The Life of Katherine Mansfield
Chapter XI Wellington: 47 Fitzherbert Terrace
Chapter XI Wellington: 47 Fitzherbert Terrace
“I do not want to earn a living; I want to live.” —Oscar Wilde. (K. M.'s Note Book, 1907.)
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
“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.
The books in her room at the Terrace lined the wall from the floor upwards for some four or five feet : sitting on the floor, she could reach any volume. The little room was arranged like a studio : her writing table by the window, her few treasures page 229 carefully placed—the Velasquez Venus, six small nude studies, bowls of flowers, her ‘cello “dreaming in the corner.” Like Grandmother Mansfield, she loved tidiness; her room was a projection of herself. Trespassers were intolerable.
One afternoon, being torn away from her sanctuary to meet people at tea, she startled them all by bursting out furiously :“I loathe this provincial place! Nobody in it understands me, and they haven't any of my interests, and I detest it here!”
And on another occasion :“At five o'clock I go down to Wellington to watch Life.”
Much of her time was spent upstairs, writing. When she closed the door, she could shut out the whole world :
“Oh! this monotonous, terrible rain. The dull, steady, hopeless sound of it. I have drawn the curtains across the windows to shut out the weeping face of the world—the trees swaying softly in their grief and dropping silver tears upon the brown earth, the narrow, sodden, mean, draggled wooden houses, colourless save for the dull coarse red of the roof, and the long line of grey hills, impassable, spectral-like.
“So I have drawn the curtains across my windows, and the light is intensely fascinating. A perpetual twilight broods here. The atmosphere is heavy with morbid charm. Strange, as I sit here, quiet, alone, how each possession of mine—the calendar gleaming whitely on the wall, each picture, each book, my ‘cello case, the very furniture—seems to stir into life. The Velasquez Venus moves on her couch ever so slightly; across the face of Manon a strange smile flickers for an instant and is gone, my rocking chair is full of patient resignation, my ‘cello case is wrapt in profound thought. Beside me a little bowl of mig- page 230 nonette is piercingly sweet, and a cluster of scarlet geraniums is hot with colour.
“Sometimes through the measured sound of the rain comes the long, hopeless note of a fog horn far out at sea. And then all life seems but a crying out drearily, and a groping to and fro in a foolish, aimless darkness. Sometimes—it seems like miles away—I hear the sound of a door downstairs opening and shutting.
“And I listen and think and dream until my life seems not one life, but a thousand million lives, and my soul is weighed down with the burden of past existence, with the vague, uneasy consciousness of future strivings.
“And the grey thoughts fall upon my soul like the grey rain upon the world, but I cannot draw the curtain and shut them out.” *
“The Sketch always reminds me of the morning-room at 47,” Kathleen wrote, long afterward, to Marie. This big house, the scene of the tumultuous years of her New Zealand life, did not so readily become her “possession” as either the two homes in Tinakori Road, or “Chesney Wold” in Karori. Yet, had she continued to write, she undoubtedly would have set stories here. In 1920 she was turning back toward it, at last, though it had taken ten years to transcend the conflict of those days :
“Even if one does not acquire any ‘fresh meat’—one's vision of what one possesses is continually page 231 changing into something rich and strange, isn't it? I feel mine is. 47, Fitzherbert Terrace p. e. is colouring beautifully with the years and I polish it and examine it, and only now is it ready to come out of the store room into the uncommon light of day.”
The family in 47 was rather quieter than it had been in the earlier homes. Bell Dyer had married, in England, and was living (as Wellington put it)“in a house full of servants.” The Grandmother had moved to Bolton Street to stay with friends. Vera was being courted by a young Canadian geologist who was engaged on a survey in New Zealand; and her departure was imminent.
Leslie Heron (“Chummie”) was going away to the Wailaki Boys' High School. He was twelve, now—a fine, upstanding lad with charm and self-assurance. Kathleen had been too busied by the urgency of her own evolving life to show more affection toward him than toward the other members of her family. Probably she was barely conscious of her affection at the time. It was something realised much later, as she looked back; yet, even two years afterward, she summarised one aspect of her relation to “Chummie.” After all, he was her only brother, and a very nice one.
“I felt maternal toward him. As a baby he clung to me, and all the years after, I could, when I looked at him, feel those little hands around my neck. He had a little habit of bringing me flowers—a rose, some violets, a spray of apple blossom—Yes, he was always coming to me with his hands full of flowers.
“I see him as a little child, sitting on the table, while I scrubbed his grubby knees, and after his bath in my room in the morning, in his pink pyjamas, his page 232 hair curling all over his head, standing on one leg and flicking his towel, and crying : ‘It's a lovely day, dearest.’ (And at night the game, ‘Payjamaarm.’)
“After playing cricket, stumbling up the stairs, hot, out of breath, and his shirt collar unbuttoned, his hair on end, damp, and mopping his face with an indescribable handkerchief. He was so absentminded, too … He read everything I gave him.
“I remember very well saying Good-bye to him. He was going away to school, and we kissed for a moment, and then I leaned out of the window. It had been raining. The air was very cool and clean. He waved to me from the gate, and I listened, hearing his glad little footsteps die down the street, fainter and fainter, so fast out of my life.”
Between Kathleen and her mother there was a certain similarity—a particular fastidiousness for one thing, which came to both from the Grandmother. Mrs. Beauchamp would refuse a cup of tea having a drop of milk spilled in the saucer :“That's for servants!” she would say; and how high poised was her fine little head, with the high arched brows and the little frown between, as she said it, so airily.
Kathleen had something of her mother's manner; she looked rather like her, too—had her colouring. And though she was more Beauchamp than Dyer, she had something of her mother's nature. Mrs. Beauchamp, at one time, had wanted to write (her letters always were delightful); she was in sympathy with Kathleen's longing to be a writer, even though she couldn't comprehend the demands, the restrictions, which this desire imposed upon her daughter.page 233
Kathleen once tried to express something of their relationship:
“… I often long to lean against Mother and know she understands things … that can't be told … that would fade at a breath … delicate needs … a feeling of fineness and gentleness. But what Mother hadn't is an understanding of Work.”
Her mother's detached air—the way of seeming to live utterly apart from the little world to which she willingly gave herself—had by no means lessened since the children were grown. If anything, it seemed more pronounced now that there was need for keeping up social position.
Her husband had realised his life-long ambition for acquisition and influence; he had now become one of the commercial magnates of New Zealand. In 1894 he had been a general merchant and a Justice of the Peace; now, in 1907, he was many things beside : a commanding figure in the profitable frozen meat trade, a member of the Harbour Board, managing director of the Building and Investment Company—he himself had purchased land of which the future increase in value was assured—Director of the Bank of New Zealand, on the brink of becoming its Chairman. He had identified himself completely with the commercial and financial development of Wellington during a period of great prosperity, and he had prospered accordingly.
His was the determination to take him straight to his chosen goal, and he was near enough to the pioneer to find the materials still flexible in his page 234 hands. He had the sensitive pride of the man rising rapidly, by his own capacities, and he found protection in armour of his own forging. Anything which stood in the way of his purpose was, of course, intolerable (and Katherine—looking toward such a different goal—was to be her father's daughter). Wealth was the great means to his end, and he expected, as a matter of course, to manage his family as he managed his business :“on a sound financial basis.”
Mrs. Beauchamp was not, in any sense,“a climber.” But she loyally kept up her end—went to teas, made calls, gave musical evenings and dances for the children in the big Fitzherbert Terrace house. Kathleen, at least, understood how alien it was from her mother's own real world :
“It was the late afternoon when Mrs. Sheridan, after having paid Heaven knows how many calls, turned towards home.
“‘Thank Heaven that's all over!’ she sighed, as she clicked the last gate to, and stuffed her little Chinese card-case into her handbag.
“But it was not all over. Although she hadn't the faintest desire to remember her afternoon, her mind, evidently, was determined she should not forget it. And so she walked along seeing herself knocking at doors, crossing dim halls into large pale drawing-rooms, hearing herself saying, ‘No, she would not have any tea, thank you. Yes, they were all splendidly well. No, they had not seen it yet. The children were going to-night. Yes, fancy! he had arrived. Young and good-looking too! Quite an asset! Oh dear no! She was determined not to allow any of her girls to marry. It was quite unnecessary now-a-days, and such a risk!’ And so on and so on.
“‘What nonsense calling is! What a waste of time! page 235 I have never met a single woman yet who even pretended to like it. Why keep it up then? Why not decide once and for all? Mock orange,' and Mrs. Sheridan woke out of her dream to find herself standing under a beautiful mock orange bush that grew against the white palings of old Mr. Phillips' garden. The little sponge-like fruits? Flowers? Which were they—shone burning bright in the late afternoon sun.
“‘They are like little worlds,’ she thought, peering up through the large crumpled leaves and she put her hand and touched one gently. Now her glove was all brushed with yellow. But it didn't matter. She was glad, even. ‘I wish you grew in my garden,’ she said regretfully to the mock orange bush, and she went on, thinking, ‘I wonder why I love flowers so much. None of the children inherit from me. Laura perhaps. But even then it's not the same. She's too young to feel as I do. I love flowers more than people, except my own family, of course. But take this afternoon, for instance. The only thing that really remains is that mock orange.’”
Kathleen was to comprehend, very fully, in time, her mother's detachment. It arose not as her own did, now, from inward division, from the longing of the soul to be in places where the body was not; but rather it was the outcome of an existence passed in spaces between the known worlds—the almost disembodied life of one for whom” the barriers are down … and you've only to slip through.” Finally, in her own experience, Katherine was to understand:
“Once the defences are fallen between you and death they are not built up again…. Mother, of course, lived in this state for years. Ah, but she lived surrounded. She had her husband, her children, her page 236 home, her friends, physical presences, darling treasures to be cherished.”
Yet this suspended state had its inevitable effect upon her children.
One thing which the whole family shared was its pleasure in music. The father had always enjoyed it, the mother was something of a pianist, and the three older girls were talented. Kathleen had composed poems for Vera to set to music, and Marie to sing. Their uncle, Mr. Waters, had sung them when the girls were at Queen's, and they were a feature of the musical evenings, now, in the big bare music-room at 47, when the trio played: Kathleen the'cello, old Mr. Trowell the violin, and various different friends the piano.
Kathleen had been studying the'cello again under old Mr. Trowell. For a while, the three girls had a plan to attend a convent at Island Bay—Vera to take piano lessons, Kathleen to continue with her'cello, and Marie to do needlework. On the way to make arrangements, they waited some time for a car; when finally a workman's car came by, Vera said to the motor-man:“Do you think we can manage to take this?” Afterward, Kathleen flared at her:“How could you talk that way to him? We're all alike! I wish I was covered with mud!”
Since the Island Bay plan did not materialise, Kathleen continued with her trio practice in Wellington. Neighbours remember her passing swiftly down Tinakori Road—the cumbersome page 237 'cello apparently no burden—and singing as she sped down the hill. They exchanged glances, some of them, and laughed:“Aren't they putting on a lot of style with those big instruments!”
It had been made somewhat difficult for the girls on their return from London, not because their father was a self-made man—in this young country everyone was self-made—but he had made himself more rapidly than most, and when, after the girls' return,“he took that big house in Fitzherbert Terrace,” some Wellington circles resented it. Nor was it customary, at that time, for girls to be sent “home” to England to be educated. The immediate consequence of this estrangement was that they were thrown back, more than ever, upon their own family life, and upon their immediate friends.
Their musical evenings—an outstanding institution in a community dependent entirely upon its own resources for diversion—often ended with a dance. Thrilling event! Years later Kathleen could capture even the anticipation of “a family dance” :
“The excitement began first thing that morning by their father suddenly deciding that, after all, they could have champagne. What! Impossible! Mother was joking!
“A fierce discussion had raged ever on this subject since the invitations were sent out, Father pooh-poohing—and refusing to listen, and Mother, as usual siding with him when she was with him: (‘Of course, darling: I quite agree’) and siding with them when she was with them: (‘Most unreasonable. I more than see the point.’) So that by the time they had definitely given up hope of champagne, and had focussed all their attention on the hock cup instead. page 238 And now, for no reason whatever, with nobody saying a word to him—so like Father!—he had given in.
“‘It was just after Zaidee had brought in our morning tea. He was lying on his back, you know, staring at the ceiling, and suddenly he said:“I don't want the children to think I am a wet blanket about this dance affair. If it's going to make all that difference to them, if it's a question of the thing going with a swing or not going with a swing I'm inclined to let them have champagne. I'll call in and order it on my way to the Bank.”’
“‘My dear! What did you say?’
“‘What could I say? I was overcome. I said:“That's very generous of you, Daddy dear,” and I placed the entire plate of cut bread and butter on his chest. As a kind of sacrifice to the darling. I felt he deserved it and he does so love those thin shaves of bread and butter.’
“‘Can't you see the plate,’ cried Laurie, ‘gently rising and falling on his pyjama jacket?’
“‘They began to laugh, but it really was most thrilling. Champagne did make all the difference— didn't it? Just the feeling it was there gave such a different…. Oh, absolutely!”
It was not of this, but of another sketch from the same period of memory—Her First Ball—that she said:
“I have been writing about a dance this afternoon, and remembering how one polished the floor was so thrilling that everything was forgotten.”
Then there was the dance itself—the big bare, flower-filled room, cleared; an impromptu orchestra playing by the lamplight which threw such shadows over the wide sleeves and top-knots of the girls; and the boys whom they had known all their lives—now page 239 half grown, stiff in “Sunday suits,” coming to ask for the waltzes and lancers; Siegfried Eichelbaum, Cheviot Bell,“Chummie,” and the Nathans who used to live next door.
George Nathan asked Kass for a dance on one of these evenings.
She answered abruptly:“I know you hate me! Why do you ask me to dance?”
He was surprised, but not nonplussed, being one of those stout, hearty lads who laugh easily.
“But I don't hate you!” he said.
And he didn't. He was thinking he couldn't say she was attractive. He liked the slinky type, and she was plump, and had a quick way of speaking at you so you never knew what she was going to say.“She frightens people away,” he decided, as he crossed the room for another of Godber's meringues.
How differently each of her friends saw Kathleen Beauchamp. It was so all of her life. Few of her friends “knew” her: she had an outward chameleon quality by which she could match herself to the individual and the situation, until her acquaintances were baffled—unable to agree “who she was.” A certain sure intuition made her protect herself from most of them. Few knew anything of her life beyond their own immediate part in it. She completed, rounded off, her experiences quickly; she passed rapidly from one circle to another; she seldom mentioned her earlier life to the new group, page 240 and since she really was a different person in the various stages of her swift development she left her acquaintances with widely divergent impressions. To herself she was like one in a train who, even as he waves to those left behind on the platform, is seeing the new destination which they would never know. She often said to Ida:“I've finished with all that; now let's forget it!”
During most of her life she made her friends among those who had an artistic aim corresponding to her own. When she returned to Wellington most of her first acquaintances were musicians.
Matty, Mr. Beauchamp's secretary, was a member of their trio—one who could be called upon to accompany Kathleen's practices. Kathleen could telephone to her, when she felt in the mood, as she did on the evening when she said:
“There's a fine fire in Harold's study. He and the girls are away. Do come, dear. We can talk there. I hate society! There's so much hypocrisy in it!”
Matty smiled over this with her own peculiar satisfaction. She looked upon Kathleen Beauchamp as she might have looked upon the star of a troupe of players descended upon Wellington fresh from London.
She had seen Kathleen for the first time after her return, on a Saturday morning in October, at eleven o'clock, entering the D.I.C. tea-room, a social centre of Wellington. Hesitating a moment, glancing across the crowded little tables, Kathleen met her own eyes in a gilt-framed mirror. With a slight pause as she passed it, she pushed the eye-veil back page 241 over the little round hat with the Mercury wings— her “Wooza” pinned to the back hair above the stiff linen collar. She was fully conscious of the glance passing between Matty and the girl with her. Matty's pointed little nose fairly leaned toward her cheek in eager agitation. As she passed, Kathleen took out a cigarette, and said coolly:“How are you, dear?”
During the following months she allowed herself to be cultivated. In these matters she never was obtuse.
“What do you think of relatives who call one ‘posey and affected’?” she asked Matty once, speaking of a letter received by the family. Secretly immensely intrigued, Matty merely answered:“It isn't very tactful.” Matty had concluded that Kathleen could be “posey without its really seeming to be affectation.” She who never thought of herself as a picture to be appropriately framed was enthralled by what, to her, was remarkable and individual in the dress and appearance of Kathleen Beauchamp. After a concert which they attended together, someone asked her:“Who was that fine-looking girl you were with?“Matty preened herself over this. She secretly thought that Kass had “a fine proud bearing, magnificent dark eyes, beautifully waved hair, and distinction,” and she took the compliment to herself.
At one concert Kathleen sat in the balcony, dressed in a simple black frock and toying with a red rose; but at an afternoon tea she was wearing a plain dress of heavy, stiff stuff and a stiff dark hat, while everyone else was fluffy. She told Matty later page 242 that Marie had made them, and added:“It's counterpane stuff!”
That was another thing which held Matty charmed and astonished: she never knew what Kass would say. Though she always appeared serious, though Matty never saw more than a slight change of expression—though she spoke in a monotone, she was always making dry comments on things and people, which seemed to Matty daring and dangerous and delightful, as when, in the middle of a concert, just after a tenor solo, she leaned over to her and whispered:“Wasn't he an elongated clothes horse?”
Il pleure dans mon cœur
Comme il pleut sur la ville.
Verlaine : La Bonne Chanson.