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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



Whether or not Karori had people who were “her people,” it certainly had many “characters” of the kind which Katherine Mansfield was to understand and illuminate later in The Aloe, and Prelude, and The Doll's House.

About a mile up the Karori Road beyond “Chesney Wold” was “the monkey tree cottage” where Barry and Eric Waters, the two boy cousins, page 98 lived. Eric was a thin, almost effeminate child.“His shoulder blades stuck out like two little wings.” But Barry, like his pioneer namesake, was “all boy”; and “Spot,” the beautiful silky cocker spaniel, was his shadow.

Their father, Frederick Valentine Waters, was a man more at home in the child's world than in the world of adults. His wife, who had been a Dyer, an older sister of Kathleen's mother, was exactly as “Doady” was described: a beautiful, distinguished-looking woman with a patrician bearing, the heavy-lidded eyes and long, narrow face of the wife of Andrea del Sarto. Frederic Waters was drawn more out of line—more, as Katherine Mansfield thought later, like a Cezanne:

“One of his men gave me quite a shock. He's the spit of a man I've just written about, one Jonathan Trout. To the life. I wish I could cut him out and put him in my book.”

The children's earliest recollection of their aunt was in a darkened room, lying on a sofa with crossed hands and a general air of resignation. The room was sweet with eau-de-Cologne from a handkerchief over her eyes, and their mother was saying:“You poor dear! You always have such headaches!”

Her husband was as different from her in temperament as he was in appearance. The house simply rang with his gaiety when he was at home; and it seemed an empty shell—without even an echo—in his absence. The story is told that his marriage to her was unexpected. She was to have married another man. She was even at the church, with bridesmaids, flowers, guests all assembled. page break page break
Black and white photograph of the the Karori General Store and Bakery

The Karori Store (1893)

page 99 And the bridegroom didn't appear. Shortly afterward she was married to Frederick Waters.

He never had much respect for men. He was too chivalrous. When he saw soldiers walking with their arms about girls' waists, he was infuriated.“Men are always taking advantage of poor girls,” he said. He forever took the girl's part and believed it was the man's fault. If a tram in the town went a minute or two early, he champed up and down:“Some poor old lady might have wanted to get on it”; or “some one might be sick and would be too late.” He was a man of charm and kindness, yet he never got ahead. For years he was Assistant Secretary to the Post and Telegraphs, when he should have been head of a Government department. Opportunities came for him to advance; his charm advanced him, but his kindness held him back. There was always someone who, he thought, was entitled to promotion before him, or someone who, he thought, needed it more. So his real life was lived in his hobbies. He had two. One was music. He was baritone soloist with the Wellington Musical Union (under Mr. Parker); and organist at St. Mark's Church; and he led the choir at Karori. His other hobby was gardening—or perhaps it was his excuse for playing with the children—for his results were as varied and unexpected as his changes in appearance. He tied a handkerchief over his head, donned dungarees for his work, and was always wheeling something in a barrow; but the children never knew what face he would be wearing.

They flocked over, when they saw him in the page 100 garden, all ready to ride in the barrow or on his back. The three little Beauchamp girls would drift in, dressed alike in galatea blouses, white or striped; and blue smocked jumper dresses. They were very careful of those dresses; they always wore them for a whole week, and yet they looked neat and fresh. Lena Monaghan's mother used to point out how clean the little Beauchamp girls were. Lena's dress lasted only two days. But Lena didn't know— her own mother didn't know—the “terrible times” that Kass had over hers; and the conspiracies with the grandmother over clean pinafores and lost hair-bows. But all was forgotten at Uncle Fred's. If Vera, grown up and lady-like, hurried on, and Chaddie, gay and elfish, danced ahead, while Kass lagged behind crying,“Wait for me!” Uncle Fred had some surprising transformation. She forgot to say,“I can't go fast like the others; I'm too fat”; for he could go fast or slow to suit the child. And he made the most astonishing changes in his hair! Sometimes he had a little beard, sometimes a moustache, sometimes little sidewhiskers. Then when they had got used to the two of those, he would appear with only one. He was like the little beds in his garden: some were beautifully tended; others were bristling with weeds. Great times the children had in the paddocks with him. Wherever he was there was a party. The house and the garden rang with fun. He loved to get up little theatricals for the children, and he seemed to have boundless delight and energy for everything. He would dress up for the parts, and his long thin legs seemed to be everywhere.

page 101

When a ball was held at the Parochial Hall, they dressed in some of these costumes. Kass was “Mrs. Tom Thumb,” with the grandmother's cap and an antimacassar apron over her neat long black dress. Marie was “Mr. Tom Thumb.” She was allowed to wear the uncle's chain and tie, and he made a tremendous white walrus pioneer's moustache and glued it on for her.

Rose Ridler helped on these occasions. Rose was an orphan who had been taken by Mrs. Waters for a maid when she was eighteen; and she had become not only a daughter, but a manager and staff and companion, all in one. She was a small dark person, with a quick dry wit. She and Mr. Waters always had a joke between them. In fact, they had a joke that ran like a serial with new chapters added from day to day. And Rose never forgot any of it. She adored him as the children adored him, and she followed him about at home as children collected after him when he went down the street. Every Karori child went to Rose with a cut finger, as they went to Mr. Waters for sympathy and fun.

Rose helped in the garden, too; but in the house she not merely helped, she managed it all. Mrs. Waters could cook well; she said she “could make soup with her eyes shut,” and good soup it was, too. But Rose Ridler's gingerbread was Karori history. The children were allowed to scrape the dish and lick the spoon; and they invariably wondered why—when it all was the same dough—the top tasted smooth and shiny and sweetish and like top; and the underneath tasted like underneath—bity and saltish and rough.

page 102

On Sundays, Rose Ridler taught Sunday School at the Parochial Hall, at half past two in the afternoon. The little girls went in their Sunday pinafores. The Grandmother took them to church in the morning, and they sat in a stiffly starched row listening to Mr. Waters as he led the Karori Church Choir. If they went in the evening with their father, they had always to carry a lantern. There were only foot-paths and no street lights in Karori. At home they used big lamps of the same sort as the little lamp in the doll's house.

When the aunt lay in the darkened room, with her air of resignation—while Rose Ridler managed the house, and Mr. Waters charmed the children—had she a real premonition of tragedy, after all? Yet when it came, she met it valiantly. It seemed almost as though she had performed her suffering beforehand, while she had time for it.

In November, 1918, Vera came, on the Niagara, on a visit to Wellington. By some trick of fate, that ship brought the first of the post-war influenza to New Zealand. When word came that Vera was ill, Mr. Beauchamp and Mr. Waters got permission to go to her. A few days afterward both men were stricken with the disease. A week later Mr. Waters was dead.