The Life of Katherine Mansfield
Chapter XV: Sea-Change
Chapter XV: Sea-Change
“I've acted my sins, and then excused them, or put them away with ‘it doesn't do to think about these things,’ or (more often) ‘it was all experience.’ But it hasn't All been experience. There is waste—destruction, too.” —Letters.
Katherine Mansfield left New Zealand on July 9th, 1908. She never returned, though the time came when she longed to return—a time when her resentment against it was turned away, and with a glad and humble heart she acknowledged it to be her own country—the Island to which she belonged. But that time was not yet. Seven years had to pass; and of those seven years the first three were so bitter in her memory that she seldom spoke of them. There were moments, flying moments, which she remembered with delight; but they seem to have been moments only.
On July 3rd, 1908, she sailed from Wellington on the S.S. Moeri to Lyttleton in the South Island. From Lyttleton she embarked on the S.S. Tapanui, bound, by way of Montevideo and Teneriffe, for Plymouth.
True to his character, her father was generously concerned for her at the last. He and her mother went with her to Lyttleton to see her off. He had cabled to relatives in London, asking them to take page 315 her; but they had refused. So he had found for her in London a kind of hostel for unmarried business women. By a queer coincidence of the same sort which decided that she should look out, from her first rooms in Queen's College, upon Mansfield Mews, the name of the hostel was Beauchamp Lodge. Further, she was to receive an allowance of £100 a year, paid monthly, through the London manager of the Bank of New Zealand, who was to keep a friendly eye upon her. Friendly, indeed, it proved to be; but perhaps not altogether of the disciplinary benevolence imagined by her father. The manager found it impossible to maintain the semblance of austerity required in face of Katherine's critical gaze. He took the safer course, and made her his confidant and adviser in his affairs of the heart. In return, he became a loyal defender of hers. Of his bones were coral made. Some elements of him went to the picture of the Boss in The Fly.
Katherine's memories of Beauchamp Lodge were always depressing. Her husband seems to remember that she pointed it out to him one day from the top of a 'bus, and that it was a tall grey building, standing up sheer from the railway, behind Paddington Station, perhaps somewhere near the beginning of the Harrow Road.
She lost no time in renewing her relations with the Trowell family, who were now settled in Carlton Hill, St. John's Wood; and she stayed in their house for some time. She conceived an affection for St. John's Wood which endured; and in 1915, when she first chose a house to live in herself, it was page 316 in St. John's Wood that she found it. Six years later still she wrote to a friend:
“What a pity it is you can't get a house in St. John's Wood. I think it is the one darling part of London…. It has a charm. But perhaps that is because I lived there in Carlton Hill for a long time when I was young and very very happy. I used to walk about there at night—late—walking and talking on nights in Spring with two brothers. Our house had a real garden, too, with trees and all the rooms were good—the top rooms lovely. But it's all the musical people who make St. John's Wood so delightful. Those grunting 'cellos, those flying fiddles and the wonderful pianos. It's like a certain part of Brussels.”
It was in the drawing-room at Carlton Hill, as Katherine remembered long afterwards in her Journal, that she played cribbage so often “with such intense—Heavens with what!—feelings while T. played the piano.”
T. was Tommy Trowell—Arnold's baptismal name—the other brother was Garnet, and the happy spring she remembered was, apparently, the spring of 1909. But perhaps her memory was charitable. Certainly, in the early spring of that year she was very miserable; and in her misery did a rash and impulsive thing in the effort to escape from it.
Nor, apparently, was her stay at Carlton Hill so long as she afterwards imagined. She was back at Beauchamp Lodge by the end of February; and somewhere about that time, being in straits for money, she sold her 'cello for two pounds. Katherine page 317 being what she was, it is difficult not to believe that this was not expressive of a farewell to music. With the sale of her 'cello, she gave up her musical ambitions. They had been curiously personal, as we have seen. Music, a family of musicians, and one young musician with a touch of genius, had been the only path leading from the world of New Zealand to the world of art. Since it had been the only path, she had to tread it. And there is little doubt that her romantic passion for Arnold Trowell was rather a necessary part of the artistic destiny she dreamed for herself than an expression of her essential nature. A simple affection, a sincere comradeship, had been idealised through separation (at Queen's and in New Zealand) into something more glorious which could not stand the test of proximity.
Indeed, what genuine love-passion was at the heart of this dream appears to have been transferred to Arnold's brother, Garnet. This was, at least, a flesh and blood affair; but it also seems to have derived less from love than from the desire to be in love. At this moment, Musset's dictum was true of Katherine. Elle se passionnait pour la passion. She was eager for essential experience, and even eager to pay the price for it. Probably she could have given to herself no account of the hunger which possessed her and drove her on. It was, indeed, elemental: an instinctive need to prove life “upon her pulses.” The creed of conscious experiment, which she believed she had imbibed from Dorian Gray, was not really for her at all. That demanded a deliberate and advised withholding of some part of herself, which was not in her nature. Surrender page 318 herself she must. There never could be, and never was, any holding back.
She seemed even to grasp at the opportunity of suffering. The fragments of her journal at this time are fevered and shrill; but the pain is there.
“It is the evening of Good Friday; the day of all the year, surely, the most significant. I always, always feel the nail-prints in my hands … the agony of Jesus. He is surely not dead, and surely all we love who have died are close to us. Grandmother and Jesus and all of them—only lend me your aid— I thirst too—I hang upon the cross. Let me be crucified—so that I may cry ‘It is finished.’”
Her inward turmoil was extreme. She found that the experience for which she hungered was shattering. It did not, as she believed it would, issue in self-expression. She was discovering that she could not have life on terms of her own, even when those terms were by no means prudential. Dimly, at the back of her mind, was the purpose of sacrificing herself to life to enrich her art. She would have the experience to express. But Life cannot be managed in that way. You cannot say “Thus far, and no farther” to suffering when you have once exposed yourself to it. It becomes the master, and declares that its will, not yours, shall be done. The fine point of detached awareness, from which in imagination the artist should serenely contemplate his own experience, is itself engulfed in the experience. What should be art is merely the cry of animal pain.
The deception was bitter; and suddenly Katherine revolted against it. She would not any longer endure the sordidness of the suffering to no end. She would page 319 become calm and cool and calculating. She would marry somebody who would respect her right to be an artist, who would stand between her and life, and secure to her the calm which she now believed to be necessary for creation. After all, that was what other women seemed to her to have done, or had had done for them; was not such a calm established— she did not guess with what toil and long-suffering— around a famous woman-poet with whom, and with whose family, she now came slightly into contact? And she came into contact with it by means of a man she had met in the musical circles of St. John's Wood. He was eminently fitted to be the link between the genuine Bohemianism of the professionals of Carlton Hill and the decorous combination of art and complete respectability which had been achieved in the famous family to which he introduced her. He was, indeed, a professional musician; a singer and a teacher of singing—but he had advanced into the profession by the flowery path of a choral scholarship at Cambridge. He had education and refinement; he was the gentleman-artist with the bedside manner, of the type afterwards depicted with subtle understanding in Mr. Reginald Peacock's Day. And he was, indubitably, like Mr. Peacock, an idealist, and, in particular, as it was almost an article of faith in the famous family, an idealist about women.
He had, no doubt, a genuine respect for Katherine's talent; and perhaps he may have dreamed that he, with her, might found another such illustrious family, with another such centre of art and adoration in its midst. At any rate he page 320 offered Katherine homage—he spoke lavishly of “laying himself at the feet of her genius” —and apparent security. In her weariness and disillusion, her desire to escape the exhaustions of Beauchamp Lodge, she suddenly accepted the offer, and married him in the spring of 1909. She was dressed all in black, with Ida Baker for her only attendant. Within a few days she had left him. Idealism about women at close quarters was not at all the refuge she had allowed herself to dream. She tried in vain to return to Beauchamp Lodge—for which her marriage now disqualified her—and this may be the moment when she went on tour as a super in a travelling opera company. She used to tell of cooking kippers over a fish-tail gas-flame in her bedroom; and she sometimes sang, with all the absurd gestures required of an opera chorus, snatches of her former parts.
The recollections, as she told them, were sometimes gay enough: but the whole period was one of great misery.
There are some sentences in an unfinished story, belonging to this time, which express her sense of total disillusion. The story is called The New Zealander, and it begins in the form of a letter, written from New Zealand to a friend in London:
“I wonder where you are and what doing. London, England seems to me almost another planet. I cannot believe that only a few months ago we talked in your cool room and outside saw the leaves spring in the chestnut-tree on the corner. There life seems dead page 321 for me—buried. Surely after my terrible sorrow, London seems to lose all her reality. I had thought of her as a gigantic mother in whose womb were bred all the great ones of the earth—and then—suddenly— she was barren, sterile … with the travail gone. I could not have stayed there any longer. I felt rather like a frightened child lost in a funeral procession—yes, as bad as that—and came home.”
Thus in imagination; but in fact there was no home for her to go to. Home for her was not a place but a feeling—of security, and protection and understanding: of “belonging.” Her grandmother was dead; and she was ill.“I am physically sick,” she wrote in her journal,“with no home, no place in which I can hang up my hat—to say Here I belong—for there is no such place in the wide world for me.” She had become the frightened child, vainly dreaming of a lap to rest in.“I can't rest,” she cried,“that is the agonizing part.”
Meanwhile the news of her marriage and her separation—Katherine had cabled the former—had reached her mother and father. Naturally, they were filled with misgiving and alarm. Her mother's sense of responsibility for her irresponsible daughter was acute; and she hastened to England. Of what occurred between them at their meeting there is no record save of her mother's greeting. Katherine had on a cheap shiny black hat.“Why child! what are you wearing. You look like an old woman in that. As if you were going to a funeral!” But this was emphatically not a time when her mother loved her; and no doubt the familiar little frown between her mother's brows deepened. Long afterwards Katherine said that her mother could be cold page 322 as steel. Katherine expected nothing less; but she had dreams of something more.
She was told to return to her husband; and she refused. She had good reason for refusing; she was with child, and not by her husband. And she was not ashamed, not contrite. Her rebellion had taken life, and she would defend it.
There was nothing for it, then, but Katherine must go abroad and hide. The tender sympathy of the old Professor in Katherine's favourite A Tedious Story was not to be expected. The one thing needful in this case was that the breath of scandal should not be wafted overseas. So Katherine was despatched to Germany, first to a convent in the mountains, and then settled in the Bavarian village of Woerishofen. There she lodged with the postmistress, who was kind to her, and ate at a pension. But soon she became seriously ill. She had been walking exultantly, barefoot, in the wild woods, and she was badly chilled. She lay shivering in bed, and wrote:
“I think it is the pain that makes me shiver and feel dizzy. To be alone all day, in a house whose every sound seems foreign to you, and to feel a terrible confusion in your body which affects you mentally, suddenly pictures for you detestable incidents, revolting personalities, which you only shake off to find recurring as the pain grows worse again….
“The only adorable thing I can imagine is for my Grandmother to put me to bed and bring me a bowl of hot bread and milk, and, standing with her hands folded, the left thumb over the right, say in her adorable voice: ‘There, darling, isn't that nice?’ Oh, what a miracle of happiness that would be. To wake page 323 later to find her turning down the bedclothes to see if my feet were cold, and wrapping them up in a little pink singlet, softer than cat's fur…. Alas!”
The physical pain she suffered at this time was intense, and she had a hard struggle to resist a too frequent recourse to veronal. But the pain was intermittent, and there were days when she was almost happy, thinking eagerly of her baby boy. But Katherine's child was fated to remain always a dream-child. It was born prematurely, and born dead: and her own life was in jeopardy. To the physical pain was added the greater mental agony of her loss. She had believed that a child was coming to put an end to her loneliness. The disappointment of her hope was unbearable. When she began to recover physical strength she implored Ida to find her a little child to take care of.
A tiny boy from a slum who needed a long holiday was found and brought to her. His name was Walter. He suffered, like so many slum-children, from the effects of malnutrition since birth. He had spindly legs and a distended stomach; he had no appetite at all for simple wholesome food, and pined for the rubbish to which he was accustomed. Yet he was gentle, sensitive, quick and loving—a strange little creature from a dark other world, who blinked bewildered in this. He went to Katherine's heart, as she struggled to make him strong; and the memory of that little boy was one day to emerge to stir the slow heart of the world. He was to be transmuted into Ma Parker's Lennie.
“‘Gran, gi’ us a penny! 'he coaxed.
“‘Be off with you; Gran ain't got no pennies.’page 324
“‘Yes, you 'ave.’
“‘No, I ain't.’
“‘Yes, you 'ave. Gi’ us one!’
“‘Already she was feeling for the old, squashed, black leather purse.
“‘Well, what'll you give your gran?’
“He gave a shy little laugh and pressed closer. She felt his eyelid quivering against her cheek. ‘I ain't got nothing,’ he murmured….”
The spring came and Katherine was stronger. She began to reach out her tendrils to life again. One vivid little picture, of a dozen words, shines out from this time in her writing. Twelve years later she was looking down on the quietness of the Rhone Valley from Montana.
“And yet I love this quiet clouded day. A bell sounds from afar; the birds sing after one another as if they called across the tree-tops. I love this settled stillness, and this feeling that, at any moment, down may come the rain. Where the sky is not grey, it is silvery white, streaked with white clouds.”
At the very moment of that perception, in harmony with it, came the memory of the Bavarian village.
“Strange! I suddenly found myself outside the library in Woerishofen: spring—lilac—rain—books in black bindings.”
There was a library in Woerishofen. It was in fact a modest little spa with a discreet unfashionable fame for the water-cure of the good Pfarrer Kneipp. Katherine, like many others, came to believe in his instinctive health-wisdom, his curative sagacity; and she admired him for his brusque and sterling page 325 honesty and above all for the spirit with which the country parson regarded his gift of healing as a talent to be employed in the service not of himself, but of his Master. She gladly submitted to his ice-cold hosings, of which even the memory made one's teeth chatter, and gained strength thereby.
Since it was cheap and unfashionable, beautiful and homely, Woerishofen attracted impecunious continental littérateurs. Among them was a Polish literary critic, charming, distinguished and completely untrustworthy. He might have served as the original of one of Dostoevsky's Poles. He had a magnificent singing voice, and a wonderful repertory of Polish and Russian songs. He had, also, a passion for Stanislas Wyspianski, which he strove to communicate to her; and with his help and a German text she began to translate one of Wyspianski's plays. There was also a long, lugubrious German Pole who seems, in memory, to have sat at a café table all day long, plunged in a comic melancholy, humming over and again one single verse of a then popular song:
“Du bist verrückt, mein kind,—
Du muss nach Berlin;
Wo die verrückten sind—
Da gehörst du hin!”
There was yet another Pole, Yelski by name, who made a deeper impression. He was an odd little man, with a big head, and a passionate affection for his little boy, who was a musical wunderkind. Both the boy and the father were long cherished in Katherine's memory.
At any rate, in Woerishofen Katherine entered page 326 more definitely than before into a genuine comradeship of letters. She met there a few people who lived, precariously but independently, by literature; and she felt something of that intoxication which usually comes to the young English writer when he first meets continental co-evals and confrères. It is due partly to the sense that he is welcomed as a member of an international brotherhood; partly to the sense that the lesser political freedom abroad is compensated by a greater intellectual freedom. To start a newspaper, to found a substantial magazine is not—and was not in 1909—the arduous commercial undertaking it is in England. There is a feeling of infinite possibilities. And when Katherine's new acquaintances talked to her, as they did, of translating her stories for the journals with which they were already connected, or which they proposed (as a matter of course) to found, her literary ardour was kindled anew.
She had begun to write the sketches which ultimately became her first book, In a German Pension. The first she wrote was The Child who was Tired. It is remote from the quality of her later work; but it is deeply interesting. Superficially, it is a realistic story of peasant life; but in essence it is nothing of the kind. The Child who was Tired is indubitably herself in the summer of 1909—the Katherine wearied with pain and crying in vain for rest—“the frightened child lost in a funeral procession.” The peasant household is not any peasant household that Katherine experienced—actually the Bavarian peasants were kind to her, and she liked them—but merely a symbol of her experience of life.“My page 327 experience of life,” she wrote years afterwards,“is that it is pretty terrible.” The Child who was Tired is her first effort to translate that experience into the forms of art—to utter “her cry against corruption.”
It was not to be wondered at that even those who saw the promise of the story should have mistaken its intention and missed its deeper meaning. Very possibly Katherine herself was not fully conscious of this; nor perhaps was she at first wholly averse to being received as a cynical realist. It was part of her plan for protective armour that she should achieve a reputation as one who, having seen through everything, was incapable of further disillusionment.
Probably Mr. Orage, the editor of The New Age, who accepted her story and immediately encouraged her to write more, was not wholly deceived by her pose as the complete woman of the world. After all, she was barely twenty-one when The Child who was Tired was published in The New Age, and followed fairly rapidly with the remaining sketches which comprise In a German Pension. None the less, he seems to have decided that Katherine's real bent was cynical and satirical, and to have used his influence—which was naturally considerable—to keep her in that straight and narrow path.
The slightly mistaken conception of Katherine's genius was probably inevitable. But the time was to come when its limitations were felt by her as constraints which she must not accept; and there ensued a lamentable severance of her relations with page 328 the one journal and the one editor of standing who had given a real welcome to her work.
The Child who was Tired appeared in The New Age of February 24th, 1910. At about this time she returned to England.
Katherine was in England in February, 1910, and had apparently returned for the time being to her then husband: for Mr. Orage remembers that she brought the manuscript of The Child who was Tired to the office of The New Age in person, and that her husband was waiting outside for her and the editor's decision. She came out radiant. Mr. Orage had not only accepted her story, he had offered to publish it in the very next issue, and he had asked her for more. This generous recognition was never forgotten. To the end of her life, when Mr. Orage once more played a part in it, Katherine thought of him with affection and admiration; and certainly the friendship which now developed between her and him and Beatrice Hastings was the one period of her life between 1908 and 1911 upon which she constantly looked back with delight. She stayed with them frequently in a cottage in Sussex, and had the joy of being among her own kind.
But in the full spring she was seriously ill once more. Writing to Sylvia Lynd in 1920, she remembered it.
“You're better now? It's a cursed thing to have. I had an attack once—ten years ago—above a grocer's shop in Rottingdean; no more than ten years ago, or less, the year our great Edward the Peace Maker died. He died when I was in the thick of it.”
That means that Katherine was in the thick of it page 329 above the grocer's shop in May, 1910. But before that she had been in a nursing home, where she had undergone an operation of which the after-pains haunted her memory for years. She recovered. Her power of recuperation in her early twenties was remarkable; and she came to have such faith in them that she took risks with her health which her Grandmother would have gently but firmly forbidden.
In the early autumn, Mr. Alfred Bishop, the painter, with whom she had become acquainted through Mr. Orage, lent her his studio-flat in Chelsea, at 131 Cheyne Walk, while he went abroad. There she spent the autumn and winter, and turned to writing poetry once more. This was the time of the famous first exhibition of the Post-Impressionist painters in England, at the Grafton Galleries. Two pictures at least she remembered for many years, though she mistook the gallery where she saw them. Both are now familiar.
“Wasn't that Van Gogh shown at the Goupil ten years ago? (she wrote to Dorothy Brett in January, 1921). Yellow flowers, brimming with sun, in a pot? I wonder if it is the same. The picture seemed to reveal something that I hadn't realised before I saw it. It lived with me afterwards. It still does. That, and another of a sea-captain in a flat cap. They taught me something about writing, which was queer, a kind of freedom—or rather, a shaking free. When one has been working for a long stretch one begins to narrow one's vision a bit, to give things down too much. And it's only when something else breaks through, a picture or something seen out of doors, that one realises it.”page 330
It seems that Katherine was remembering the actual effect upon her of the Van Gogh paintings in the winter of 1910–11. Evidently, she was working hard. And there is evidence that she was experimenting. For one story of hers which can be definitely assigned to this winter is A Fairy Story which appeared in The Open Window for October—March, 1910–11. That story, which is markedly different from her other published work of this time, is further distinguished by the fact that she changed the form of her name. It was printed as Katherina Mansfield; and evidently not by accident, for it appeared no less than eight times at the head of the pages. There is not much doubt that she was trying to “shake free” of the personality she had created for herself in her work in The New Age, and the change of name was meant to be symbolic of her emancipation. To this period probably also belong the poems which she afterwards published in Rhythm as “translations from the Russian of Boris Petrov-sky.” Like the Fairy Story, they are delicate lyrical evocations, the expression of an element of her nature which evaded the satirical.
It was during this time that Madame Alexander, who lived in the flat above, heard Katherine singing, and was so impressed by the quality of her voice that she endeavoured to persuade her to have it properly trained. In vain. Katherine felt that it would take too much from her writing, in which she was now absorbed. But the quality of her voice was, indeed, remarkable. It was singularly pure and silvery, yet very flexible; and she could use it when she chose with extraordinary dramatic skill. She had an page 331 intimate repertoire of the oddest songs:“The Magistrite looked angry, and the pris'ner 'ung 'is 'ead,” “Ah'm a Jonah, ah'm an unlucky man,” “Sister Mary, she keeps the golden gites,” “I worked all day for forty cents pay,” “Where have you been all the day, Randall my son?” which was heart-rending as she sang it. But most of all in the voice she used for her favourite songs, one remembers a far-away, other-worldly quality, akin to that which finds expression in her poetry as distinct from her prose. And sometimes she sang the lovely poem of her own—“The Sea-Child” —which has not yet taken hold of the general memory as one day it will. For in it is expressed, in a tiny compass, that sense of being a stranger in a strange land among men and women which always lay deep in Katherine Mansfield's heart. That quality was in her voice when she sang.
In the early spring of 1911 Katherine took a flat at 69 Clovelly Mansions, Gray's Inn Road; and with it she took a charwoman called Mrs. Bates. Six years afterwards, when Katherine was living in a studio in Church Street, Chelsea, Mrs. Bates returned to her as charwoman, though it cost her a long journey every day. For there had grown up between them a bond of strong affection. Mrs. Bates, like “Ma Parker,” of whom she was certainly the original, had “had a hard life.” She was a little woman, with a stoop, a grey face, and a faded bonnet; she spoke but little, did her work quickly and unobtrusively, and adored Katherine. What Katherine felt towards her is in the story which she imagined for her.page 332
That summer the Beauchamp family came to London; and Katherine and her brother,“Chummie,” who stayed behind in London after the family had left, became closer friends than before. But in the early autumn she fell ill again, this time with pleurisy, and went to Geneva, where one of her Polish friends—the father of the wunderkind—was now settled. To this moment, or the memory of this moment, belong the Tales from a Courtyard printed in Rhythm; and there is a humorous description of the boarding-house at which she stayed in “Pension Séguin.” The change of note in such a piece from that of the outwardly similar sketches of In a German Pension is marked. Katherine was now laughing at herself. The conclusion to the sketch called Violet, which is set in Geneva, is characteristic. Violet is naïve, but so is Katherine in being astonished at her naïve: human beings are all rather absurd and rather lovable. Plainly, she was growing out of the satirical conventions, and eager to turn from the somewhat narrow path which The New Age had prescribed for her. But this path had at least led to the publication of her first book. In the autumn of 1911 the German Pension sketches were collected and published in a volume by Stephen Swift, who paid her £15 in advance of royalties.
From the Morning Post, in particular, it received some discriminating praise; and it had some measure of success. At the moment when her publisher went bankrupt it was in its third edition. Since the editions were of 500 copies, that means that at least a thousand copies had been sold.page 333
That autumn Katherine received through her publishers, Stephen Swift, a letter from John Middleton Murry. It asked her to send a story to Rhythm, a small quarterly literary magazine of some few months' standing published at Oxford. She replied by sending a rather bitter “fairy story.” Murry returned it, saying that he had not found it easy to understand, and asking for another. She sent The Woman at the Store. He was deeply impressed by this grim and convincing story of a woman's life in the back-blocks of New Zealand, and wrote to her expressing his admiration. And, shortly afterwards, at the end of December, he was invited by the late W. L. George and his wife to meet Katherine Mansfield at dinner at 84 Hamilton Terrace. He accepted eagerly.
Katherine arrived a little late, in a taxi. She wore a simple dove-grey evening dress with a single red flower, and a gauze scarf of the same dove-grey. She was at first very quiet and reserved. Murry even felt that his congratulations on The Woman at the Store—which he said, very truly, was “by far the best story that had been sent in to Rhythm” — had been profuse and clumsy. And in other ways he felt rather crude. He had never tasted plumsoup, which—as a German gourmet's dish—was served in honour of Katherine's recently published book. He had not read Artzibashev's Sanine, nor even heard of the author's name; and the book was a topic of discussion. None the less, after a little while, the ice melted, and Katherine and he were absorbed in talk—so absorbed that by the time they went to look for a taxi for her, he was in imminent page 334 danger of having to walk to Waterloo. At parting, she asked him to come to tea at her flat. It is characteristic that it never occurred to him to ask her to take tea with him.
It was not until he was in full tilt after his train that it struck him that he did not know where she lived, and that no day had been appointed. Nor did he realise that he was suffering from love at first sight. Instead, he waited impatiently and in vain for a note of more explicit invitation. It did not come.
It was some weeks afterwards he received a letter from Geneva, in which Katherine explained that she had suddenly had to return there; but that she would be in London again very soon, and would give him honey and brown bread for tea, if he came. He went, from Oxford. It was a rainy day. He was naïvely surprised to find her in a room with rush matting on the floor, but with hardly any furniture. Conspicuously, there was no table. There was a roll-top desk with a chair, a simple divan, and a small rocking-chair, in which he was invited to sit. The tea was served in bowls upon the floor.
For a little while he felt awkward, perched uncertainly above her, while she squatted on the floor and poured the tea. But again the ice melted magically; and he found himself telling her, not merely of his ambitions with regard to the little magazine, but of his immediate problem. It was that he felt that Oxford had become unendurable, that he could not face the prospect of returning there merely to sit for a School in which he had long since page 335 lost all interest. Yet what could he do? He was maintained at Oxford solely by scholarships and exhibitions; and both his school and college had been very generous towards him. It was his duty, he knew, to work at least moderately well and get the First that was expected of him. But a year before he had conceived the idea of going to Paris for his vacations; and under the influence of Paris all capacity for working for examinations had seeped away from him. Oxford, his Oxford friends, his Oxford work, had become suddenly unreal. He had made up his mind to leave. Yet, if he did leave, there was nothing for him to do. He could not quarter himself at home with a father whose natural ambition he had disappointed completely. He must launch out and make some sort of living. And, so far as he knew, there was no sort of living to be made.
Katherine was gravely sympathetic; and together they stared for a long while at the manifest impossibility. Then they laughed. Life was like that.“But,” she said,“don't stay at Oxford, whatever you do. It's wrong.” And somehow that seemed to lift a weight from his shoulders—to be, in some inexplicable way, a solution of the problem which it left precisely the same as it was before. Yet not precisely the same. For the decision now was taken. It was no longer a question of whether, but of how.
He had a brilliant friend, he said, three years older than himself, who had disappointed everybody at Oxford. He was making a living of some sort by reporting cricket-matches for The Field. Perhaps he might help. And he was very anxious to meet page 336 Katherine, whose sketches in The New Age he had read and admired from the beginning. How would it be if the three of them had dinner together next week, and talked it all over? They could dine at the Dieppe for 1s. 3d.
Katherine agreed.“But,” she said,“you shall call for me at tea-time, and we'll go and have tea somewhere first. I may have thought of something. Then we'll meet Goodyear.” And that seemed to him a curiously perfect idea. So they parted. She came into the dark hall to see him out. Her peach-coloured silk shawl, like a big embroidered handkerchief, glowed while they said good-bye. When he had reached the bottom of the long stairs he crossed the road and looked up to mark her rooms in memory. It was hard to distinguish them. The floors, the windows were all the same. He calculated by the staircase—four flights and then to the left. There, or thereabouts. Was that a peach-coloured shawl he could see dimly at the window? He took the risk, and waved, and ran.
Immediately he set to work with a new energy. He explained his situation to his old classical tutor, H. F. Fox, who had stood by him so often in the past, and now stood by him once again. Fox made no secret of his disapproval.“I don't think I ought to help you,” he said. Then, severely and fiercely,“But well go and see Spender to-morrow.“And on the next day it was so. Two humaner men —two men more liberal in the ideal sense of that new hackneyed word—were not, than these two friends. And, when they joined forces against him, it was hard indeed for Murry to stand his ground. page 337 “After all,” said Spender,“a First is worth having.”“And why not take a year in Germany?” said Fox.“There are new research fellowships : the College will give you one gladly, I know.”“Besides,” said Spender,“it's only a matter of three months more work.”
“But I ceased to work a year ago. I don't work. I simply read Plato over and over. I don't work even on him. I can't see him from the school's point of view any more. I don't know why, but I can't.”
And if he had been aware of what had happened to him, he would have said :“And I've fallen hopelessly, finally in love.“But he was not aware of anything save that it had become still more impossible than before to go on with Oxford.
Somehow, he convinced them that it was so.“Well, well, it can't be helped, I see,” said Spender.“But remember, there's no future in this profession. Since Northcliffe came, we journalists are doomed. But I'll give you what work I can. You must begin by writing paragraphs.“He opened the fresh copy of the Westminster on his desk and pointed to them.
“We pay 7s. 6d. each for those. One a day is £2 5s. a week; two a day is £4 10s. Get them in every morning by the first post. I'll take what I can.”
Murry stammered his thanks, and prepared to leave. Evidently Fox and Spender had something more important to talk about.“Just a moment,” said Spender, and sat down at his desk. He wrote a cheque for £5.“That's in advance,“he said.page 338
“It will be taken from your first earnings.“It never was.
Murry moved to London the next day, intending to stay at home for a week or two until he could find and furnish a room.
On the stroke of his appointment he knocked at the door of Katherine's flat; on the stroke of his knock she opened the door. She was ready : dressed in a tailored coat and skirt of dark blue serge, with a small cream-coloured straw hat trimmed with a tiny bunch of gay flowers, with grey gloves—there was something almost boyish about her. Perhaps it came from the little tailored coat which hung straight from the shoulders. But no : it was deeper, more essential than that. She was not, somehow, primarily a woman. He was not conscious of her as a woman. She was a perfectly simple, perfectly exquisite human being, whose naturalness made him natural. With her there was no need to pretend.
“I've got a job,“he said.
Her brown eyes sparkled.“Not really?” she said incredulously. He nodded. It was hard to prevent his face from beaming with a stupid smile.“Really and truly…. Let me show you.”
She led the way into her writing-room. He took Spender's cheque out of his pocket-book and laid it before her.“That's in advance—for work,“he said.
She seemed to be quite as blissfully astonished by it as himself. She clasped her hands together and said,“I am glad.“And he knew she meant it. He began to explain how it had happened.“No. page 339 don't tell me now,” she said.“Let's go and have tea.”
As she was closing the door she paused, as though remembering something.“You haven't seen my flat,” she said, and led the way in.“You haven't seen the kitchen.“It had a gas-stove, a table and two chairs, and a big window, which she opened.“That is my view,“she said. It looked out over a vast forest of chimney-pots, with here and there in the distance a tall grey church spire, almost silvery in the sunlight. No street could be seen. The noise of the London traffic sank to a low hum—no more, it seemed, than the natural murmur of the forest; making the quiet intense.
“Do you like my view?“she asked.
“It's very beautiful.”
She showed him her second sitting-room. Like the first, its walls were covered with plain brown paper and the floor was matting. There was a grand piano and a divan. The fireplace was filled with lavender, and on the floor was a big pawa shell, and a flat oval bowl of water with a green-bronze lizard within.
She showed him her bathroom and her little bedroom—almost a cubicle—with room for a camp-bed and chair; and then she had shown him everything.
“Do you like the place I live in?”
“Very much,“he said.
“It's a good place for work, and it's not dear. £52 a year. It's better, don't you think, to spend the money on the rooms and go short on the other things? Better be hungry than sordid.”page 340
They went to the ground floor of the Isola Bella, and sat with their backs to the street window. There was no one there except themselves, and the proprietress who served them. Then Murry told his story. She listened. Half-way through,“I like your Fox,” she said. At the end :“Let me look at that cheque again.“He produced it. She studied it.
“I don't think I've ever liked the look of a cheque so much.”
“Do you know,” said Murry.“I think you are in some way responsible for this?”
“Yes. You see, I think you clinched it in my mind. If it hadn't been for that talk of ours—if it hadn't been for your telling me not to go back—I might never have tackled Fox.”
She seemed to ponder this. Her beautiful hand, cupped like a shell, moved slowly on the table.“I wonder … I would like to think so,“she said.
Then he broached his plan. It was that they should edit Rhythm together. As far as he then knew—his knowledge was very superficial—the magazine was paying its way. He would send her all the manuscripts submitted; and once a week they would meet and compare notes. She would write a story every month. But perhaps the more excellent part of the plan, in his eyes, was the weekly meeting.
She seemed delighted by the idea.“I'm not getting on very well with The New Age,“she confessed.“They have a conviction that I can only page 341 write satire. And I'm not a very satirical person— really.”
It was amazing to him, at that moment, that anyone should have supposed she was a satirical person at all.
“I believe in something,” she went on.“Let's call it truth. It's a very big thing. It's inside us and outside us. We have to discover it. That's what the artist is for—to become true by discovering truth. Or perhaps it's the other way about. Truth is so important that when you discover a tiny bit of it, that you forget all about everything else—and all about yourself.”
“Perhaps,” said Murry,“that is what Keats meant when he said that ‘ Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.“’
“I would like to know … The only reason for satire—and I think it's a real reason—is that it attacks those who deny the truth. It's defending truth; but it isn't truth. But one can't attack the false without knowing—or feeling—the true. It would be horrible if we did—somehow, corrupt.”
They went to meet Goodyear. To him the story had to be told once again. He, too, seemed pleased.
“Whatever you do, don't live at home. Living at home has been the ruin of me,” he added ruefully. Then he laughed.“I have a parent,“he explained to Katherine,“who will not kick me out. Why, he's glad when I drift back home again, and sponge on him. And so of course, I do. The duty of a parent is to kick his offspring out, and if he fails, then the duty of the offspring is to kick himself out. That's the law of life—which whoso offendeth, page 342 it were better for him to wear a sky-blue suit and be an advertising agent—as I am about to be.”
They were incredulous.
“It's true. I am already. I have in my care the advertising of the Stepney Furnishing Company. You two are artists; you are effete. You do not know, and you will not believe, that I am the man of the future. In me the great twin streams of the Zeitgeist converge—advertising and hire purchase. The man who is the advertising agent for a hire-purchase company is the New Machiavelli. Wells has missed the ‘bus this time. Ecce homo!”
Katherine enjoyed Frederick Goodyear. He belonged to a tribe she knew. He was a born Pa Man. After this evening they became great friends.
The three stood on the pavement of the fountain in Piccadilly Circus. It was a lovely spring night. Nobody wanted to go home. They were happy together.
So they walked round and round.
“I'm going to begin hunting for a room to-morrow —not more than ten shillings a week,“said Murry.
Goodyear approved. Then silence fell again. It was easy to be silent in that evening and that happiness.
“I have a suggestion to make,“said Katherine airily.“Why not have a room in my flat. There's the music-room. I hardly ever use it, and I certainly don't need it. We could move the piano. You can have the use of the kitchen and the bathroom. And I won't charge you ten shillings, because I shall have two rooms and you only one. Would seven and six be too much? I think it will page 343 suit you better than anything you will find for ten shillings.”
He hardly believed that she was serious. But Goodyear took it coolly.“That's a very good idea,“he said.
There was another silence. They walked round once again. Then they had to say Good night.
Murry said to Katherine :“Are you really serious—about the rooms?”
“Of course. Why not?”
“Then I should like it very much.”
“Go—ood!” she said, in a small, cool, flute-like voice. Then :“When will you come?”
“When you like.”
“Well, let's say Monday—Monday tea-time. I'll have everything ready by then. Do you like eggs?”
She gave him her hand, holding her body back.“Auf wiedersehen,“she said, and flitted across the Circus. He watched her white hat disappear in the dusk.
On the Monday—it was the middle of April—he arrived with his belongings. Katherine was dressed, as before, and ready to go out. But she showed him his room. A little table had been arranged by the window with a bright blue table-cloth. A cupboard had been emptied to make room for his books and clothes. She gave him two keys.
“I have to go out now. You will find your tea in the kitchen. And you can get your own supper. You'll find everything there. I hope you will be comfortable. Now I'll say good night—Murry!“And she disappeared.
He worked hard, and painfully, at his paragraphs page 344 after tea. He had to scrap fully a dozen before he had produced two which seemed tolerable. Then it was past ten, and he was tired. He went out to post them, and went to bed.
In the morning he was wakened by a knock at the door.“I've finished with the bathroom,” said Katherine's voice.“And your breakfast is in the kitchen.”
In the kitchen he found the table laid, and a boiling kettle. Brown bread and butter and honey, and a large brown egg in an egg-cup. Fixed between the egg and the egg-cup was, like a big blue label, a half-sheet of notepaper with this inscription :
“This is your egg. You must boil it. K.M.”
So Murry became Katherine Mansfield's lodger. For many weeks they went their own ways, meeting only after they had finished their work at night. Then, at midnight, they would have bowls of tea on the floor of Katherine's room and talk till two in the morning. They always shook hands before they went to bed.
“Good night, Mansfield!”
“Good night, Murry!”
Once Katherine had to stay in bed with a sharp attack of her now recurrent pleurisy, and Murry sat in the chair by her bedside and performed her instructions while Ida Baker was away. And once or twice a week they would meet at tea-time and discuss the next issue of Rhythm, which had now imprudently become a monthly.
“I know what it is, my dear, to be down on your luck,” she would say to Katherine, and nod sagely.” I know.” She was convinced that they were a music-hall couple” resting.“And when they tried to convince her to the contrary, she was rather hurt, because she felt that they were trying to conceal the truth, even from her. Since they liked her they let her have her way. They admitted reluctantly that they were a music-hall turn without engagements; and she was radiant.
“I knew I'd seen yer both on the ‘alls,“she said.
And, looking back, it seems that her idea was reasonable enough. Katherine usually wore a close-fitting velvet bodice and skirt, and a bright shawl: Murry wore a big navy-blue fisherman's jersey. Such clothes were unfamiliar in Clerkenwell.
The saloon bar of The Duke of York was the scene of a strange happening which was crucial in the relation of Katherine and Murry. He had received for review from The Westminster one of Dr. Wallis Budge's translations of the sacred books of Egypt. Since he knew nothing of ancient Egypt he was reading it with great care. In it the phrase occurred repeatedly: The Boat of the Million Years. Suddenly page 346 the phrase became real to his imagination, and a shadowy boat was laden with the horror of the timeless world. The shock, perhaps by contrast with his present happiness, was overwhelming, and he burst into tears.
In a little while he pulled himself together; but the cold about his heart remained. Perhaps half an hour afterwards Katherine came in.
She noticed instantly that something was wrong.“What is the matter?“she asked anxiously.
“Nothing … it's nothing.”
“Oh no, it isn't nothing. I can see that something has happened.”
So he tried to explain the desolation which had suddenly descended upon him: how a sense of the futility and insignificance of all that was human in respect of the infinite process of the years had seized him with an almost physical grasp. It was as though some inward part of him which had been warm and living had been frozen. She listened and understood. Then she said:
“Murry, I love you. Doesn't that make any difference?”
It was the first time the word had been spoken between them, and it did make a difference.
But as before they lived their separate lives for several days. They kissed each other good night instead of shaking hands. And strangely, Murry was haunted by ghostly traces of the same cold fear. An icy wind would blow upon him suddenly, passing as quickly as it came.
One night they were in The Duke of York together. The saloon bar was fairly full, and the gramophone page 347 was playing. Most of the habitués were there— faded and kindly solicitors’ clerks most of them, not improved by the admixture of a repulsive fat man with an insatiable appetite for telling obscene stories —a shopkeeping couple or two, drinking stout sedately at the round tables—and Lil. Lil was almost always there. They took it for granted that she was a prostitute, though they never saw her leave with a man. There was something terribly impressive about Lil. One would never have dreamed of saying that one liked her: she was altogether too remote. No matter how inclusive the gaiety in the saloon bar might be, she was never involved in it. Yet she was Lil to everybody. The name was not meant, or felt to be, a familiarity. Everybody said” Good evening, Lil” when they entered; hardly anybody said anything more to her during the evening. It was a convention of the place to ignore her—out of a kind of deference, as though she were there incognito. Yet if by chance she was absent, the first question asked of Ma, the landlady, was always:” Where's Lil?“And a great part of the evening's conversation would be spent in wondering what might have happened to her. Was she ill?
It is hard to say what happened on this particular night. And perhaps nothing particular did happen save to Katherine and Murry—and Lil. Suddenly they were conscious that she was looking at herself intently in the big mirror. Probably she had looked at herself many times before, and probably they had seen her do it often. But to-night it was different. She was looking at herself as at a stranger, page 348 in whose face she was trying to discover something. And the stranger's face in the mirror was terribly white and old; and the eyes in the face were fathomless dark caverns, reaching back, back. It seemed as though Lil could not take her own eyes away from those eyes in the mirror. They had laid some spell upon her. And well they might.
Murry did not know that Katherine was watching Lil; neither did Katherine know that Murry was watching her. When they spoke of it afterwards, they discovered that each had wanted the other not to see. Each had felt that the other should be spared that sight. When Murry had risen to go—long before the usual time—Katherine had followed eagerly, thankful that Murry had escaped the vision.
Neither had escaped it. All their lives long this remained the most vivid of their experiences together. Yet it is doubtful whether either of them spoke of it again, after that night. Even on that night they said very little about it, though it occupied all their thoughts, as they sat on the floor together by the fire. Lil's face in the mirror brought them finally together. Against that vision—and all its inexpressible meaning—they knew they must hold together, for ever. It had been part of the understanding between them, since they had acknowledged that they did love one another, that it might not be permanent. That night as they clasped each other close, and sat silent before the fire, they knew and acknowledged that they were bound together for ever. That night, for the first time, they slept in each other's arms.page 349
The rest of Katherine Mansfield's life—a bare eleven years—is written by her own hand in her Journal and her Letters. In the nature of things that record is not complete. Many of her letters have been published only in part, and some not published at all. And probably it will be many years yet before these can be published. But the publication, when it comes, will add little that is essential to the picture of herself that is contained in the Journal and the Letters. What she was, what she became, is told in them with far greater truth than any biographer could hope to achieve.page breakpage break