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AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A CHILD.1
CHAPTER XX.-HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS.
HOME for the holidays! What a joyous sound the words have for little ears! Holidays home! Two iridescent words of rainbow-promise, expectation in all its warm witchery of dream and
chantment, of indolence and eager activity, of impulses unrestrained, and of constant caresses. For me, alas! how much less they meant than for happier children; but even to me the change was delightful, and I welcomed the hopes it contained with all the lively emotions of imaginative childhood. First there was the excitement of the voyage, then the fresh acquaintance with the land I had left two years ago, my own quaint and melancholy land I was about to behold again through foreign glasses; then the captivation of my importance in the family circle, the wonderful things to tell, the revelations, the surprises, embroidered fact so close upon the hidden heels of invention! My mother came to take me home. She stayed at the Ivies. It was summer- time,
and all the rose - bushes were blood red with blossom, and one breathed the fragrance of roses as if one were living a Persian poem. Not a white rose anywhere, but red upon red, through every tone from
crimson to pink. Is it an exaggeration of imagination, or were the Lysterby lanes and gardens rivers of red, like the torrent-beds of the Greek isles when the oleander is a-bloom? For, looking back to the summers of Lysterby, I see nothing on earth but roses, multiplied like the daisies of the field, a whole county waving perfumed red in memory of the great historic house whose emblem in a memorable war was the red rose of Lysterby.
Of my mother's stay at the Ivies, though she stayed there several days, I remember little definite but two characteristic scenes. Walking across the lawn toward where she stood in the sunshine talking to Sister Esmeralda, I see her still as vividly now as then. She made so superb a picture that even I, who saw her through a hostile and embittered glance, stopped and asked myself if that imperial creature really were my mother. The word mother is so close, so familiar, so everyday an image, and this magnificent woman looked as remote as a queen of legend. Her very beauty was of a nature to inspire terror, as if the mere dropping of her white gold-fringed lids meant the sentence of death to the beholder. My companions round about me
1 Copyright, 1898, by Dodd, Mead & Co. in the United States of America.
prone in abject admiration, and of their state I took note with some measure of pride.
Not so had Polly Evans's mother been regarded; not so was even Lady Adelaide, the Catholic peeress who came to benediction on Sunday, regarded, though she had the haughty upper lip and inscrutable gaze of sensational fiction.
How to paint her, as she stood thus valorously free to the raking sunbeams that showed out the mild white bloom and rose-leaf pink of her long, full visage? She wore on her abundant fair hair a black lace bonnet, trimmed with mauve flowers and a white aigrette, and the long train of her white alpaca gown lay upon the grass like a queen's robe. I remember my admiration of the thousand little flounces, black-edged, that ran in shimmering lines up to her rounded waist. She was in half mourning for my grandmother, whose existence I had forgotten all about, and brave and becoming, it must be admitted, were those weeds of mitigated grief. As I approached, she turned her fine and finished visage, with the long delicate and cruel nostrils, and the thin delicate red lips, to me, and her cold blue glance, falling upon my anxious and distrustful face, turned my heart to stone. I felt as Amy Robsart, my favourite heroine, must have felt when she encountered the gaze of royal Elizabeth. Elizabeth, handsome, tall, and stately, with long sloping shoulders and full bust, not the Elizabeth of history; an Empress Eugenie without her feminine charm and
grace, of the most wonderful fairness I have ever seen, and also the most surprising harshness of expression. I have all my life been hearing of my mother's beauty, and have heard that when the Empress Eugenie's bust was exposed at the Dublin Exhibition, the general cry was that my mother had been the sculptor's model, so singular and striking was the resemblance between these two women of Scottish blood. But then and then only, in one brief flash, did I seize the insistent claim of that beauty always closed to my hostile glance. Then and then only was I compelled, by the sheer splendour of the vision, to own that the mother who did not love me was the handsomest creature I had ever beheld.
The other episode connected with her visit that has stamped itself upon memory is typical of her rare method of imparting knowledge to the infant mind. We were driving in a fly through the rose-smelling country, and it transpired, as we approached a railway-station, that we were going to visit Shakespeare's grave. "Who is Shakespeare?" I flippantly asked, looking at my sister, who sat beside my mother.
Pif-paf! a blow on the ear sent sparks flying before my eyes, and rolled my hat to the ground. Two years inhabiting a sacred county and not to have heard of the poet's name! a child of hers, the most learned of women, so ignorant and so unlettered! Thus was I made acquainted with the name of Shakespeare, and with stinging
cheek and humiliated and stiffened little heart, is it surprising that I remember nothing else of that visit to his tomb? Indeed it was part of my pride to look at nothing, to note nothing, but walk about that day in full-eyed sullen silence.
My mother had not seen me for two years. This was the measure of maternal tenderness she had treasured up for me in that interval, and so royally meted out to me. Other children
are kissed and cried over after a week's absence. I am stunned by an unmerited blow when I rashly open my lips after a two years' separation. And yet I preserve my belief in maternal love as a blessing that exists for others, born under a more fortunate star, though the bounty of nature did not reserve a stray beam to brighten the way for that miserable little waif I was those long, long years ago.
CHAPTER XXI.-OLD ACQUAINTANCE.
The most vivid remembrance of my first return to Ireland is the sharp sensation of ugly sound conveyed in the flat Dublin drawl. I have never since been able to surmount this unjust antipathy to the accent of my native town. The intolerable length of the syllables, the exaggerated roundness of the vowel sounds, the weight and roll of the eternal r's-it is all like the garlic of Provence, more seizing than captivating.
And then the squalor, the mysterious ugliness of the North Wall! The air of affronted leisure that greets you on all sides. A filthy porter slouches over to you, with an indulgent, quizzical look in his kindly eyes. "Is it a porther ye'll be wanting?" he asks, in suppressed wonderment at any such unreasonable need on your part. When he has sufficiently recovered from the shock, he lounges in among the boxes, heroically resolved to make a joke of his martyrdom. He meets your irritated glance with
a reassuring smile, nods, and drawls out cheerily: "Aisy, now, aisy. Sure an' 'twill be all the same in a hundred years.' When at last your trunks are discovered in the disorderly heap, he volunteers, with the same suggestion of indifferent indulgence: "I suppose 'twill be a cab or a cyar you'll be wanting next." By implication you are made to understand that the cab or the cyar is another exorbitant demand on your part, and that properly speaking you should shoulder your trunk yourself and march off contentedly to your inn or lodging or palace. "If ye loike, I'll lift it on to the cab for you," he adds, goodnaturedly.
There are travellers whom these odd ways of Erin amuse; others there are who are exasperated to the verge of insanity by them. But they amply explain the lamentable condition of the island and the imperturbable good-humour of the least troubled and least ambitious of races. The porter's
philosophy resumes the philosophy of the land: "Aisy, now, aisy. Sure an' 'twill be all the same in a hundred years."
With patience and goodhumour on your side, and much voluble sympathy and information on that of your driver, you are sure to arrive somewhere, even from such remote latitudes as that of the North Wall and the Pigeon house. You are jerked over two lock - bridges, and you thank your stars with reason that the discoloured and malodorous waters of the Liffey have not closed over you and your luggage. The catastrophe would find your driver phlegmatic and philosophic, with a twinkle in his eye above the infamous depths of mire that suffocated you, assuring you that when a man is ass enough to travel he must take the consequences of his folly. For Erin and Iberia, moist shamrock and flaunting carnation, meet in their conviction that the sage sits at home and smokes his pipe or twangs his guitar in leisure, while the fool alone courts the perils of foreign highways.
As soon as the hall - door opened, and I stood with my foot upon the first step of the familiar stairs, a chorus of young voices shouted my name in glee. "An-gel-a!"
How flat and strange and inharmonious sounded that first greeting of my name in ears attuned to accents shriller and more thin! The English Angela was quick and clear; but the long-drawn Dublin Angela set all my teeth on an edge, and such was the shock that the
ardour of my satisfaction in seeing them all again, and of appearing in their midst as a travelled personage, was damped.
"How odd you all talk," I remember remarking at tea, and being promptly crushed: "It's you with your horrid English accent that talks odd."
Still, in spite of this slight skirmish, they were glad enough to see me. The quaint little booby of Kildare, whom they had bullied to their liking, had grown into a lean, delicate, and resolute fiend, prepared to meet every blow by a buffet, every injustice by passionate revolt. I no longer needed Mrs Clement's submissive protection. I had tasted the glory of independent fight, and henceforth my tormentors were entitled to some meed of pity, though justice bids me, in recording my iniquities, to remember that their misfortunes were merited and earned with exceeding rigour.
The first thrill of home-coming, that inexplicable vibration of memory's chord, which so early marks the development of the creature, and signifies the sharp division of past and present, ran like a flame through all my body when the noise of Mrs Clement's big bunch of keys, rattling below stairs, reached me through the open drawing-room door.
"Mrs Clement is downstairs!" I shouted joyously, and instantly the band of blondheaded scamps carried me off in triumph.
Into whose hands has that sombre town-house of my parents passed? Heaven grant the children that play there are
happier than ever I was; but if the old store-room, with the big linen-presses, and the long china-press with upper doors of wire-screen, the long table and square mahogany and leather arm-chairs and sofa, gives to the occupants to-day half the pleasure it always gave me, they are not to be pitied whatever their fate.
The wide window looked out upon a hideous little street, but in front there was a stone terrace, with two huge eagles, where Mrs Clement kept pots of plants and flowers that, alas! never bloomed, watered she them never so sedulously; and above the terraces, if you ignored the sordid street, the sunset traced all its fairest and rarest effects upon the broad arch of heaven that spanned the street opening. Those Irish skies! you must go to Italy and Greece to find hues as heavenly. How many a sorrow unsuspected, that filled me with such intensity of despair as only childhood can feel, has been smoothed by that mysterious slip of sky between two dull rows of houses, against which in the liquid summer of blue dusk the eagles, with all the lovely significance of a romantic image, were sketched in sculptured stone. I dried my eyes to dream of lands where eagles flew as common as sparrows. I cannot now tell why, but I remember well that I grew to associate that distant glimpse of heaven from the old store-room with the isle of Prospero and Miranda. And when I learnt the Sonnets-which I knew by heart, as well as "The Tempest" and "The Merchant of Venice" before the holidays
were over I always found some strange connection between the abortive, sickly cowslips and primroses Mrs Clement cultivated on her terrace in wooden boxes and those magic lines
"From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything."
What can it be that poetry says to children, since they can neither understand the rhythm, nor metre, nor beauty, nor sentiment of it? And the child who (as I was then) is susceptible to the charm of poetry that sweeps through the infinite, weeps with delicious emotion without the ghost of an idea why. I was but a child of nine, when my sister in response to my prayer, with my cheek still stinging from that blow along the Warwick road, opened the fairyland of Shakespeare to me. With a rapture I would I now could feel, I thrilled to the glamour of the moonlight scene of the "Merchant." We never went to bed without rehearsing it, each in turn being Jessica or Lorenzo. I only remember one other sensation as passionate and vivid and absorbing, my first hearing of the Moonlight Sonata, also at an age when it was perfectly impossible that I should understand more than a mouse or a linnet a particle of its beauty or meaning. Yet there they stand out in extraordinary relief from a confusion of childish impressions, two distinct moments of inexplicable ecstasy, the reveries of Lorenzo and Jessica and the impassioned utterance of the master's soul in