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   Chapter 6 FEARS OF CHILDHOOD

Where No Fear Was By Arthur Christopher Benson Characters: 15728

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


If I look back over my own life, I can discern three distinct stages of fear and anxieties, and I expect it is the same with most people. The terrors of childhood are very mysterious things, and their horror consists in the child's inability to put the dread into words. I remember how one night, when we were living in the Master's Lodge at Wellington College, I had gone to bed, and waking soon afterwards heard a voice somewhere outside. I got out of bed, went to the door, and looked out. Close to my door was an archway which looked into the open gallery that ran round the big front hall, giving access to the bedrooms. At the opposite end of the hall, in the gallery, burnt a gaslight: to my horror I observed close to the gas what seemed to me a colossal shrouded statue, made of a black bronze, formless, silent, awful. I crept back to my bed, and there shivered in an ecstasy of fear, till at last I fell asleep. There was no statue there in the morning! I told my old nurse, after a day or two of dumb dread, what I had seen. She laughed, and told me that a certain Mrs. Holder, an elderly widow who was a dressmaker, had been to see her, about some piece of work. They had turned out the nursery lights and were going downstairs, when some question arose about the stuff of the frock, whatever it was. Mrs. Holder had mounted on a chair to look close at the stuff by the gaslight; and this was my bogey!

We had a delightful custom in nursery days, devised by my mother, that on festival occasions, such as birthdays or at Christmas, our presents were given us in the evening by a fairy called Abracadabra.

The first time the fairy appeared, we heard, after tea, in the hall, the hoarse notes of a horn. We rushed out in amazement. Down in the hall, talking to an aunt of mine who was staying in the house, stood a veritable fairy, in a scarlet dress, carrying a wand and a scarlet bag, and wearing a high pointed scarlet hat, of the shape of an extinguisher. My aunt called us down; and we saw that the fairy had the face of a great ape, dark-brown, spectacled, of a good-natured aspect, with a broad grin, and a curious crop of white hair, hanging down behind and on each side. Unfortunately my eldest brother, a very clever and imaginative child, was seized with a panic so insupportable at the sight of the face, that his present had to be given him hurriedly, and he was led away, blanched and shuddering, to the nursery. After that, the fairy never appeared except when he was at school: but long after, when I was looking in a lumber-room with my brother for some mislaid toys, I found in a box the mask of Abracadabra and the horn. I put it hurriedly on, and blew a blast on the horn, which seemed to be of tortoise-shell with metal fittings. To my amazement, he turned perfectly white, covered his face with his hands, and burst out with the most dreadful moans. I thought at first that he was making believe to be frightened, but I saw in a minute or two that he had quite lost control of himself, and the things were hurriedly put away. At the time I thought it a silly kind of affectation. But I perceive now that he had had a real shock the first time he had seen the mask; and though he was then a big schoolboy, the terror was indelible. Who can say of what old inheritance of fear that horror of the great ape-like countenance was the sign? He had no associations of fear with apes, but it must have been, I think, some dim old primeval terror, dating from some ancestral encounter with a forest monster. In no other way can I explain it.

Again, as a child, I was once sitting at dinner with my parents, reading an old bound-up Saturday Magazine, looking at the pictures, and waiting for dessert. I turned a page, and saw a picture of a Saint, lying on the ground, holding up a cross, and a huge and cloudy fiend with vast bat-like wings bending over him, preparing to clutch him, but deterred by the sacred emblem. That was a really terrible shock. I turned the page hastily, and said nothing, though it deprived me of speech and appetite. My father noticed my distress, and asked if I felt unwell, but I said "No." I got through dessert somehow; but then I had to say good-night, go out into the dimly-lit hall, slip the volume back into the bookcase, and get upstairs. I tore up the staircase, feeling the air full of wings and clutching hands. That was too bad ever to be spoken of; and as I did not remember which volume it was, I was never able to look at the set of magazines again for fear of encountering it; and strange to say some years afterwards, when I was an Eton boy, I looked curiously for the picture, and again experienced the same overwhelming horror.

My youngest brother, too, an imaginative child, could never be persuaded by any bribes or entreaties to go into a dark room to fetch anything out. Nothing would induce him. I remember that he was catechised at the tea-table as to what he expected to find, to which he replied at once, with a horror-stricken look and a long stammer, "B-b-b-bloodstained corpses!"

It seems fantastic and ridiculous enough to older people, but the horror of the dark and of the unknown which some children have is not a thing to be laughed at, nor should it be unsympathetically combated. One must remember that experience has not taught a child scepticism; he thinks that anything in the world may happen; and all the monsters of nursery tales, goblins, witches, evil fairies, dragons, which a child in daylight will know to be imaginary, begin, as the dusk draws on, to become appalling possibilities. They may be somewhere about, lurking in cellars and cupboards and lofts and dark entries by day, and at night they may slip out to do what harm they can. For children, not far from the gates of birth, are still strongly the victims of primeval and inherited fears, not corrected by the habitual current of life. It is not a reason for depriving children of the joys of the old tales and the exercise of the faculty of wonder; but the tendency should be very carefully guarded and watched, because these sudden shocks may make indelible marks, and leave a little weak spot in the mind which may prove difficult to heal.

It is not only these spectral terrors against which children have to be guarded. All severity and sharp indignity of punishment, all intemperate anger, all roughness of treatment, should be kept in strict restraint. There are noisy, boisterous, healthy children, of course, who do not resent or even dread sharp usage. But it is not always easy to discover the sensitive child, because fear of displeasure will freeze him into a stupor of apparent dullness and stubbornness. I am always infuriated by stupid people who regret the disappearance of sharp, stern, peremptory punishments, and lament the softness of the rising generation. If punishment must be inflicted, it should be done good-naturedly and robustly as a natural tit-for-tat. Anger should be reserved for things like spitefulness and dishonesty and cruelty. There is nothing more utterly confusing to the childish mind than to have trifling faults treated with wrath and indignation. It is true that, in the world of nature, punishment seems often wholly disproportionate to offences. Nature will penalise carelessness in a disastrous fashion, and spare the cautious and prudent sinner. But there is no excuse for us, if we have any sense of justice and patience at all, for not setting a better example. We ought to show children that there is a moral order which we are endeavouring to administer. If parents and schoolmasters, who are both judges and executioners, allow their own rule to be fortuitous, indulge their own irritable moods, punish severely a trifling fault, and sentimentalise or condone a serious one, a child is utterly confused. I know several people who hav

e had their lives blighted, have been made suspicious, cynical, crafty, and timid, by severe usage and bullying and open contempt in childhood. The thing to avoid, for all who are responsible in the smallest degree for the nurture of children, is to call in the influence of fear; one may speak plainly of consequences, but even there one must not exaggerate, as schoolmasters often do, for the best of motives, about moral faults; one may punish deliberate and repeated disobedience, wanton cruelty, persistent and selfish disregard of the rights of others, but one must warn many times, and never try to triumph over a fault by the infliction of a shock of any kind. The shock is the most cruel and cowardly sort of punishment, and if we wilfully use it, then we are perpetuating the sad tyranny of instinctive fear, and using the strength of a great angel to do the work of a demon, such as I saw long ago in the old magazine, and felt its tyranny for many days.

As a child the one thing I was afraid of was the possibility of my father's displeasure. We did not see a great deal of him, because he was a much occupied headmaster; and he was to me a stately and majestic presence, before whom the whole created world seemed visibly to bow. But he was deeply anxious about our upbringing, and had a very strong sense of his responsibility; and he would sometimes reprove us rather sternly for some extremely trifling thing, the way one ate one's food, or spoke, or behaved. This descended upon me as a cloud of darkness; I attempted no excuses, I did not explain or defend myself; I simply was crushed and confounded. I do not think it was the right method. He never punished us, but we were not at ease with him. I remember the agony with which I heard a younger sister once repeat to him some silly and profane little jokes which a good-natured and absurd old lady had told us in the nursery. I felt sure he would disapprove, as he did. I knew quite well in my childish mind that it was harmless nonsense, and did not give us a taste for ungodly mirth. But I could not intervene or expostulate. I am sure that my father had not the slightest idea how weighty and dominant he was; but many of the things he rebuked would have been better not noticed, or if noticed only made fun of, while I feel that he ought to have given us more opportunity of stating our case. He simply frightened me into having a different morality when I was in his presence to what I had elsewhere. But he did not make me love goodness thereby, and only gave me a sense that certain things, harmless in themselves, must not be done or said in the presence of papa. He did not always remember his own rules, and there was thus an element of injustice in his rebukes, which one merely accepted as part of his awful and unaccountable greatness.

When I was transferred to a private school, a great big place, very well managed in every way, I lived for a time in atrocious terror of everything and everybody. I was conscious of a great code of rules which I did not know or understand, which I might quite unwittingly break, and the consequences of which might be fatal. I was never punished or caned, nor was I ever bullied. But I simply effaced myself as far as possible, and lived in dread of disaster. The thought even now of certain high blank walls with lofty barred windows, the remembered smells of certain passages and corners, the tall form and flashing eye of our headmaster and the faint fragrance of Havana cigars which hung about him, the bare corridors with their dark cupboards, the stone stairs and iron railings-all this gives me a far-off sense of dread. I can give no reason for my unhappiness there; but I can recollect waking in the early summer mornings, hearing the screams of peacocks from an adjoining garden, and thinking with a dreadful sense of isolation and despair of all the possibilities of disaster that lay hid in the day. I am sure it was not a wholesome experience. One need not fear the world more than is necessary-but my only dream of peace was the escape to the delights of home, and the thought of the larger world was only a thing that I shrank from and shuddered at.

No, it is wrong to say one had no friends, but how few they seemed and how clearly they stand out! I did not make friends among the boys; they were pleasant enough acquaintances, some of them, but not to be trusted or confided in; they had to be kept at arm's length, and one's real life guarded and hoarded away from them; because if one told them anything about one's home or one's ideas, it might be repeated, and the sacred facts shouted in one's ears as taunts and jests. But there was a little bluff master, a clergyman, with shaggy rippled red-brown hair and a face like a pug-dog. He was kind to me, and had me to lunch one Sunday in a villa out at Barnes-that was a breath of life, to sit in a homelike room and look at old Punches half the afternoon; and there was another young man, a master, rather stout and pale, with whom I shared some little jokes, and who treated me as he might treat a younger brother; he was pledged, I remember, to give me a cake if I won an Eton Scholarship, and royally he redeemed his promise. He died of heart disease a little while after I left the school. I had promised to write to him from Eton and never did so, and I had a little pang about that when I heard of his death. And then there was the handsome loud-voiced maid of my dormitory, Underwood by name, who was always just and kind, and who, even when she rated us, as she did at times, had always something human beckoning from her handsome eye. I can see her now, with her sleeves tucked up, and her big white muscular arms, washing a refractory little boy who fought shy of soap and water. I had a wild idea of giving her a kiss when I went away, and I think she would have liked that. She told me I had always been a good boy, and that she was sorry that I was going; but I did not dare to embrace her.

And then there was dear Louisa, the matron of the little sanatorium on the Mortlake road. She had been a former housemaid of ours; she was a strong sturdy woman, with a deep voice like a man, and when I arrived there ill-I was often ill in those days-she used to hug and kiss me and even cry over me; and the happiest days I spent at school were in that poky little house, reading in Louisa's little parlour, while she prepared some special dish as a treat for my supper; or sitting hour by hour at the window of my room upstairs, watching a grocer opposite set out his window. I certainly did love Louisa with all my heart; and it was almost pleasant to be ill, to be welcomed by her and petted and made much of. "My own dear boy," she used to say, and it was music in my ears.

I feel on looking back that, if I had children of my own, I should study very carefully to avoid any sort of terrorism. Psychologists tell us that the nervous shocks of early years are the things that leave indelible marks throughout life. I believe that mental specialists often make a careful study of the dreams of those whose minds are afflicted, because it is held that dreams very often continue to reproduce in later life the mental shocks of childhood. Anger, intemperate punishment, any attempt to produce instant submission and dismay in children, is very apt to hurt the nervous organisation. Of course it is easy enough to be careful about these things in sheltered environments, where there is some security and refinement of life. And this opens up a vast problem which cannot be touched on here, because it is practically certain that many children in poor and unsatisfactory homes sustain shocks to their mental organisation in early life which damage them irreparably, and which could be avoided if they could be brought up on more wholesome and tender lines.

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