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Cheerful Yesterdays

Chapter III — How I Learned English

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Chapter III
How I Learned English

The Friedeburg arrived in the roadstead north of Napier on August 24th, 1875, and next day the passengers went ashore in lighters and were landed at "The Spit." Such was the name by which the Port of Napier was at that time known, from the long shingle "spit" connecting the town with the harbour. "Napier" and "Spit" —so the town and port were always spoken of till 1892 or 1893. Since then, if you would avoid giving offence, you must say "Napier" and "Port." For in that year Mark Twain published a professedly humorous account of his tour in New Zealand. I have never seen the book, but I am assured it contained at least one joke, emphasised for Napier people, no doubt, by its "splendid isolation": "See Naples, and die"; "See Napier, and Spit."

We had been 108 days at sea in a sailing vessel without fresh vegetables or fruit of any sort; our tea and coffee (beverages that were really indistinguishable) flavoured with a mud-coloured powder supposed to be sugar and with Swiss condensed milk; the only meat, a canned mess obviously from Chicago.

It is easy therefore to imagine the joy in the family when, a few days after our arrival, we were page 21all four asked to dinner by a kind-hearted clergyman. I am ashamed to say I have forgotten his name, nor do I know even to what religious denomination he belonged; but with a typical Danish memory I remember the food! Not one of us could speak a word of English, but what of that? We were there to eat—fresh, wholesome, palatable food— not to talk. With "nods and becks and wreathed smiles" we had no difficulty in conveying to our hosts our appreciation of the meal provided: "Viands of higher regale than those cates which the ravens ministered to the Tishbite." And we enjoyed our good things for the same reason that little" Elia "so enjoyed his: we too had lived on" blue and tasteless porritch," on "scanty mutton crags," and on "boiled beef—strong as caro equina."

But the dinner nearly ended in a contretemps. When we rose from the table, first my father and my mother, after them my sister and I, went up to our host and hostess, according to Danish usage, politely shook hands and said "Tak for mad," expecting them to reply with the English equivalent for "Velbekommen "—whatever that might be. Our host and his wife shook hands with us pleasantly enough, but seemed embarrassed, and were apparently protesting about something or other. Presently we found ourselves in the hall of the parsonage, and hats and coats were handed us, still apparently with protests. "Strange people these Englanders," we thought; "when you've had enough to eat they turn you out." Then it dawned on my father that something must be wrong somewhere. He fumbled in his overcoat and produced his Vademecum—his page 22"Handbook of English and German Phrases." We could never procure a Danish-English lexicon in New Zealand, but he fortunately spoke German, and translating from Danish to German and then, with the aid of his "Handbook" from German to English, he managed to explain that "Tak for mad" meant "Thank you for food," and the formula expected in response—" Velbekommen "—meant "May it agree with you." And so the incident ended in laughter; our hats and coats were restored to the pegs, and in the drawing-room we spent a pleasant evening with music and with singing in both languages. But what an escape.

Those "nuggets of rich red gold" the emigration agents in Copenhagen had described so eloquently appeared to be scarce after all. In fact, in Napier —and indeed in the whole Province of Hawke's Bay—as we now were told, there were none about. "Over the Range," however, beyond the forest-clad Ruahine Mountains, there, we were now assured, was El Dorado. So my father, reluctantly no doubt, abandoned the romantic quest for gold and sought more prosaic methods of employment.

We had secured some partly furnished rooms in a house belonging to a stout lady with a Bardolph nose. As she was the first English person with whom we were brought much into contact, we hoped to learn from her something of the language. When she was shown some of our Danish treasures she would say, "Well, I never!" If still more moved to surprise or admiration she would exclaim, "Goodness, gracious me! "Now, what could we benighted foreigners make of that? Such phrases were simply untranslatable; even my father's page 23vaunted "Handbook "—much in demand since it had extricated us from that mix-up at the parsonage —furnished no key to such mysterious idioms, and from our landlady, for all her volubility, we learned nothing.

On the voyage out my father had applied himself assiduously to learning cases of nouns and pronouns, comparison of adjectives and paradigms of verbs. He filled pages of paper with incontrovertible statements like "The schoolmaster has the pen of the baker's mother-in-law "; or with profound moral reflections like "A stitch in time saves nine "; but when he tried to put all this to use in speech the result was quite hopeless. The curse of Ollendorf was upon him, and to the end of his days he never acquired facility in speaking English.

But he wisely determined that I must follow a different course. I was young enough, he thought, to learn my English as I had learned my Danish—by Nature's method, not by Ollendorf's. Neither on the voyage out nor during my first three months in New Zealand would he allow me to look at an English grammar or an English lesson-book of any kind. I must first, he insisted, "pick up" the vernacular as best I could. And so, wisely as I now realise, he simply" turned me loose "to mingle with English boys and acquire their speech.

We lived on the edge of a common or open space called "Clive Square," where boys were always to be found at play. Shyly and timidly I tried to make up to them, but with small success, for their language, their manners, and their games were alike strange to me. Then luck came my way: a page 24nice-looking young butcher,1 who sold us meat from the tail of his cart whenever we could afford to buy it, took a fancy to me. He found me, I hope, a polite little boy. At any rate, he gave me a lamb some three months old, and this I grazed on a tether-rope in Clive Square.2

At once I appeared to become an object of interest to my fellow-urchins; they gathered round me and my lamb and were no longer unapproachable. For some reason that remained for long a mystery to me they called me "Mary." But they spoke to me and humoured me, and soon I learned that my lamb had "eyes" and "ears," "nose" and "mouth," "legs "and "tail"; that its coat was composed of "wool"; that it "walked" and "ran"; that It "ate grass," and even that it "baa-ed." In a few days I came home in page 25triumph to fire off at my parents my first complete sentence in English: "Dat lamb haf ver-r-i fine vool." I have not forgotten that sentence—I was not allowed to forget it, or the way I pronounced it. Four years later, when I was a pupil-teacher in the Napier State School, some of these same urchins were in the class I taught, and when I "kept them in" or otherwise punished them, I would hear them, at a safe distance in the play-ground, calling not to me but at me, "Dat lamb haf ver-r-i fine vool ! "But on the whole I thought I had the best of it; they at least could not keep me in.

In the course of two or three months I had acquired a work-a-day vocabulary, illiterate and slangy no doubt, and hopelessly mispronounced; but it served. Then, and not till then, my father sent me to a small private school. The first morning I learnt the alphabet: "y" and "w" were the only letters that puzzled me. Next day the mistress put into my hand a book and said, "See what you can make of that." It opened at a picture—Foot-prints on the sand. It was "Robin-son Crusoe," the great Danish classic translated into English ! I had read it and re-read it in Denmark. It ranked with Ingemann's "Valdemar the Victorious "as my favourite story-book. Knowing the narrative almost by heart, I found reading it in English wonderfully easy. I was allowed to take the book home, devoured its pages at night, and when in a difficulty I turned up the passage or sentence in my own Danish version. In less than a month I could do a piece of dictation from any part of the book, and had added most of the page 26words in it to my fast-growing vocabulary. It was only after several years—and I may add, after several fights—that I was reluctantly convinced that the book I had so long treasured and brought out with me from home was a translation into Danish of the great English classic, and not the reverse.

But "Robinson Crusoe" was not my only classic. My father had been told that the Authorized Version of the Bible was the finest exemplar of English prose. So he sent me to Sunday school as well as to day school. The nearest to our home was in Clive Square, so there I went. It happened, I remember, to be a Wesleyan Methodist. I managed to win a prize for recitation of the Psalms of David, for I had then, as now, a retentive memory. The prize, "Pompeii and Herculaneum," has escaped several sales of my library in recurring periods of impecuniosity, and is still in a place of honour on my book-shelves for my children to see. But my father presently decided to change my Sunday school; he was not satisfied, he said, about what he quaintly called "the Wesleyan accent." He therefore sent me to St. Paul's (Presbyterian), for the Scotch, he understood, were the best educated nation in Europe—after the Danes. But they did not give prizes at St. Paul's, only "merit cards," and I soon persuaded him to let me change once more. This time I went to St. John's (Anglican) Sunday school, and there I had the good fortune to be taught by the daughter of the Bishop of Waiapu, of which diocese Napier was the cathedral town, though as yet without a cathedral. When she read Isaiah to us in her cultured voice, even I could realise that here was noble English prose.

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I fear that my father, in his anxiety about my accent, showed very little concern about my theology. But I have never ceased to be grateful to him for his wise foresight, for during the years I attended these Sunday schools—especially St. John's—I read nearly half of the Old Testament and most of the New. I committed to memory much of Isaiah and many of the Psalms, and I learned to read aloud and to recite—thanks to the teaching of that cultivated English gentlewoman—with, I believe, "good accent and discretion."

I have allowed myself to dwell at such length upon the manner in which I acquired my second mother-tongue in the hope that among my readers a teacher of languages here or there may learn something from my tale. At any rate, the method was justified by the result. My friends assure me I have no trace of foreign accent, and that I could pass for an Englishman in Oxford itself. Although of late the number of words at my command in Danish has been reduced from lack of use, I was for many years stricto sensu bi-lingual in that I spoke and thought, interchangeably, in either tongue. That is a result that would never have been attained had I acquired my English by the stupid and unscientific methods in which French and other modern languages are still taught in our public schools.

I suppose it is not possible at sixty to form a just conception of your mental stature at ten. All I can say for certain is that I had in a marked degree a receptive mind, and with that went, as usual, a retentive memory. Some little imagination had, I think, developed, but no trace of any sense of humour; that did not show itself till I was on page 28the verge of manhood. For, had it done so, I should surely have escaped the conceit and cock-sureness of my adolescent years.

But I do realise that the complete change of environment and of language at that stage in my growth had a most stimulating effect upon my intellectual development, I had been at school for a year and a half in Copenhagen; top boy— "dux "it was called—in the preparatory department of Kelskov's "Real Skole," a proprietary school on much the same lines as the Scotch academies. I had visited most of the museums and art galleries in that city of galleries and museums. I had been several times to Tivoli and to theatres. All these experiences of the years between six and nine would have been forgotten long since, as they are by most children, but that the sudden and complete change in my life had the effect, in the language of photography, of "fixing" the impressions made during my childhood in Denmark. Those impressions in consequence became a most useful element in my education and mental "make-up." I have, for example, seen many plays in my life, but of none have I so clear and vivid a recollection as of my first play, which I saw at eight. This was "Kjöbmanden fra Venedig" (" The Merchant of Venice ") produced at the State Theatre in Copenhagen. Shy lock's is, of coarse, the image most clearly outlined; indeed, I remember I was not a little afraid of him, with his scales and his knife and his looks of hatred. But I have the most vivid recollection also of the fairy splendours of the fifth act, its music and moonlight. Perhaps I enjoyed it the more because I was assured page 29at the end of the fourth that the cruel old Jew was not coming back.

It is worth noting, by the way, that for many years plays of Shakespeare were produced on more nights of the year in Copenhagen with its half-million inhabitants than in London itself. "As You Like It," "A Midsummer-Night's Dream," "The Merchant of Venice," and, of course, "Hamlet," were the favourites with Danish playgoers. Even while I am writing this chapter I learn from a Copenhagen newspaper—Dammarks Posten—that "Stormen" ("The Tempest") is having a great run at the State Theatre in Copenhagen, produced, say the critics, with consummate art by Johannes Poulsen. It would seem that the Danish stage still deserves what Sir Edmund Gosse said of it many years ago—that it is the home of the highest dramatic art in Europe.

In the meanwhile the family fortunes remained at a low ebb. The mercantile experience my father had acquired in Copenhagen was of no use whatever in view of his unfortunate failure to become fluent in English speech. Nor was he adapted for the career marked out for his fellow-immigrants— bush-felling, and ultimately, when the land was cleared, dairy-farming.

The few pounds brought out with him were all spent and the situation looked desperate indeed; and then luck turned for the time being, at any rate, and he got his first job in New Zealand.

In his youth he had taken up painting as a hobby, and attended "Balsgaard's," a well-known art school in Copenhagen. On the voyage out, in calm weather, he would bring out his easel and page 30palette and amuse himself by painting bits of "still life "on the deck or try his hand at a seascape.

One evening—I think my mother was down to our last shilling—there came to us two young Danes whose acquaintance we made on board. They were with difficulty persuaded to sit. When they did, they sat on the very edge of the chair, twirling their caps in nervous fingers. At last Jensen cleared his throat and became articulate. They were deeply sorry that the "well-honoured and highly-respected Herr" (" Politeness," says a Danish proverb, "costs nothing ") had not yet obtained employment suitable to his distinguished talents. The "well-honoured Herr," in reply, cheerfully assured them, Micawber-like, that something would surely turn up. They had observed, they said, the beautiful paintings he had done on the voyage. "And," said Jensen, and looked at Hansen: "Yes, indeed," said Hansen, and looked at Jensen—but they got no further. "Have these good fellows developed taste in art? "thought my father. "Can it be that they want to buy one of my—er— masterpieces? "But he was quite wrong, for presently they blurted out the real object of their visit. They had rented a shop in a side-street and partitioned it off into two. In one half Jensen, who was a watchmaker, proposed to repair time-pieces; in the other Hansen, a bootmaker, to mend footwear. "Did the worthy Herr think he could, and would he so far condescend as to honour them "—and then it came out simultaneously from both in a sort of duet—" Would he," in short, "paint a signboard for each? "And so the reason for all their shyness became apparent: they were page 31ashamed only to be kind! My father, touched by the now transparent motive of their visit, gladly assented to their proposal. If he could paint at all, he thought a signboard should not be beyond his powers.

Jensen was the easier to please. "Rasmus Jensen, Watchmaker" was all he wanted. But Hansen must have something more than "Bootmaker. "There were some words, he said—always the same words—at the bottom of every shoemaker's signboard. So I was sent off to the nearest shoemaker's shop to make a "Chinese copy" of the customary legend, whatever it might be. In due course the words, were painted on Hansen's sign. None of us was sure of their exact meaning, but they sounded really fine: "Repairs Executed with Neatness and Despatch."

My father was well paid, probably over-paid, for his signboards, and got other jobs on the strength of this. It is pleasant to know that both these kind-hearted young Danes did well in'their business. Hansen gathered together a modest competency and returned to Denmark; Jensen established a large watchmaker and jeweller's business and left an estate of close upon £30,000, and, better than that, a name much honoured in the community. As for my father, when he died suddenly in 1893, after a hard struggle with life in which he seemed always worsted, but in which he never lost heart, I found that all he owed in the world was the sum of seventeen shillings and sixpence; and I paid that.

1 Fifty years later I part heard a case in the Supreme Court at Napier—a family dispute about the administration of a sheep-farmer's estate of some £50,000—the deceased testator was my "nice-looking young butcher." 1 felt he had thoroughly deserved all the prosperity that had come to him.

2 The Province of Hawke's Bay and its chief town, Napier, are fortunate in the matter of place-and street-names. Clive, Hastings, Havelock, Meeanee—these are names of towns and villages in the district. The streets of Napier were laid out and named after English poets and writers by Alfred Domett, himself a poet (" Ranolf and Amohia "), the friend of Tennyson and Browning, the "Waring" of Browning's poem of that name. Other parts of New Zealand have been less fortunate. The desire to commemorate the names of local nobodies or of enterprising speculators who subdivided their lands and founded "townships" gave rise to such names as "Dillmans-town" and "Horrelville," and many beautiful and significant Maori names have been thus effaced. "Kororareka "—•" the beach of shining shells "—has become Russel; for "Waiheke" —" Tumbling Waters "—is substituted the atrocity "Bulls."