcomed me in the sweetest manner. She was what the modern young person of nine years would describe as a “dear old thing”, but whom I regarded with awe. She was middle-aged and very stout, and she wore the smart lace cap trimmed with satin ribbon and artificial flowers which was worn by most middle-aged women in those days. There never was a kinder or a more conscientious guardian of childhood and youth, not one word too much had the gnome said in her praise.
Mamma stayed in that brilliant drawing room only long enough to introduce me to Miss Barnet. There was a little talk which I did not hear, in which perhaps Mamma’s fond affection for her youngest child led her into giving Miss Barnet an exaggerated idea of my capacity, whereby I suffered severely in my experience of the Dartmouth Lodge curriculum.
Mamma was gone in the thickening dusk of January, and the next thing that happened was my introduction to a young person of modest appearance too genteel for a servant, but not smart enough for a pupil, who was to be my mother. She was to look after my clothes, and do everything for me that I was incapable of doing for myself: and this, I fear, was a good deal, for Mamma had attended my toilet as skilfully as the most accomplished of maids from the hour I lost Sarah Allen. This young person was to see to everything I required, and her name was Fanny.
That was enough. Mamma had not been gone half an hour, but I was moved almost to tears at hearing her Christian name, and loved Fanny on the instant.
I do not remember my first impressions of the schoolroom or my schoolfellows. It was one of the dancing mistress’s evenings. Fanny took me in hand early, and she dressed my Kenwigs pigtails in Grecian plaits, a rather severe style which absorbed, a good deal of hair, so that a tail so treated was much shorter than the easy going plait of three. And when these Grecian tails had been tied with the new brown ribbon Mamma had provided, and I was dressed in my sky blue dancing frock with the white glass buttons and the Swiss bodice, Fanny took me downstairs and I found myself presently in the dancing room.
If I remember the spacious ballroom at Scarsdale House where I learnt the five positions, I must have been struck by the difference between that lofty saloon and the schoolroom where Mrs. Rupert Byng taught Miss Barnet’s young ladies.
It did not look at all grand, nor did it suggest an evening party. The schoolroom was cleared of all furniture except the benches against the wall, and had by no means a festal look. A stout middle-aged lady in a short black silk gown and cashmere boots which too candidly revealed the knobs that a life-long service of Terpsichore had produced upon her feet, was standing with her back to the fire ready to begin the lesson, while a lad seated in a corner near her was busy tuning his fiddle.
It was not long before I began to pity that unhappy lad, with whom I never had speech, so relentlessly was he treated by the accomplished lady whom he served. I dare say he played badly sometimes, out of tune, out of time, without spirit or with too much, not quick enough, or too quick— but he was human, and friendless in that room, and there was no mercy for him, not so much even as in that Texas dance room, where there was a placard with the kindly appeal “Don’t shoot the man at the piano, he is doing his best.”
I did not find that first dancing lesson exhilarating, and I don’t suppose I profited much by Mrs. Rupert Byng’s talents, for it was her custom to concentrate her attention on her most gifted and advanced pupils, and to leave the less promising dancers sitting against the wall, and as time went on I heard several girls threaten to write to Mamma or Papa to beg that they might not learn dancing next term. Should I not so have written to my dear mother who could ill afford the innumerable “extras” which in those days swelled every school account?
Like those elder girls who were swelling with indignation at Mrs. Byng’s neglect, I found it somewhat tedious to sit and watch a fifteen-year-old Miss Martin, tall and slim, and no doubt graceful, perform the stately movements of a minuet that to me seemed interminable, and as time went on I found that whatever happened in the dancing lesson that minuet had to be gone through, and always with the same pupils. For my own part, I was allowed to stand up occasionally, and I was taught a few steps, the very names of which I have forgotten, and I took part in quadrilles, the first act, which I liked — but I doubt if I ever rose to the height of the Lancers, which seemed to me of appalling difficulty, or of the Caledonians, also a complicated performance in which one might easily come to grief. The polka, a new and fashionable dance, which I had performed in friendly juvenile parties with much satisfaction to myself, I do not somehow remember at Dartmouth Lodge. It may have been too simple and too gay to interest the severe Mrs. Rupert Byng. Anyhow that first dancing night which was to have been like an evening party, bored me to tears, and I was glad when the maternal Fanny took off my pretty blue frock, and I went dejectedly to lay down in one of the white curtained beds in the five-bedded room, of which I had heard the gnome discourse. No doubt her industrious fingers had stitched all those dimity curtains. Oh, what a dreary room it seemed to me as I crept sorrowfully to bed, home-sick already, and pining for that fond mother I had been eager to leave.
When Fanny had carried away her candle, I saw that this large room with its five ghostly beds, and no other furniture to speak of, was lit by the glimmer of a rushlight burning in a perforated metal tower, that stood upon the floor, through which there came slanting shafts of light that glimmered on wall or ceiling with a ghostlike effect. I had never seen a rushlight before, and I have never seen one since, except in the haunted lodging in the pantomime where clown and pantaloon almost die of fright at the spectral candle that sinks through the floor, or assumes unnatural length and shoots up to the ceiling. That rushlight my children and I have seen and loved, but the rushlight at Dartmouth Lodge filled me with melancholy, and it seemed to me a horrible thing as compared with the friendly floating wick that I remembered in my infancy.
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