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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



The Beauchamp family moved to 47 Fitzherbert Terrace soon after the girls returned to Wellington. The Terrace was the short street behind Tinakori Road, on the other side of the Gully. A swinging bridge joined the two from the Walter Nathan's corner (which was No. 13 on Tinakori Road, beside Kathleen's birthplace) to Miss Swainson's School, second from the bottom of Fitzherbert Terrace. No. 47 was a huge house—larger than “Chesney Wold,” larger than 75 Tinakori Road. It stood second from the top of Fitzherbert Terrace, where the trams turned on Molesworth Street.

On one of her first days back in Wellington, Kass went over the old haunts—down Hill Street, past the Green Gate, through the short cut to the Convent gardens. Had it dwindled, had it changed, while she was away in London?

“i. x. 06.
“I walk along the broad, almost deserted street. It has a meaningless, forsaken, careless look—like a woman who has ceased to believe in her beauty. The splendid rhythm of life is absent. With their page 226 white faces the people pass to and fro—silently—drearily—All colour seems to have lost its keenness. The street is as toneless as a great stretch of sand. And now I pass through the narrow iron gates up the little path and through the heavy doors into the church. Silence hung motionless over the church; the shadow of her great wings darkened everything. Through the door the figures of the saints showed—and the altar shone mystical—vision-like. Then I noticed there were many people kneeling in the pews—their attitude strangely beatific—almost old world. A nun came and sat beside me. She raised a passionless, expressionless face—and the rosary shone like a thread of silver through her fingers.”

Now, as Kass leaned from her window in the new home in Fitzherbert Terrace, it seemed strange to see so little of the Tinakori Hills, so little of the Harbour; and to hear the lumbering of trams mingled with the song of tuis. But it was of little moment. She leaned out, looking over the same dark pines that used to hide Ole Underwood so long—four years—ago, pines with a blue ribbon of asphalt running between; but actually, she was leaning out over Mansfield Mews, listening to distant London surging beyond Harley Street:

“Away beyond the line of dark houses there is a sound like the call of the sea after a storm—passionate, solemn, strong …”

She drew back into the room and looked at herself in the glass :

“The same Kathie of long ago, and yet not the same.” Then she pulled the curtains, to shut out Wellington, to shut in her own world :

“Here in my room I feel as though I was in London—in London. To write the word makes me feel that page 227 I could burst into tears. Isn't it terrible to love anything so much? I do not care at all for men, but London—it is Life …”

Here in Wellington it was early morning, early spring; there in London it was Indian summer, and night, with the lights brilliant in Piccadilly Circus. People were streaming from cafés, from the theatres, from Queen's and Bechstein Hall. Perhaps Arnold Trowell had been playing. She heard the quick notes of his “clever performance,” the comfortable murmur and shuffle of the crowds; she saw the revolving lights.

Here—Wellington—nobody smoked. No advantages. No writers. No artists. No pictures. No books. Who that she knew had heard of Rossetti? (She had just said to Mary, the “model pupil” of Miss Swainson :“You ought to read Rossetti!”) As for having read Wilde! Their idea of interesting conversation was babies and jam-making. Their idea of a big party was Godber's meringues for tea! She loathed those things; she couldn't be bothered talking or thinking trivialities. After the friends she'd made, after “literary London,” Wellington was a prison :“If Denmark's a prison, then is life one.” She had given up everything in coming back, and she was now eighteen. She had vowed—she had written the promise to herself, and signed it and burned it :“In two years I will be famous.” In two years she would be twenty, and buried—as good as dead—at the bottom of the world.

At such times—in such moods—she turned to her ‘cello, or to writing and reading.

page 228

From Vignettes

“A year ago we sat by the fire, she and I, hand in hand, cheek to cheek, speaking but little, and then whispering, because the room was so dark, the fire so low, and the rain outside so loud and bitter.
“She, a thin little figure in a long, soft black frock, and a string of amethysts around her white throat.
“Eventually it grew so cold that I dragged the blanket from the bed, and we wrapped ourselves up in it, smiling a little and saying, ‘We feel like children on a desert island.’ With one hand she held the rough, gaily-striped thing up to her chin; the other hand lay in mine. We talked of fame, how we both longed for it, how hard the struggle was, what we both meant to do. I found a piece of paper, and together we wrote a declaration vowing that in the space of one year we should both have become famous. And we signed the paper and sealed it; then, dedicating it to the gods, dropped it into the fire. For a moment a bright light, and then a handful of ashes. By and bye she fell asleep, and I gave her my share of the blanket, and arranged a sofa pillow in her low chair. The long night dragged coldly through, while I watched her, and thought, and longed, but could not sleep.
“To-day, at the other end of the world, I have suffered, and she, doubtless, has bought herself a new hat at the February sales. Sic transit gloria mundi.
“K. Mansfield.”