THE English farm on which I spent my earliest years was a self-contained little world; only occasionally did we make excursions to regions beyond its boundaries. Once a year, perhaps in early autumn, we went with wagons to some woods eight or nine miles away, on the edge of the Moors. There we had the right to fell a certain amount of timber, and to bring it away on our wagons. It was a long day’s expedition, and an immense adventure when we were allowed to go. We took our food with us and picnicked among the resinous chips and stripped bark.
This is the only expedition I remember taking from the farm. My wider explorations were done from other bases. Three or four times, in periods of illness or when, I now suppose, a brother or sister was expected, I went to stay with relations for a few weeks. My mother was the youngest daughter in a family of nine, so we were richly provided with aunts. One of these, a widow, lived with her two sons and our grandfather in a cottage at Helmsley, and there I stayed on at least two occasions.
Helmsley was six miles to the west. The road passed through Harome, a hamlet of white thatched cottages, in one of which lived a woman, my mother used to tell us impressively, with twenty-three children. A mile outside Helmsley the road crossed the railway, and then ran in a straight slope into the town. My aunt’s cottage was on the right as we entered, by the side of a sawmill. When a saw was working, a high melancholy whine rose above the houses and filled me with a vague dread. This first street, Bondgate, opened into a wide market place, with a market cross and a monument in the middle. On one side the houses were still half-timbered, with overhanging gables; the tower of the church rose above them, scattering a merry peal from its numerous bells. Once a week, on Saturdays, the market place was filled with booths, dense with farmers and their wives. At other times it was a wide deserted space, with perhaps a child or two and a dog at the foot of the cross. Sometimes a cart drawn by bullocks passed slowly across, as if to emphasize an air of almost Eastern sleepiness — such carts being an affectation of the Earl whose park gates were at the end of one of the streets leading out of the market place.
Beyond the market place the castle stood in its green keep, still massive and imposing in spite of its deliberate destruction by the Parliamentarians. Here again was a stage setting for my later romantic notions, but my authentic memory of this time associates it only with a tennis tournament in which my father took part, and I still see the white figures of the players set against the vivid green of the lawn. Sheep grazed in the empty moats, and rooks nested in the ragged turrets.
The castle might have been more impressive but for still more romantic monuments within my reach. Duncombe Park was an amazing wonderland, which we entered but rarely, and always with an awe communicated by our deferent ial elders. My eyes searched the wide vistas for some limiting hedge, but in vain. We stopped to stroke a newly born deer. Vanbrugh’s mansion was something beyond my comprehension, of which I only preserve, as fragments from a strange feast, the white ghosts of marble statues incongruous in this greenery, an orange tree in fruit in the conservatory, and a thatched ice house. Overhanging a steep valley at the end of the park is a famous terrace, with a lawn as smooth as a carpet and a Grecian temple at each end. Down in this valley is the abbey of Rievaulx.
Rievaulx played an important part in the growth of my imagination, but I cannot tell how much of its beauty and romance was absorbed in these years of childhood, how much built on to these memories in later years. It was the farthest western limit of my wanderings, and so lovely then in its solitude and desolation that I think my childish mind, in spite of its overweening objectivity, must have surrendered to its subtle atmosphere. One day, years later, I happened to be there when a new church, built under the shadow of the ruins, was consecrated. A choir had come from York Minster, and sang a Te Deuvi between the ruined arches, their sweet voices echoing strangely under the roof of the sky, their white surplices fluttering in the wind. The tomb of Sir Walter l’Espec, the knight who had founded the abbey and had afterward died as a monk in these cloisters, stood at the end of the chancel. It was not dedicated to any known God, but in a moment of solitude it would serve as an altar to a sense of glory denoted by these ruins and this tomb, and their existence in this solitary place.
Around Rievaulx, and especially through the narrow wooded dales which strike like green rays into the purple darkness of the Moors, I wandered with my cousin, a boy five or six years older than myself. He was a keen collector of birds’ eggs, butterflies, and flowers, and had great cunning in the pursuit of these objects. From him I learned how to handle birds’ eggs, to empty them through one blow-hole, to pack them in match boxes. We carried catapults and I was taught the honor of the chase: which birds it was legitimate to shoot, how many eggs one could take from a nest, how to rob a nest without spoiling it or discouraging the mother bird. One day in mistake I shot a robin, a crime my cousin made more terrible by promising to keep it a secret from the world.
Sometimes we would be out all day, regardless of meals. We gathered wild gooseberries and stewed them in a tin over a fire of twigs. We ate the tender shoots of sweetbrier, sorrel, and pignuts. I imagine we were severely scolded on our return, but such unpleasantnesses do not endure in the memory. I remember instead the upright figure of my grandfather, whitehaired and gentle in his armchair by the kitchen fire, the singing kettle, and the cheeping cry of the crickets. We had only candles to light the cottage in the evening. There was a long low window full of geraniums, a steep wooden staircase with a latched door that clicked loudly. In this house I have always pictured the story of the Three Bears.
Behind it was a long straggling yard, with outhouses belonging to a builder, and at the end a walled garden where my grandfather grew vegetables and kept bees in straw hives. Here, too, was a shed containing, amongst other junk, some old gas pipes from which I used to try to construct a fountain. I have never met again their pungent metallic smell. Beyond the garden was a lane leading to the cemetery, which with its orderliness and symbolic cypresses was a place very different from the graveyard at Kirkdale. It was usually bright with flowers, and the Sisters of Mercy passed along the graveled paths with their billowing black robes and white-winged caps. I see now that there was something a little foreign in the whole aspect of this town, with its highly ritualistic church, cloudy with sweet incense, where men and women sat in opposite aisles, its tyrannical vicar, its musical bells, its cart oxen, and its air of seeming to live intently on the four sides of a wide open square.
Every Sunday the dogcart was yoked up and the whole family climbed into the high seats, my father and mother in front with the youngest of us between them, the rest of us clinging to the precarious back seat. When it rained, an immense gingham umbrella, like the roof of a pagoda, sheltered us all. The big wheels crunched on the gritty roads. The farm retreated from us as we trotted down the northern road to our parish church, five miles away. The road had three points of interest: the Little Beck, the Big Beck, and the peacocks.
The becks excited us because they had no bridges: they widened out into shallow fords through which the horse splashed as if born to this watery element. In spring the becks were often flooded, and sometimes the water stretched for hundreds of feet in a lake of incalculable depth. Then the excitement was intense, but my father must have known the safe limits of the flood. I remember the water coming up to the horse’s belly, and our anxiety for the rug, which had a way of hanging below the footboard.
About a mile before we reached the church we passed a small village in the middle of which was a country house known as ‘The Hall,’and here, on a high wall, we sometimes saw the peacocks that inhabited the garden beyond. For us they were fabulous birds, and the glory of their plumage the most exotic sight of those days. A mile farther on, the road descended steeply into a narrow valley, and there, in complete isolation, stood our church.
First came a row of sheds and stables, where the horse was unyoked and the trap put under shelter. Then the path led a little lower down to the gate of the churchyard, where in summer a few men would be standing, enjoying the air until the last moment. The bell, or rather the clapper, clanged in the squat tower. The church is of gray stone with a slated roof, and stands out clearly as you approach it against a dark wood of firs. Ancient tombstones lean out of the grassy mounds at all angles. We were taught that it was wicked to walk over a grave, but this graveyard was so ancient and so thickly populated that we had to wander as if in a maze. Either before or after the service we made our way to the family graves, at the east end of the church; but it was not until Mariana died that this duty became a melancholy one, the sight of my mother’s tears communicating a wondering sense of woe.
In summer we brought flowers to this grave, and sometimes I was sent to throw away the withered remains of last week’s wreath. At the end of the churchyard there was a low wall, and below this a deep ravine in which the river ran, quite overshadowed by trees. Into this gloomy cavern I threw my handful of wisps, glad to hide my uneasiness in this gesture.
Over the porch of the church is a famous Saxon sundial with an inscription carved on the stone panels at each side which tells you that Orm the son of Gamal bought Saint Gregory’s minster when it was all broken down and fallen, and he caused it to be made new from the ground, to Christ and Saint Gregory, in the reign of Edward the King, in the days of Tosti the Earl. Round the dial itself are the words, This is dœges sol merca œt ilcvmtide — ‘ This is the day’s sun mark at every tide’; and below the dial you are told, ‘Hawarth made me and Brand the priest.’
Inside, the walls are whitewashed, and an aqueous light filters through the foliage-bound windows. The nave was then filled with square box pews, very high, so that we retired into a little private world, to pray as a family safe from the distractions of less familiar human beings. But the family included our Howkeld relations, of whom I shall soon speak; and my uncle, so patriarchal in his crisp white beard, officiated within our box. He was too stout to kneel on the hassocks which saved our knees from the cold stone floor, but the rest of us, sometimes eight or nine in number, knelt rigidly with hands pressed palm to palm.
The service was of extreme simplicity and dispatch. The sermon never lasted more than ten minutes, sometimes only five. The music came from a small harmonium, and there was a surpliced choir of perhaps two men and three boys. The congregation numbered in all perhaps forty souls — many less when the weather was wild. In winter the church was very cold, so we kept our overcoats on, and our breath issued in plumes as we sang the hymns. Once a month there was a Communion Service, and then for a few minutes, when our elders went to receive the Sacrament, we were left in possession of the box, at liberty to fidget and to let our eyes wander to the heraldic monsters displayed on the painted wooden hatchments, to the gallery where the servants sat, and to the trees waving across the leaded trellis of the windows.
After the service (which alternated each week between forenoon and afternoon, for the vicar served two parishes) the congregation gathered in groups and chatted peacefully as they walked up the path to the gate, and waited for the traps to be yoked up. The inhuman stillness of the situation aided our friendliness; our church was still where the monks who first built it twelve centuries ago had wanted it to be—in a wild valley, near a running beck, gray like a wild hawk nesting in a shelter of dark trees.
About half a mile above the church the beck suddenly slackens; part of its waters (in summer all) disappear down a fissure in the rocky bed. They keep to a subterranean channel for a mile and a half and suddenly reappear, bubbling up from a great depth, at the head of a field which belonged to my uncle, whose small estate was on that account called Howkeld, which means ‘springhead.’ Here we came often and always with great joy, as to an enchanted kingdom.
My uncle was a miller, and the mysterious water, which left its proper course and dived underground as if on very purpose to come up again in this particular spot to offer him its services, ran deep and strong in a willow-fringed bend round the large field separating the mill from the road. At the end of the field it became a walled dam, and to the right overflowed through a lock into a round lake, which acted as a reservoir for times of drought. The private road to the mill followed the course of the stream and the dam, and then crossed by a bridge under which the water disappeared, combed by an iron grill. It emerged in a swift channel at the other side, and then sluiced in a roaring torrent over the water wheel. The churned water fell in a dazzling white foaming cascade to a whirling pool below the wheel, and then flowed away with diminishing contortions in a stream which ran round the large gardens and through the fields until it rejoined the mother stream a mile and a half farther south.
There was so much here for childish wonder! The mill itself, with its swinging straps and flickering wheels, the bright chains that hoisted the grain to the top story, the dusty machines in which we could see, through little windows, the grain trickling, and the general earth-shaking hum and whirr. The foreman’s bright eyes twinkled from a face all powdered with flour, his clothes were like white mouse skin, his beard hoary. His voice was piping high, from having to make himself heard in the din. On Sundays, when the mill was still, flour dust deadened the sound of our feet on the worn wooden floors; our hands ran sweetly along smooth stepladders and horny ropes.
Perhaps because there was always a plentiful supply of grain, my aunt kept all kinds of poultry, and in the yard round the mill the most motley assembly of fowls strutted and pecked — not only various breeds of hens, but guinea fowl, turkeys, ducks, and geese. The house was at the end of the yard, T-shaped, its leg in line with the mill. A side door led into the leg, which was a low extension of the original building, and here was the Little Room where the family always lived, except on festive occasions.
It was a very low room with a varnished wooden beam running across the ceiling. Most of the space was taken up by a sideboard and a large dining table, and it is hard to think of this room without its complement of food. This was always spread in the most lavish way, with great hams and loins of beef, pies, pastries, and puddings, and, at tea time, cakes and tarts of the most alluring kind. My aunt was a famous cook; the mill and the gardens and the farm poured forth their plenty at the doorstep; by barter, in exchange for flour, most of the other essentials and luxuries of life were forthcoming. A deep spring of purest water flowed in the nearest field. War and famine could pass over the land and leave such bounty unaffected.
It was always peaceful here, a peace of guelder-roses and peonies, of laden fruit trees and patient waters. Perhaps this impression means that our visits were mainly confined to the summer; in winter I only remember the frozen lake, on which we learned to skate. People came from far and near on such occasions, and the ice rang with the swift metallic strokes of the skaters’ feet. In summer the lake, round which a path led among the reeds and rushes, was given over to the water hens and wild ducks. Sometimes a flight of wild geese would come sweeping out of the sky on their way north.
I have already described my uncle as patriarchal, and this was true of him in more than appearance. My aunt was the eldest (and my mother the youngest) of the large family I have already mentioned. Some of these had married and migrated to other parts of the world, but such as remained, a goodly number, looked up to my uncle as the head of the clan into which he had married. His stout figure, his crisp white beard and twinkling eyes, his little linen bags of sample grain, his chuckle and his soft rich dialect, were familiar to the whole countryside; and at the time I speak of he was blessed with much happiness and prosperity. But during the next thirty years (he lived to be nearly ninety) he was to suffer many afflictions: the death of his favorite son, the bankruptcy of another, followed by the mortgaging of his own estate and finally a moratorium — and during all these tribulations he remained, a Lear of these Steppes, magnificent in courage and faith.
His children were contemporaries of my father and mother, and this introduced complications into our childish minds, for we called our cousins simply by their Christian names, whilst others who seemed their equals were aunts and uncles. The youngest of these cousins was not too old to enjoy the rôle of guide and initiator. One day he organized an expedition to explore the cave at Kirkdale. This famous cave extends for three hundred feet underground, and has more than one branch inside. The expedition, therefore, had to be undertaken with proper precautions. These consisted of candles, a large ball of binder-band, and the retriever, Jet. At the entry of the cave we made the end of the band secure, lit our candles, and crept forward, unrolling the ball as we went. The sides of the cave glistened in the candlelight; drops of moisture fell from the stalactites above us; the air we breathed was cold and dank. I cannot remember how far we penetrated, but at one point we were terrified by the sudden appearance of two fiery eyes in the darkness confronting us. Could it be one of the ancient hyenas, not yet a remnant of bones? But it was only Jet, who had run round some loop in the cave and come to meet us.
Once or twice we made expeditions up the dale beyond the cave and the church. It is one of the wildest and most beautiful places in the whole country; and I still remember my father driving some fine lady from the outer world along the track which went along the ridge of the dale, and how she exclaimed that it was more beautiful than Switzerland, a country of which we had no conception, but which we thought must be wonderful because people traveled far just to look at its hills and dales. This track up the dale ended at a house about two miles from the church. Here the dale became narrower and was filled with thick woods where lilies grew.
No road led through these woods, not even a path; but an adventurous spirit could make his way along the bed of the stream, and after a mile or two he would discover that the dale opened out again, to give space to a mill and a few farms and cottages. This is Bransdale, an oasis on the Moors, which in our time only had a poor moorland track to link it with the outer world. The people who lived here were strange and dark and beautiful, even to my childish eyes. For sometimes, when staying at Ilowkeld, I would go out for the day with the wagoners. Our load of grain and flour was drawn by great shaggy-footed cart horses, their harness bright with brass ornaments, their manes and tails plaited with colored ribbons — drawn over the wide purple Moors, where God seems to have left the earth clear of features to reveal the beauty of its naked form, till we dipped down into the green dales and lifted our burden.
The successive governesses who assisted my mother with our upbringing remain utterly vague to me. They must have occupied a large place in our lives, but, except for one insubstantial ghost of dark hair and spectacles, none of them can I recall. I know that they taught us to read, but I doubt if I had acquired that accomplishment before the age of seven. Then books immediately became my element. There was nothing to encourage me in this taste: there were no books in the living rooms, and my father read little except the Yorkshire Post and various agricultural papers. On Sunday he would read to us the lessons of the day (perhaps this was only when it was impossible to go to Kirkdale) and he made us learn the Collect by heart. The only book of his I still possess is The Poetical Works of Sir Walter Scott.
My mother read to us often, especially Little Arthur’s History of England, Evenings at Home, Forget-me-not, and a tendentious story published by the Religious Tract Society called Little Meg’s Children (by the author of Jessica’s First Prayer, The Children of Cloverly, and so forth). I still possess Little Meg’s Children, and I see now that its grim pathos, too simple to be wholly sentimental, may have worked into the texture of my unfolding imagination, above all to prepare me for the shock of death which waited for me so near, for the first chapter describes the death of Little Meg’s mother, and the plight of the orphaned children. The book as a whole might not survive any critical inspection; but am I still bound to childish wonder when I feel some merit in sentences like these?
She turned her face round to the wall with a deep sigh, and closed her eyelids, but her lips kept moving silently from time to time. Meg cried softly to herself in her chair before the fire, but presently she dozed a little for very heaviness of heart, and dreamed that her father’s ship was come into dock, and she, and her mother, and the children, were going down the dingy streets to meet him. She awoke with a start; and creeping gently to her mother’s side, laid her warm little hand upon hers. It was deadly cold with a chill such as little Meg had never before felt; and when her mother neither moved nor spoke in answer to her repeated cries, she knew that she was dead.
For the next day, and the night following, the corpse of the mother lay silent and motionless in the room where her three children were living. Meg cried bitterly at first; but there was Robin to be comforted, and the baby to be played with when it laughed and crowed in her face. Robin was nearly six years old, and had gained a vague dim knowledge of death, by having followed, with a troop of other curious children, many a funeral that had gone out from the dense and dirty dwellings to the distant cemetery, where he had crept forward to the edge of the grave, and peeped down into what seemed to him a very dark and dreadful depth. When little Meg told him mother was dead, and lifted him up to kneel on the bedside, and kiss her icy lips for the last time, his childish heart was filled with an awe which almost made him shrink from the sight of that familiar face, scarcely whiter or more sunken now than it had been for many a day past. . . .
We must have wept often over the tribulations of Little Meg, and may have been duly impressed by her Christian constancy. Were we held by anything but the pathos of the story? This strange country of dingy streets and attics (an attic perhaps I could visualize), of lack of bread and clothes, of evil and misery — it was as fairylike as any story that I had heard; as hard to realize, but just as easy to believe. The emotions were involved, and the imagination, but nothing like reflection or reasoning. We were moved in exactly the same way, and perhaps even to a greater degree, by the adventures of Little Red Ridinghood. Both she and Meg were ‘Little,’ and both survived the perils they encountered. When even the perils we ourselves encounter as children leave so little impression on our sensibility (just because we have no reasoning power to trace their consequences), why should the fictitious pathos of a story have more effect? The perturbations of the intellect are a danger to the instinctive basis of life; no wonder, then, that nature is wise enough to wrap us in a cocoon of insensibility until such time as we have the power to counter intelligence with deeper intuitions.
Little Meg’s attic could be visualized because we had our own attic at the top of t he house. It was approached by a steep staircase just outside the nursery door. On the left, when you reached the top, were two bedrooms, partitioned off and occupied by the maids. But the rest of the space under the roof was free. One side was used for storing apples, and their musty sweetness pervaded the whole room. There were several chests and wardrobes, full of old wedding dresses, and many other things which I do not distinctly remember. But here also was the only considerable store of books in the house, a miscellaneous collection of foxed volumes of sermons and devotional works which can have had little appeal to me, but which I pored over with an instinctive love. But two larger tomes were an inexhaustible mine of delight. They were bound volumes of the Illustrated London News for the year of the Great Exhibition (presumably 1850), full of the steel engravings of the period.
My lust for books was not satisfied in the attic; I soon craved for novelty. But I must have realized thus early that such a longing was a personal affair, to be fulfilled only by a personal effort. Looking round for a means to this end, I seized on the postman as the only link with the printed world. He came daily on his long pedestrian round, for if there were no letters there was always the Yorkshire Post. I made friends with him, and confided to him my secret desires. He was sympathetic, but his acquaintance with literature was limited. It was limited, in fact, to a lurid pink periodical called, I think, the Police Gazette, and this he passed on to me; but though I remember the act of reading it, it left no particular impression on me. Evidently its contents had none of the reality of a fairy world.
I return again and again, in retrospection, to this early untutored interest in books, for how could it have developed, in such isolation and such neglect, but for the presence of some inborn disposition? And faith in such a disposition becomes, with the growth of the personality, a controlling factor. At least, we are only happy so long as our life expands in ever-widening circles from the upward gush of our early impulses; and even love, of which the child is ignorant, is only real in so far as it is a transformation, in adolescence, of our first instinctive attachments.
One day my father brought a delightful toy back from Northallerton: it was a small musical box which played ‘For there’s nae luck about the house.’ But my mother—perhaps then, or perhaps shortly afterward, when there was sufficient cause — thought the tune was ominous. My only sister was a baby at that time, between two and three years old. Our farm was called the Grange, and, though it had no moat, this daughter was christened Mariana. Perhaps that too was ominous, for a sad song goes by that name. Mariana was fair as sunlight, and smiled to the tinkle of the musical box. And that is all I remember of her, for that spring I was suddenly sent away. A few days later my aunt told me that Mariana had become an angel, and the next time we went to Kirkdale I was taken to see the unmeaning mound that covered her body.
Apart from this fatal musical box, the only other music I ever heard in my childhood was Fiddler Dick’s. Every year the young horses bred on the farm had to be ‘broken in,’and this was work for a specialist, who, like the blacksmith, paid us periodical visits. Fiddler Dick was a natty little man, with a hot swarthy complexion and waxed moustaches — probably he was of gypsy blood. He would stay a few days at the Farm, sleeping in the loft above the saddle room. He always brought his fiddle with him, and after dinner, or in the evening, used to play to a wondering audience. I was fascinated by this man — fascinated when he stood in the cow pasture, his neat leggings winking in the sunshine, a wild young colt galloping, trotting, walking in a circle at the end of a long rope, controlled by Fiddler Dick’s flickering whip — still more fascinated when the brown fiddle came out of its box and a sound, never imagined before, was conjured out of the air.
Nowr I had seen, in a chest in the attic, just such a brown fiddle, and one day when Fiddler Dick was at the farm I brought it down and asked him to teach me to make such music. But some of the strings were broken, and the bow had no horsehair. Some untwisted binder-band served to repair the bow, and we got some catgut from the nearest cobbler for the strings. Fiddler Dick rejoiced in the word ‘catgut,’ and cats took on a new significance for me. I cannot now believe that the sounds which issued from this improvised instrument bore any resemblance to the plaintive voice of a violin, but I retained my longing to play.
Later, when I went away to school, I persuaded my mother to let me take music as an extra subject, and she consented. But I was put to the piano, which iiad no charm for me, no urgency of aspiration. I could not rival Fiddler Dick on such an instrument! Besides, instead of Fiddler Dick, I had for a teacher a fierce Dutchman, bristling with long hair and a silk bow tie, flashing with rings. At the end of the year my enthusiasm had so waned that I could not urge my mother to pay the extra fees for music. But I still clung to the old violin, with the vague hope that I might one day learn to play it. It was still in my possession at the beginning of the war, but my mother died at this time, and in the subsequent confusion the violin disappeared. I had expected to find it among the few possessions I had stored in a cellar against my return, but it was not there.
I should perhaps never have given it another thought hut for an experience of several years later. I came late one evening, after a walk along a forest road in Bavaria, the moon staring at me through the cage bars of the trees, to a large castle where many guests were being entertained. Supper was finished, and there was not a soul to be seen except a porter who took my bag and told me that everyone was in the music room, even the servants, and that I had better make my way there and wail for the end. I was directed to a small balcony, which I could enter without disturbing the audience. The room was in darkness except for an electric lamp at the far end, above the dais where the music was being played. It was a violin sonata, and I was immediately held, not so much by the music as by the image which came into my mind as I gazed at the woman playing the violin. Her slender body was like a stem on which nodded, to the rhythm of the music, a strange exotic flower. The corolla of this flower was a human face, very white beneath an arch of raven-black hair, which seemed to brood over its coiled tawny petals, and to preserve an essential stillness in the midst of the force which agitated them. The notes of the piano, to whose rise and fall it seemed bound in some inevitable way, might have been the voice of a stream urging its way past the resisting stem of this flower swaying above its swift current.
All my early fascination for this instrument, awakened long before by Fiddler Dick and long dormant, awoke at this moment with a fierce in burning incandescence, a glow in which there was no longer any sense of aspiration or self-directed interest, a fire of renunciation and surrender. Once more an early impulse had found its fulfillment, its transformation, to become a conscious interest in my life.
These scenes of childhood end abruptly with the death of my father. In the winter of my ninth year, he was taken ill with pneumonia; the house became muted and silent. Mrs. Walker, the nurse from one of the cottages by Peacock’s farm, whom I have not mentioned before, but who had attended my mother in all her confinements, was called in; and our cousin the doctor came from Kirby daily. He and my father were fast friends, and, when the illness became critical, all his energies were devoted to the saving of this precious life. But in vain. Rheumatic fever developed. The air of anguish in everyone, my mother’s tearful eyes — these were obvious even to us children. One day leeches were brought, and stood in a glass jar on a shelf in the dairy. They were black, blind, and sinister. But then we were taken away.
I went to Howkeld, and one night I suffered intolerable earache, so that I cried aloud and was poulticed with onions. The pain had gone in the morning, but by my aunt’s tears I knew that my father was dead. The next day I was driven back to the farm. The blinds were drawn; everywhere it was very still, and dark. We were taken upstairs to say good-bye to my dead father. The cold wintry light came evenly through the open slats of the Venetian blind. My father lay on the bed, sleeping, as he always did, with his arms on the coverlet, straight down each side of his body. His beautiful face was very white, except for the red marks on his temples where the leeches had clung. I was told to kiss that face; it was deadly cold, like the face of Little Meg’s mother.
I felt stunned, but could not comprehend my loss, nor the grief of those about me. I moved away in the unnatural stillness, walking in a living sleep. Downstairs candles were burning on a table laden with cold meat and cakes. Then we all drove to Kirkdale, slowly over the frozen flint roads, and there a grave was ready dug at the east end of the church, by the side of Mariana’s. The dark cirque of fir trees rose in the background, sighing in the frosty wind. The bell in the gray tower clanged its toneless note. The horses were not unyoked. Six friends of my father carried his coffin into the ancient church, and then to the grave. The earth fell with a hollow sound on to the lowered coffin. My mother sobbed against my uncle’s shoulder. The last Amen was murmured in that immemorial stillness, and when we had taken a last look at the forlorn coffin we drove back swiftly over the frozen flint roads, horse hoofs beating clearly in the metallic air.
A few weeks later the sheep were driven into pens, the cattle labeled, and a crowd of farmers from far and near assembled at the farm. A wagon was drawn out on the Green, to serve as a platform for the auctioneer. Everything was sold, except a few pieces of old furniture which my mother was fond of—even the books from the attic, the sermons tied in bundles, and the two volumes of the Illustrated London News. Little Meg, Little Arthur, Evenings at Home, and Forget-me-not alone were left for me.
We went to stay with a cousin at the other end of the Vale, but only for a few months. Then my eldest brother and I left for a boarding school, far away from these scenes. My childhood, the first phase of my life, was isolated; it grew detached in my memory and floated away like a leaf on a stream; but it never finally disappeared, as these pages witness. Instead, as this body of mine passes through the rays of experience, it meets bright, points of ecstasy which come from the heart of this lost realm. But the realm is never w’holly lost; it is reconstructed stage by stage whenever the sensibility recovers its first innocence, whenever eye and ear and touch and tongue and quivering nostril revive sensation in all its child-godly passivity.
To-day I found a withered stem of honesty, and shelled the pods between my thumb and finger; silver pennies, which grew between the fragrant currant bushes. Their glistening surfaces, seeded, the very faint rustle they make in the wind — these sensations come direct to me from a moment thirty years ago. As they expand in my mind, they carry everything in their widening circle — the low crisp box hedge which would be at my feet, the pear trees on the wall behind me, the potato flowers on the patch beyond the bushes, the cow pasture, the fairy rings — everything shimmers for a second on the expanding rim of my memory. The farthest tremor of this perturbation is lost only at the finest edge where sensation passes beyond the confines of experience; for memory is a flower which only opens fully in the kingdom of Heaven, where the eye is eternally innocent.