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The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 23145

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

MY CHILDHOOD (Continued)

It must not be supposed that either my childhood or boyhood was a psychic or poetic affair, or that in any way I was a cranky and abnormal child. I was nothing of the kind. In spite of what I had better call my metrical precociousness, which I deal with in detail in a later chapter, I was exceedingly fond of outdoor sports of all sorts. Though never a very strong swimmer, I loved particularly what Dr. Johnson might have called the "pleasures of immersion," whether in the icy cold of our Somersetshire streams or in the bland waters of the Mediterranean. The back of the horse and the buffet of the wave still remain for me the intensest of physical delights. Next in my affections comes mountain- climbing, though here I must not write of it. Instead, I would record two memories-one of the very beginning, and one of the very end, of my childhood. My very first memory is concerned with the American Civil War-a conflict which has always exercised a great influence over my mind. To me the struggle between the North and the South stands for one of the pivotal facts in the history of the English-speaking race. I have a clear recollection of my mother showing me a full-page picture, probably in the Illustrated London News, entitled "The Last Shot in the War." It was, if my memory serves, a darkish picture, with a big piece of artillery dimly portrayed in the foreground, and a still dimmer background, in which one seemed to catch sight of shadowy armies, warring in the gloom. Or were they only trees and clouds? I cannot remember my mother's words, but I have a recollection, firm though so distant, that she told me how the great war had come about, and how this was the end of all the misery and slaughter. The year, I think, must have been '65, that is, when I was five years old.

[Illustration: Sutton Court, Somerset.]

As soon as my father began to talk to us of great events, which was when I was about six, and to expound, as fathers should, the merits of the struggle, I became an intense Northerner. All my father's sympathies were with the North, both on the imperative duty of maintaining the Union and on the slavery issue. He was an intense abolitionist. As a lad of sixteen or seventeen, he had given up sugar, at the end of the 'twenties, because in those days sugar was grown by slaves on the West Indian plantations. He would not support a slave industry, and until the slaves were freed he did not go back to sugar.

Curiously enough, though my father greatly admired Mr. Lincoln, he did not put into my mind that passionate devotion to the saviour of the Union which I developed later. By this I do not mean that he was critical of Lincoln, but merely that Lincoln was not one of his special heroes. This fact, however, made a sounder foundation for my feelings about America and the American people than would the mere cult of the individual. I learned first to understand the greatness of the separation issue, to realise the magnificence and the significance of the American nation.

Another point of interest in the context is worth noting. My American readers must not run away with the idea that there was anything strange in a Somersetshire squire being on the side of the North. It is quite a delusion to suppose that all the people of education and position in England were Southerners. They were nothing of the kind. I cannot, of course, remember those times myself, but I often talked them over with men like Lord Cromer, who not only was on the Northern side, but paid a visit to the Northern Armies as a young artillery officer, and heard the guns at Petersburg. He pointed out how strong Conservatives such as his uncle, Tom Baring, were convinced Northerners, as was also, of course, Disraeli.

No doubt the man who did the harm in England and made Americans believe that we rejoiced in the rebellion, was Mr. Gladstone. Partly through want of information and partly through a curious mental twist, he persuaded himself that the South was fighting for freedom like the Italians in Naples or Lombardy. He not only believed in "the erring sister, go in peace" policy, but considered that for "erring sister" should be substituted "good and gallant sister." Mr. Gladstone's influence was, unfortunately, at that time very great, and he misled an enormous number of people on the merits of the quarrel. Happily my father, though a keen admirer of Gladstone, did not follow him here. He maintained the Northern view against all comers, as did the Duke of Argyll, Lord Houghton, and dozens of other men of light and leading, including, I am glad to say, my future chiefs, the Editors of The Spectator.

Of another combative memory I can be more specific, for my recollection of it is positively photographic. I can see myself, a little creature in a straw hat, playing on what the nurses used to call "the libery lawn"- a beautiful stretch of sward, upon which the Great Parlour window opened. This lawn is half surrounded by an old red sandstone battlement wall, with a long, terrace-like mound in front of it. Suddenly, in the middle of our play, I saw the Great Parlour window open and my father, with his hand held to shelter his eyes from the glare, stepping on to the gravel path. He called to my elder brother and me that if we liked he would read us an account of a great battle that had just been fought in Austria. It was the Battle of Sadowa. My father held in his hand a copy of the Daily News, to which he was a fairly frequent contributor. The paper contained Forbes's vivid account of the action which humbled the Austrian Empire before its Hohenzollern rivals. I was always glad to hear about a fight, and was very soon tucked up at the end of my father's green sofa. Owing to his stiff knee he always used a sofa to rest and read on rather than sat in an armchair. He began to read at once, for he was as eager as we were to devour the story of how "Our Special Correspondent" climbed the church-tower and saw men and armies battling in the plain below.

I did not, of course, understand the nature of the war, but my father was greatly moved and read with such emotion that the encounter lived before my eyes. Here I should note that my father, though the most humane of men, was intensely fond of stories of war, and in a layman's way understood a good deal about strategy. For example, he knew not only, like Sir Thomas Browne, all the battles in Plutarch, but also all the big Indian battles and those of the Peninsula. He was a special student of Waterloo, for he had talked with plenty of men and officers who had been in the Belgian Campaign.

Another recollection of my childhood will come in aptly here, for it concerns a Waterloo veteran. He lived at Chew Magna, and kept a small shop. Like many of the combatants on the British side, he was probably only about fifteen or sixteen years old at Waterloo. Half the regiments there were Militia regiments, and notoriously were composed of lads. Therefore, in '69 or '70, when I used to ride over to see him, my soldier was only about seventy-one or seventy-two. At his shop could be bought pencils, pens, and little books of most attractive appearance, sealing-wax and many other objects fascinating to the schoolboy. However, the real attraction was the seller, and not the things sold. As soon as I discovered that the man had been at Waterloo, I loved to go in, pull over the old man's stock, and then gossip with him about the Battle. Unless my recollection plays me false, he was distinctly a good talker. This is how he told the story of the 18th of June:

Our regiment was marched out into a cornfield. The officers told us to lie down on the ground and wait, because the enemy had got their artillery playing on us. Cannon-balls kept coming over pretty close to the ground. If we kept flat, however, there was not much risk. Every now and then the artillery fire would cease entirely, and then our officers called us to get up as quick as ever we could, and form square. The front rank lay down, the second rank knelt, the third stooped low, and the rear rank stood up. Our bayonets were fixed and our muskets loaded. There was not much time. As soon as we had got into place we heard the cavalry thundering up. Then, all of a sudden and as if they had sprung up from the ground (there was a little hollow in front), they were riding round us, riding like mad, cursing and swearing and shouting, waving their swords, and trying to force their horses on to our bayonets. We kept shooting at 'em all the time. But the bullets used to bound off their steel coats. (They were, of course, cuirassiers.) We soon found out, however, that if we aimed under their arm-pits, or at their faces, or the lower part of their bodies, we could kill them, or at least damage them. Our square was never really broken, but every now and then one of the Frenchmen would drive his horse right through our bayonets and into the middle, where we killed him. Of course, their idea was that if one got in, the others could follow him, but we never let them do that. We always closed up and held fast. Then, all of a sudden, the cavalry would go back as quick as they came, and in a minute there was not one of them to be seen. They had all utterly disappeared. As soon as ever they were gone, the guns began to fire again, and down we all went flat to the ground, and this went on all the morning, first up and then down.

From a private soldier's point of view, this was, I expect, a very accurate description of the battle.

I, of course, wanted to know more, and especially whether he had seen the Duke. He declared that he had, but it was a dim picture. According to my friend, he saw the Duke and his staff riding by at the back of the square, and heard him say something to an officer, but what he did not catch. If he had only known, he was describing a particular characteristic of the Duke. Wellington, when in action, was the dumbest of dumb things, and it would have required a moral earthquake to get more than some curt order out of him. Even a "tinker's curse" or "a tuppenny damn" would have seemed loquacious in him on such an occasion. The not very sensational "Up Guards and at 'em!" was in later life disputed by the Duke. Under great pressure, the most he would admit was that he might possibly have said it, though he did not believe he ever did.

The kind of battle remark he favoured was one which my father used to tell me he had heard from Mountstewart Elphinstone, his father's bosom friend. Elphinstone rode with the Duke at the Battle of Assaye. When some hundred Mahratta guns were in full blast against the British line, Elphinstone asked Sir Arthur Wellesley-it was Elphinstone's first battle-whether the fire was really hot. "Well, they're making a good deal of noise, but they don't seem to be doing much damage," was the reply of the Duke, after he had carefully looked up and down the line.

By a curious piece of luck, we boys were in touch not only with a Waterloo veteran, but also with a man who had been at Trafalgar. At Lady Waldegrave's house, Strawberry Hill, one of the men in the garden had been, as a boy, on the Victory. My brother Harry remembers speaking to him, but, though I must have seen him, I have no recollection of him, and probably did not talk to him. If I had, I am sure I should have questioned him, and would probably have remembered the answers.

I will end the stories of my childhood by relating an incident which always seems to me to belong to the e

arlier epoch, though it really happened when I was about thirteen, and therefore no longer a child. The scene is Sutton, and therefore it must have been during the holidays, for I am sure I was living at our tutor's at Chewton at the time. I had gone out for a country walk by myself, for I was fond of roaming about the fields, and especially of tracing to their sources the wooded gullies abounding in our Somersetshire country. On such solitary rambles I was always accompanied by a poet, in my pocket. On the occasion I am going to describe, Swinburne in his Poems and Ballads was my guest of honour.

I emerged from my riverine exploration on to a hillside where the stream rose-near a place with the delightfully rustic name of Hinton Belwit. Here the springtime and the bright sun invited me to sit upon a stile and to read of Dolores or Faustine, or The Garden of Proserpine, -I know not which. While thus absorbed and probably muttering verses aloud, I did not notice a typical Somersetshire farmer of the seventies who was approaching the stile. When, therefore, I heard his voice and looked up, it was as if the man had dropped from the clouds. What he was saying was quite as unexpected as his appearance. It ran something like this: "It be all craft, craft. You men be as full of craft as hell be of tailors." Needless to say, I was enchanted. This looked like the beginning of an adventure, for the old gentleman was puffing hard and in the condition which Jeremy Taylor describes as "very zealously angry."

I, however, was too much interested to learn what he meant to resent his abuse, and politely invited an explanation. He went on to declare with great vehemence what a curse this book-learning and education were to the working-men and how they filled them with "craft"-that was the refrain of all his remarks. It made them unfit to work and to serve honest men like himself, who had never had anything to do with that evil thing-book-learning. When I gently asked why the sight of me had made him think about it, he explained, with a look of infinite slyness, that he saw I was reading a book. Then came an amusing disclosure. At fourteen I was a very much overgrown lad, almost as tall as I am now, and weighing almost as much and he had mistaken me for one of the ordination pupils of a Roman Catholic priest who lived in the valley close by. They were wont to walk about the country breviary in hand, not merely reading, but actually reciting the office to themselves. My green book was taken for a breviary, or for a book of hours, and my mouthings of Dolores or The Garden of Proserpine for "the blessed mutter of the Mass"! Assured by me that I was not a priest, he asked me who I was. I told him my name and he instantly stretched out a huge and grimy hand, and shook mine with a hearty violence, and insisted that I should come home with him and drink a mug of cider. I accepted with avidity. It was all in the adventure. Who knows? I might go to his house and find the most delightful maiden in disguise! In fact, anything and everything was possible. So I went, expecting and hoping for great things, though quite willing to be content with small things and "a mug o' zyder" if I could not get anything bigger.

As soon as we got into the farm kitchen and saw the farmer's wife, the old gentleman began to explain his mistake. "And to think, Mother, that this be young Mr. Strachey, after all. You can mind, carn't you, wife, how we used to see him and his brothers riding by with their ponies and their long hair? It is just like King Arthur and the cakes, it is." At this his good wife, with a toss of her head, said, "Don't you be so ignorant, maaster, talking about what you don't know. It's King Henry you means." "That I don't. I mean King Arthur. You go down and get the young maaster a mug o' zyder, and don't you say no more."

Then he slowly closed one pig-like eye and aimed it in my direction. That was his idea of winking. Patting me on the knee, he added, "The women be always like that-bain't they?-always trying to think they know better. It was just like King Arthur and the cakes, weren't it?" I, of course, assented and, I am sorry to say, with the magnificent pedantry of boyhood, reflected that he was not the first person to make the mistake. Did not Mrs. Quickly piously ejaculate that the dead Falstaff was "in Arthur's bosom"? Besides, it was proof that the Somersetshire people still remembered King Arthur-a point treasured by me for my father, who was a keen student and great lover of the Arthurian legends. It was he who edited for Macmillan the Morte d'Arthur in the Globe series. According to my father, and I expect quite rightly, Arthur was the last of the British kings to stand up against the Saxons, and really did inhabit that most magnificent of ditch-defended hills, Cadbury Castle.

Cadbury, as the village at its foot, Queen's Camel, shows, is quite possibly a broken-down form of Camelot. But there is better proof than that. Till forty years ago, and possibly even now, the people round Cadbury told tales of King Arthur, and firmly believed he would come again. For example, the rector of Queen's Camel told my father that a local girl, a housemaid in the Rectory, told him, as if it were a matter of course, that every night of the full moon the King and his Knights rode round the castle hall and watered their horses at the Wishing-Well. She had seen them herself. Another man told the rector that his father had one day seen a sort of opening in the hill, and had looked in. "There he zeed a king sitting in a kind of a cave, with a golden crown on his head and beautiful robes on him."

The best Arthurian story of all was the following. The rector, as an archaeologist, did a little excavation on his own on the flat place at the very top of the hill-a place in which there were what looked like rough foundations. He used to take with him a local labourer to do some of the spade-work. One day they dug up a Quern. The labourer asked what it was. The clergyman explained that it was a form of hand-mill used in the olden days for grinding corn. In reply he was met with one of the most amazing remarks ever made to an antiquarian. "Oh, a little hand- mill be it! Ah, now I understands what I never did before. That's why they fairies take such a lot of corn up to the top of the hill. They be taking it up for to grind."

Anticipating Kipling, the rector might well have exclaimed, "How is one to put that into a 'Report on Excavations on Cadbury Hill submitted to the Somersetshire Archaeological Society by the Rector of Queen's Camel'?"

Anyway, I was delighted to have actually heard a man speak the words "King Arthur," and also went home chuckling at the thought of being mistaken for a Roman priest-an event which particularly amused my mother.

Soon after I was eleven, we went to Chewton Vicarage for the first time as "private pupils." Then my mother's health became worse, and we had to go to Cannes more or less regularly. In order that our education should be continued, we then reverted to the plan of tutors in the house. We had two of these in succession, both Balliol men. Though they were able men, they were not successes as educationalists. My father always used to say that he thought both of them had been badly overworked at Oxford and had been advised to take tutorial posts as a rest-cure-a very pleasant rest-cure when it took the form of wintering in the South of France.

But, though my brothers and I effectually resisted the efforts made to teach us, we learnt during our winters in France a great many things indirectly. Unfortunately, French was not one of those things. My father would have liked us to speak and write French. He had it, however, so strongly impressed upon him by his advisers that if we were to go to Oxford we must above all things get a sufficient knowledge of Latin and Greek to pass Responsions that, though we had an occasional lesson in French, our sojourn on the Riviera, as far as learning French was concerned, was thrown away.

We lived entirely with the boys and girls of the rest of the British colony, and regarded the French inhabitants literally as part of the scenery, and largely as a humorous part thereof. We got on well enough with them, and knew enough French to buy endless sweets at Rumpelmeyer's or chez Nègres, to get queer knives and "oddities" at the fairs, or to conduct paper-chases along the course of the Canal or in Pine Woods bordering it. We refused, however, to take the French or their language seriously.

[Illustration: Sutton Court, Somerset]

However, my father did contrive to instil a little French politics into us. He was a fervent admirer of Gambetta and the Third Republic, and used to read us extracts from Gambetta's organ, La Republique Francaise. It thus happened that I early became a staunch adherent of the great Democratic leader and was full of zeal against first the Comte de Chambord and then the Comte de Paris. I still remember the excitement we all felt over Marshal MacMahon's rather half-hearted efforts to play the part of a General Monk.

We had, further, the excitement of seeing a famous General immured close to us in a fortress prison for the crime of treason. The Ile de Ste. Marguerite, opposite Cannes, with its picturesque Vauban fortifications, became, while we were at Cannes, the prison of Marshal Bazaine, the man who surrendered Metz to the Germans. He occupied, besides, the very rooms which had been occupied by "The Man with the Iron Mask." Can it be wondered that when we had a picnic-party on the island, or rowed under the walls of the fortress in a boat, we used to strain every muscle in order to get a glimpse of the prisoner? On one occasion we saw somebody's hat or head moving along a parapet, and were told it was the Marshal taking his daily exercise on the terrace of the fort, but whether it really was or not, who can say? At any rate, the Marshal escaped from his imprisonment during our stay, probably to the relief of his jailers. That was a source of great excitement in itself, and it was heightened by rumours that an English girl had assisted the prisoner to break out.

We were not personally in favour of Bazaine, but regarded him with distinct repulsion for surrendering at Metz. Still, an escape was an escape; and, besides, the fat old Marshal had let himself down by a rope into an open boat!

The epoch of tutors came to an end soon after the birth of my sister, which happened at Marseilles, when my mother was on her way to Cannes. After the event, my mother was pronounced by the doctors to be able to winter in England, and I and my two brothers, therefore, went back to Chewton Mendip and became private pupils of Mr. Philpott, for the second time. Here we remained till I went first to a tutor at Oxford-Mr. Bell- and then to live with my uncle and aunt, Professor T. H. Green (Mrs. Green was my mother's sister). There I was "coached for Balliol" by two of the best scholars in the University. One of them was Professor Nettleship, who a couple of years later was made Professor of Latin, and the other is now Sir Herbert Warren, President of Magdalen. They were both delightful expounders of the classics, and, though I was an unaccountably bad scholar, I am proud to say that they both liked me and liked teaching me. However, I need say no more on this point, as all that is worth saying about it is supplied by Sir Herbert Warren in the letter which I have included in my Oxford Chapter.

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