My father obligingly racks his brains, but nothing comes. He says that M—is still too mean to buy a morning paper and comes down to the club, reads the news there, and then insists on retailing it to the other members. ‘I say, you fellows, have you seen that on the North West Frontier…’ etc. Everyone is deeply annoyed, since M—is one of the richest members.
My mother, who has heard all this before, is not satisfied. My father relapses into quiet contentment. He leans back in his chair, stretches out his legs to the fire and gently scratches his head (a forbidden pastime).
‘What are you thinking about, Fred?’ demands my mother.
‘Nothing,’ my father replies with perfect truth.
‘You can’t be thinking about nothing?
Again and again that statement baffles my mother. To her it is unthinkable.
Through her own brain thoughts dart with the swiftness of swallows in flight. Far from thinking of nothing, she is usually thinking of three things at once.
As I was to realise many years later, my mother’s ideas were always slightly at variance with reality. She saw the universe as more brightly coloured than it was, people as better or worse than they were. Perhaps because in the years of her childhood she had been quiet, restrained, with her emotions kept well below the surface, she tended to see the world in terms of drama that came near, sometimes, to melodrama. Her creative imagination was so strong that it could never see things as drab or ordinary. She had, too, curious flashes of intuition–of knowing suddenly what other people were thinking. When my brother was a young man in the Army and had got into monetary difficulties which he did not mean to divulge to his parents, she startled him one evening by looking across at him as he sat frowning and worrying. ‘Why, Monty,’ she said, ‘you’ve been to moneylenders. Have you been raising money on your grandfather’s will? You shouldn’t do that. It’s better to go to your father and tell him about it.’
Her faculty for doing that sort of thing was always surprising her family. My sister said once: ‘Anything I don’t want mother to know, I don’t even think of, if she’s in the room.’
Difficult to know what one’s first memory is. I remember distinctly my third birthday. The sense of my own importance surges up in me. We are having tea in the garden–in the part of the garden where, later, a hammock swings between two trees.
There is a tea-table and it is covered with cakes, with my birthday cake, all sugar icing and with candles in the middle of it. Three candles. And then the exciting occurrence–a tiny red spider, so small that I can hardly see it, runs across the white cloth. And my mother says: ‘It’s a lucky spider, Agatha, a lucky spider for your birthday…’ And then the memory fades, except for a fragmentary reminiscence of an interminable argument sustained by my brother as to how many eclairs he shall be allowed to eat.
The lovely, safe, yet exciting world of childhood. Perhaps the most absorbing thing in mine is the garden. The garden was to mean more and more to me, year after year. I was to know every tree in it, and attach a special meaning to each tree. From a very early time, it was divided in my mind into three distinct parts.
There was the kitchen garden, bounded by a high wall which abutted on the road. This was uninteresting to me except as a provider of raspberries and green apples, both of which I ate in large quantities. It was the kitchen garden but nothing else. It offered no possibilities of enchantment.
Then came the garden proper–a stretch of lawn running downhill, and studded with certain interesting entities. The ilex, the cedar, the Wellingtonia (excitingly tall). Two fir-trees, associated for some reason not now clear with my brother and sister. Monty’s tree you could climb (that is to say hoist yourself gingerly up three branches). Madge’s tree, when you had burrowed cautiously into it, had a seat, an invitingly curved bough, where you could sit and look out unseen on the outside world. Then there was what I called the turpentine tree which exuded a sticky strong-smelling gum which I collected carefully in leaves and which was ‘very precious balm’. Finally, the crowning glory, the beech tree–the biggest tree in the garden, with a pleasant shedding of beechnuts which I ate with relish. There was a copper beech, too, but this, for some reason, never counted in my tree world.
Thirdly, there was the wood. In my imagination it looked and indeed still looms as large as the New Forest. Mainly composed of ash trees, it had a path winding through it. The wood had everything that is connected with woods. Mystery, terror, secret delight, inaccessibility and distance…
The path through the wood led out on to the tennis or croquet lawn at the top of a high bank in front of the dining-room window. When you emerged there, enchantment ended. You were in the everyday world once more, and ladies, their skirts looped up and held in one hand, were playing croquet, or, with straw boater-hats on their heads, were playing tennis.
When I had exhausted the delights of ‘playing in the garden’ I returned to the Nursery wherein was Nursie, a fixed point, never changing. Perhaps because she was an old woman and rheumatic, my games were played around and beside, but not wholly with, Nursie. They were all make-believe.
From as early as I can remember, I had various companions of my own choosing. The first lot, whom I cannot remember except as a name, were ‘The Kittens’. I don’t know now who ‘The Kittens’ were, and whether I was myself a Kitten, but I do remember their names:
Clover, Blackie and three others. Their mother’s name was Mrs Benson.
Nursie was too wise ever to talk to me about them, or to try to join in the murmurings of conversation going on round her feet. Probably she was thankful that I could amuse myself so easily.
Yet it was a horrible shock to me one day when I came up the stairs from the garden for tea to hear Susan the housemaid saying:
‘Don’t seem to care for toys much, does she? What does she play with?’
And Nursie’s voice replying:
‘Oh she plays that she’s a kitten with some other kittens.’
Why is there such an innate demand for secrecy in a child’s mind?
The knowledge that anyone–even Nursie–knew about The Kittens upset me to the core. From that day on I set myself never to murmur aloud in my games. The Kittens were My Kittens and only mine. No one must know.
I must, of course, have had toys. Indeed, since I was an indulged and much loved child, I must have had a good variety of them, but I do not remember any, except, vaguely, a box of variegated beads, and stringing them into necklaces. I also remember a tiresome cousin, an adult, insisting teasingly that my blue beads were green and my green ones were blue.
My feelings were as those of Euclid: ‘which is absurd’, but politely I did not contradict her. The joke fell flat.
I remember some dolls: Phoebe, whom I did not much care for, and a doll called Rosalind or Rosy. She had long golden hair and I admired her enormously, but I did not play much with her. I preferred The Kittens.
Mrs Benson was terribly poor, and it was all very sad. Captain Benson, their father, had been a Sea Captain and had gone down at sea, which was why they had been left in such penury. That more or less ended the Saga of the Kittens except that there existed vaguely in my mind a glorious finale to come of Captain Benson not being dead and returning one day with vast wealth just when things had become quite desperate in the Kittens’ home.
From the Kittens I passed on to Mrs Green. Mrs Green had a hundred children, of whom the important ones were Poodle, Squirrel and Tree.
Those three accompanied me on all my exploits in the garden. They were not quite children and not quite dogs, but indeterminate creatures between the two.
Once a day, like all well brought-up children, I ‘went for a walk’. This I much disliked, especially buttoning up my boots-a necessary preliminary.
I lagged behind and shuffled my feet, and the only thing that got me through was Nursie’s stories. She had a repertoire of six, all centred on the various children of the families with which she had lived.
I remember none of them now, but I do know that one concerned a tiger in India, one was about monkeys, and one about a snake. They were very exciting, and I was allowed to choose which I would hear. Nursie repeated them endlessly without the least sign of weariness.
Sometimes, as a great treat, I was allowed to remove Nursie’s snowy ruffled cap. Without it, she somehow retreated into private life and lost her official status. Then, with elaborate care, I would tie a large blue satin ribbon round her head–with enormous difficulty and holding my breath, because tying a bow is no easy matter for a four-year-old. After which I would step back and exclaim in ecstasy: ‘Oh Nursie, you are beautiful!’
At which she would smile and say in her gentle voice:
‘Am I, love?’
After tea, I would be put into starched muslin and go down to the drawing-room to my mother to be played with.
If the charm of Nursie’s stories were that they were always the same, so that Nursie represented the rock of stability in my life, the charm of my mother was that her stories were always different and that we practically never played the same game twice. One story, I remember, was about a mouse called Bright Eyes. Bright Eyes had several different adventures, but suddenly, one day, to my dismay, my mother declared that there were no more stories about Bright Eyes to tell. I was on the point of weeping when my mother said: ‘But I’ll tell you a story about a Curious Candle.’ We had two instalments of the Curious Candle, which was, I think, a kind of detective story, when unluckily some visitors came to stay and our private games and stories were in abeyance. When the visitors left and I demanded the end of the Curious Candle, which had paused at a most thrilling moment when the villain was slowly rubbing poison into the candle, my mother looked blank and apparently could remember nothing about the matter. That unfinished serial still haunts my mind. Another delightful game was ‘Houses’, in which we collected bath towels from all over the house and draped them over chairs and tables so as to make ourselves residences, out of which we emerged on all fours.
I remember little of my brother and sister, and I presume this is because they were away at school. My brother was at Harrow and my sister at Brighton at the Miss Lawrences’ School which was afterwards to become Roedean. My mother was considered go-ahead to send her daughter to a boarding school, and my father broad-minded to allow it.
But my mother delighted in new experiments.
Her own experiments were mostly in religion. She was, I think, of a naturally mystic turn of mind. She had the gift of prayer and contemplation, but her ardent faith and devotion found it difficult to select a suitable form of worship. My long-suffering father allowed himself to be taken to first one, now another place of worship.
Most of these religious flirtations took place before I was born. My mother had nearly been received into the Roman Catholic church, had then bounced off into being a Unitarian (which accounted for my brother never having been christened), and had from there become a budding Theosophist, but took a dislike to Mrs Besant when hearing her lecture.
After a brief but vivid interest in Zoroastrianism, she returned, much to my father’s relief, to the safe haven of the Church of England, but with a preference for ‘high’ churches. There was a picture of St. Francis by her bed, and she read The Imitation of Christ night and morning. That same book lies always by my bed.
My father was a simple-hearted, orthodox Christian. He said his prayers every night and went to Church every Sunday. His religion was matter-of-fact and without heart-searchings–but if my mother liked hers with trimmings, it was quite all right with him. He was, as I have said, an agreeable man.
I think he was relieved when my mother returned to the Church of England in time for me to be christened in the Parish Church. I was called Mary after my grandmother, Clarissa after my mother, and Agatha as an afterthought, suggested on the way to the church by a friend of my mother’s who said it was a nice name.
My own religious views were derived mainly from Nursie, who was a Bible Christian. She did not go to Church but read her Bible at home.
Keeping the Sabbath was very important, and being worldly was a sore offence in the eyes of the Almighty. I was myself insufferably smug in my conviction of being one of the ‘saved’. I refused to play games on Sunday or sing or strum the piano, and I had terrible fears for the ultimate salvation of my father, who played croquet blithely on Sunday afternoons and made gay jokes about curates and even, once, about a bishop.