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   Chapter 3 TRURO

Hugh: Memoirs of a Brother By Arthur Christopher Benson Characters: 15610

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


We all went off again to Truro in 1877, when my father was made Bishop. The tradition was that as the train, leaving Lincoln, drew up after five minutes at the first small station on the line, perhaps Navenby, a little voice in the corner said: "Is this Truro?" A journey by train was for many years a great difficulty for Hugh, as it always made him ill, owing to the motion of the carriage.

At Truro he becomes a much more definite figure in my recollections. He was a delicately made, light-haired, blue-eyed child, looking rather angelic in a velvet suit, and with small, neat feet, of which he was supposed to be unduly aware. He had at that time all sorts of odd tricks, winkings and twitchings; and one very aggravating habit, in walking, of putting his feet together suddenly, stopping and looking down at them, while he muttered to himself the mystic formula, "Knuck, Nunks." But one thing about him was very distinct indeed, that he was entirely impervious to the public opinion of the nursery, and could neither be ridiculed nor cajoled out of continuing to do anything he chose to do. He did not care the least what was said, nor had he any morbid fears, as I certainly had as a child, of being disliked or mocked at. He went his own way, knew what he wanted to do, and did it.

My recollections of him are mainly of his extreme love of argument and the adroitness with which he conducted it. He did not intend to be put upon as the youngest, and it was supposed that if he was ever told to do anything, he always replied: "Why shouldn't Fred?" He invented an ingenious device which he once, and once only, practised with success, of goading my brother Fred by petty shafts of domestic insult into pursuing him, bent on vengeance. Hugh had prepared some small pieces of folded paper with a view to this contingency, and as Fred gave chase, Hugh flung two of his papers on the ground, being sure that Fred would stop to examine them. The ruse was quite successful, and while Fred was opening the papers, Hugh sought sanctuary in the nursery. Sometimes my sisters were deputed to do a lesson with him. My elder sister Nelly had a motherly instinct, and enjoyed a small responsibility. She would explain a rule of arithmetic to Hugh. He would assume an expression of despair: "I don't understand a word of it-you go so quick." Then it would be explained again: "Now do you understand?" "Of course I understand that." "Very well, do a sum." The sum would begin: "Oh, don't push me-don't come so near-I don't like having my face blown on." Presently my sister with angelic patience would show him a mistake. "Oh, don't interfere-you make it all mixed up in my head." Then he would be let alone for a little. Then he would put the slate down with an expression of despair and resignation; if my sister took no notice he would say: "I thought Mamma told you to help me in my sums? How can I understand without having it explained to me?" It was impossible to get the last word; indeed he used to give my sister Maggie, when she taught him, what he called "Temper-tickets," at the end of the lesson; and on one occasion, when he was to repeat a Sunday collect to her, he was at last reported to my mother, as being wholly intractable. This was deeply resented; and after my sister had gone to bed, a small piece of paper was pushed in beneath her door, on which was written: "The most unhappiest Sunday I ever spent in my life. Whose fault?"

Again, when Maggie had found him extremely cross and tiresome one morning in the lessons she was taking, she discovered, when Hugh at last escaped, a piece of paper on the schoolroom table, on which he had written

"Passionate Magey

Toodle Ha! Ha!

The old gose."

There was another story of how he was asked to write out a list of the things he wanted, with a view to a birthday that was coming. The list ended:

"A little compenshion goat, and

A tiny-winy train, and

A nice little pen."

The diminutives were evidently intended to give the requirements a modest air. As for "compenshion," he had asked what some nursery animal was made of, a fracture having displayed a sort of tough fibrous plaster. He was told that it was made of "a composition."

We used to play many rhyming games at that time; and Hugh at the age of eight wrote a poem about a swarm of gnats dancing in the sun, which ended:

"And when they see their comrades laid

In thousands round the garden glade,

They know they were not really made

To live for evermore."

In one of these games, each player wrote a question which was to be answered by some other player in a poem; Hugh, who had been talked to about the necessity of overcoming some besetting sin in Lent, wrote with perfect good faith as his question, "What is your sin for Lent?"

As a child, and always throughout his life, he was absolutely free from any touch of priggishness or precocious piety. He complained once to my sister that when he was taken out walks by his elders, he heard about nothing but "poetry and civilisation." In a friendly little memoir of him, which I have been sent, I find the following passage: "In his early childhood, when reason was just beginning to ponder over the meaning of things, he was so won to enthusiastic admiration of the heroes and heroines of the Catholic Church that he decided he would probe for himself the Catholic claims, and the child would say to the father, 'Father, if there be such a sacrament as Penance, can I go?' And the good Archbishop, being evasive in his answers, the young boy found himself emerging more and more in a woeful Nemesis of faith." It would be literally impossible, I think, to construct a story less characteristic both of Hugh's own attitude of mind as well as of the atmosphere of our family and household life than this!

He was always very sensitive to pain and discomfort. On one occasion, when his hair was going to be cut, he said to my mother: "Mayn't I have chloroform for it?"

And my mother has described to me a journey which she once took with him abroad when he was a small boy. He was very ill on the crossing, and they had only just time to catch the train. She had some luncheon with her, but he said that the very mention of food made him sick. She suggested that she should sit at the far end of the carriage and eat her own lunch, while he shut his eyes; but he said that the mere sound of crumpled paper made him ill, and then that the very idea that there was food in the carriage upset him; so that my mother had to get out on the first stop and bolt her food on the platform.

One feat of Hugh's I well remember. Sir James McGarel Hogg, afterwards Lord Magheramorne, was at the time member for Truro. He was a stately and kindly old gentleman, pale-faced and white-bearded, with formal and dignified manners. He was lunching with us one day, and gave his arm to my mother to conduct her to the dining-room. Hugh, for some reason best known to himself, selected that day to secrete himself in the dining-room beforehand, and burst out upon Sir James with a wild howl, intended to create consternation. Neither then nor ever was he embarrassed by inconvenient shyness.

The Bishop's house at Truro, Lis Escop, had been the rectory of the rich living of Kenwyn; it was bought for the see and added to. It was a charming house about a mile out of Truro above a sequestered valley, with a far-off view of the little town lying among hills, with the smoke going up, and the gleaming waters of the estuary enfolded in the uplands beyond. The house had some acres of pasture-land about it and some fine trees; with a big garden and shrubberies, an orchard and a wood. We were all very happy there, save for the shadow of my eldest brother's death as a Winchester boy in 1878. I w

as an Eton boy myself and thus was only there in the holidays; we lived a very quiet life, with few visitors; and my recollection of the time there is one of endless games and schemes and amusements. We had writing games and drawing games, and acted little plays.

We children had a mysterious secret society, with titles and offices and ceremonies: an old alcoved arbour in the garden, with a seat running round it, and rough panelling behind, was the chapter-house of the order. There were robes and initiations and a book of proceedings. Hugh held the undistinguished office of Servitor, and his duties were mainly those of a kind of acolyte. I think he somewhat enjoyed the meetings, though the difficulty was always to discover any purpose for which the society existed. There were subscriptions and salaries; and to his latest day it delighted him to talk of the society, and to point out that his salary had never equalled his subscription.

There were three or four young clergy, Arthur Mason, now Canon of Canterbury, G. H. Whitaker, since Canon of Hereford, John Reeve, late Rector of Lambeth, G. H. S. Walpole, now Bishop of Edinburgh, who had come down with my father, and they were much in the house. My father Himself was full of energy and hopefulness, and loved Cornwall with an almost romantic love. But in all of this Hugh was too young to take much part. Apart from school hours he was a quick, bright, clever child, wanting to take his part in everything. My brother Fred and I were away at school, or later at the University; and the home circle, except for the holidays, consisted of my father and mother, my two sisters, and Hugh. My father had been really prostrated with grief at the death of my eldest brother, who was a boy of quite extraordinary promise and maturity of mind. My father was of a deeply affectionate and at the same time anxious disposition; he loved family life, but he had an almost tremulous sense of his parental responsibility. I have never known anyone in my life whose personality was so strongly marked as my father's. He had a superhuman activity, and cared about everything to which he put his hand with an intensity and an enthusiasm that was almost overwhelming. At the same time he was extremely sensitive; and this affected him in a curious way. A careless word from one of us, some tiny instance of childish selfishness or lack of affection, might distress him out of all proportion. He would brood over such things, make himself unhappy, and at the same time feel it his duty to correct what he felt to be a dangerous tendency. He could not think lightly of a trifle or deal with it lightly; and he would appeal, I now think, to motives more exalted than the occasion justified. A little heedless utterance would be met by him not by a half-humourous word, but by a grave and solemn remonstrance. We feared his displeasure very much, but we could never be quite sure what would provoke it. If he was in a cheerful mood, he might pass over with a laugh or an ironical word what in a sad or anxious mood would evoke an indignant and weighty censure. I was much with him at this time, and was growing to understand him better; but even so, I could hardly say that I was at ease in his presence. I did not talk of the things that were in my mind, but of the things which I thought would please him; and when he was pleased, his delight was evident and richly rewarding.

But in these days he began to have a peculiar and touching affection for Hugh, and hoped that he would prove the beloved companion of his age. Hugh used to trot about with him, spudding up weeds from the lawn. He used, when at home, to take Hugh's Latin lessons, and threw himself into the congenial task of teaching with all his force and interest. Yet I have often heard Hugh say that these lessons were seldom free from a sense of strain. He never knew what he might not be expected to know or to respond to with eager interest. My father had a habit, in teaching, of over-emphasising minute details and nuances of words, insisting upon derivations and tenses, packing into language a mass of suggestions and associations which could never have entered into the mind of the writer. Language ought to be treated sympathetically, as the not over-precise expression of human emotion and wonder; but my father made it of a half-scientific, half-fanciful analysis. This might prove suggestive and enriching to more mature minds. But Hugh once said to me that he used to feel day after day like a small china mug being filled out of a waterfall. Moreover Hugh's mind was lively and imaginative, but fitful and impatient; and the process both daunted and wearied him.

I have lately been looking through a number of letters from my father to Hugh in his schooldays. Reading between the lines, and knowing the passionate affection in the background, these are beautiful and pathetic documents. But they are over-full of advice, suggestion, criticism, anxious inquiries about work and religion, thought and character. This was all a part of the strain and tension at which my father lived. He was so absorbed in his work, found life such a tremendous business, was so deeply in earnest, that he could not relax, could not often enjoy a perfectly idle, leisurely, amused mood. Hugh himself was the exact opposite. He could work, in later days, with fierce concentration and immense energy; but he also could enjoy, almost more than anyone I have ever seen, rambling, inconsequent, easy talk, consisting of stories, arguments, and ideas just as they came into his head; this had no counterpart in my father, who was always purposeful.

But it was a happy time at Truro for Hugh. Speaking generally, I should call him in those days a quick, inventive, active-minded child, entirely unsentimental; he was fond of trying his hand at various things, but he was impatient and volatile, would never take trouble, and as a consequence never did anything well. One would never have supposed, in those early days, that he was going to be so hard a worker, and still less such a worker as he afterwards became, who perfected his gifts by such continuous, prolonged, and constantly renewed labour. I recollect his giving a little conjuring entertainment as a boy, but he had practised none of his tricks, and the result was a fiasco, which had to be covered up by lavish and undeserved applause; a little later, too, at Addington, he gave an exhibition of marionettes, which illustrated historical scenes. The puppets were dressed by Beth, our old nurse, and my sisters, and Hugh was the showman behind the scenes. The little curtains were drawn up for a tableau which was supposed to represent an episode in the life of Thomas à Becket. Hugh's voice enunciated, "Scene, an a-arid waste!" Then came a silence, and then Hugh was heard to say to his assistant in a loud, agitated whisper, "Where is the Archbishop?" But the puppet had been mislaid, and he had to go on to the next tableau. The most remarkable thing about him was a real independence of character, with an entire disregard of other people's opinion. What he liked, what he felt, what he decided, was the important thing to him, and so long as he could get his way, I do not think that he troubled his head about what other people might think or wish; he did not want to earn good opinions, nor did he care for disapproval or approval; people in fact were to him at that time more or less favourable channels for him to follow his own designs, more or less stubborn obstacles to his attaining his wishes. He was not at all a sensitive or shrinking child. He was quite capable of holding his own, full of spirit and fearless, though quiet enough, and not in the least interfering, except when his rights were menaced.

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