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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



What was remarkable about Pat Sheehan that he should for ever afterward stalk through the pages that told of Karori? To the grown-ups—nothing. Patrick Sheehan was the handy man whom Mr. page 103 Beauchamp had found to drive him to town with the phæton and the grey mare; to care for the pony,“General,” which he thought “too dangerous for the children to ride”; to work in the paddocks and orchards of “Chesney Wold.” He was just an Irish immigrant to New Zealand—another of the floating ones.

To the children, his distinction was in his Irishness: his power through fun and fantasy to enter their world.

His Irishness appeared in his stories; and the small girl, who long before had been companioned by “the shadow children thin and small,” found familiar country here:

“On those late evenings he had wonderful stories to tell of a little old man no bigger than his thumb with a hat as high as the barb-wired fence, who in the night crept out of the creek, climbed up the blue gumtree, picked some leaves from the topmost branches, and then crept down again. ‘You see,’ Pat would say … ‘it's from blue gums that you got eucalyptus, and the old man suffered from cold, living in such dampness’.”

When she was very small she was like another Katya in Tchehov's A Tedious Story, which—when she found it in later life—became part of herself:

“Her eyes invariably expressed the same thing: ‘Everything that goes on in this world,—everything is beautiful and clever’.”

Like another Katya, too, she was gradually to discover that thieves had been at the “bag full of rainbow hopes” which she thought to have hidden safely.

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But Pat belonged to the time of rainbows, and all that he did was remarkable, and curious, and full of delight:

“He used to hoist me up on the table and recount long tales of the Dukes of Ireland whom he had seen and even conversed with. We were most proud of our gardener having rubbed shoulders with Ireland's aristocracy, and in the evening when Pat was at tea in the kitchen we would steal out and beg him to show us the manners of the people in Ireland. Standing in a row, hand in hand, we would watch while Pat put some salt on his knife, tapped it off with his fork, the little finger of his right hand well curled … the way in which the Dukes of Ireland balanced salt upon their knives.”

Pat had the power to enter not only the children's world, but the world of Kezia, which was another country entirely:

“I played a game which had no end and no beginning, but was called ‘Beyond the Blue Mountains.’ The scene was generally placed near the rhubarb beds, and Pat officiated as the villain, the hero, and even the villainess, with unfailing charm.”

Already this little girl had begun to know loneliness. She was surrounded by three sisters and a small brother; by a father, mother, grandmother, aunt. She lived in a busy, healthy household, among happy people. Yet it was not enough. She was of the lonely ones who must discover (at a heavy price) that so few—so far between—are “her people.” She was of the unique ones who must create their own world:

“I thought of the time when I was quite a child” (she wrote in her first year at College),“and lived in page 105 the great old rambling house that has long since been removed and its place taken by other houses more useful but far less dear. The old house had an extraordinary fascination for me. I always thought of it as a species of ogre who controlled all our garden and our meadows and our woods.
“‘May I go and play in the hayfield to-day?’ I used to say, and gaze up timidly at its stern, unblinking face, and it never failed to give me an answer. The great thing about it that puzzled me was that it never closed its eyes….
“Down at the bottom of our garden ran a little stream, and here I spent many happy hours. With my shoes and socks off, and my frock tucked high all around me, I used to wade, and attempt to catch certain very tiny fish that swam and played in its depths—or rather, its shallow places. If I did catch one, I always put it into a glass jar and carried it home to keep till it should grow into a whale. Alas, it never did grow, though it was not for lack of care and attention.
“During my childhood, I lived surrounded by a luxurious quantity of flowers, and they were my only companions…. How I loved my life. My greatest delight was to find fresh flowers to love, and my greatest sorrow was if they should die. I remember the year the spring was late in coming. I had stolen out into the garden in the dead of night to cover by a blanket a snowdrop that had flowered the day before.
“In the summer when the trees in our wood were in full leaf, and the bracken was high and dainty and green, I used to linger for hours. One day, how well I remember it, I brought with me a tall lily I had found lying across the garden path, and I began to talk to it in a low, dreamy voice. Suddenly I paused. Someone was coming toward me, singing a strange little French song. It was a woman dressed all in a white, soft gown open at the throat, and long, loose-hanging sleeves. In her hands she held roses—red, red roses. I was so hidden in my little bracken nest page 106 that she could not see me. My heart beat fast and I felt the colour rush to my face. I had dreamed of her —no ordinary, living woman, but a fairy, or a Goddess of the Wood. Nearer and nearer she came, with her head held high, and a strange, sweet light in her eyes. Then I stretched out my arm and plucked at her sleeve. She looked down at me, startled. ‘Only a little child,’ she said. ‘Is this your wood? Why are you here all alone?’ But I hid my face in her dress and sobbed. In a minute she was down beside me. She took me on her lap and pushed my thick, heavy hair back from my hot face, and kissed me, and begged me to tell her what was the matter. ‘Nothing, nothing,’ I sobbed, ‘but they don't understand me at home.’ …”

To the family she was “the difficult child,” and “hard to understand.” When her father saw the plump little figure sitting hunched over, idly dreaming, wastefully doing nothing, he called to her sharply:“Sit up straight, Kass! You'll never grow that way!”

And as she grew older she rebelled outright, at times, and became the outlaw:

“She stood at the scullery door and called, ‘Pat, Pat.’ The sun streamed over the courtyard. The pincushion flowers stood limply and thirstily against the wall of the feedroom….
“… ‘Pat, make it all right with the family if they kick up a shindy. I am so dead sick of them all —I must go off.’ She laid her hand caressingly against the arm of his old blue shirt. ‘Done, Miss,’ said Pat. And he stood in the paddock and watched her mount and ride out of sight. Riding was as natural as walking to her. She held herself very loosely and far back from the waist like a native riding—and fear had never entered into her thoughts.
“‘I like riding down this road with the sun hurting page 107 me,' she mused. ‘I love everything that really comes fiercely—It makes me feel so fighting, and that's what I like.
“‘I wish I hadn't quarrelled with Father and Mother again. That's a distinct bore—especially since it's only a week to my birthday’.”

The family doubtless had no idea of the quick perception of this fat little girl who could be jolly and play with the other children in the usual fashion. In fact, those who were grown-ups then—teachers, aunts, friends—say that Kass Beauchamp was “the last child in the world they ever expected to become a writer.” To them, she was “careless,” “lazy,” “impatient,” “indifferent,” “dull,” “slow and fat.” They felt she needed prodding to quicken her perception and to make her more alert, and sweeter—“like her sisters.” That she should be hypersensitive enough to remember for years a chance look between the grown-ups—passed over her head—would certainly have seemed to them incredible. As it would have seemed had they been told she bore it hard that her sisters seemed preferred before her, since everyone responded to their soft sweetness.

There were occasions such as this:

“On the way home from school” (after Kass had won the green-plush-bracket-and-frog “poetry prize,” and had given it up to Chaddie, instead—because Chaddie never won anything)“we passed the Karori bus going home from town full of business men. The driver gave us a lift, and we bundled in. We knew all the people.
“‘I've won a prize for po'try!’ cried Mary in a high, excited voice.
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“Good old Mary!' they chorused.
“Again she was the centre of admiring popularity.
“‘Well, Kass, you needn't look so doleful,’ said Mr. England, laughing at me; ‘you aren't clever enough to win everything.’
“‘I know,’ I answered, wishing I were dead and buried. I did not go into the house when we reached home, but wandered down to the loft and watched Pat mixing the chicken food.
“But the bell rang at last, and with slow steps I crept up to the nursery.
“Mother and grandmother were there with two callers. Alice had come up from the kitchen; Vera was sitting with her arm around Mary's neck.
“‘Well, that's wonderful, Mary,’ Mother was saying, ‘such a lovely prize, too. Now you see what you really can do, darling.’
“‘That will be nice for you to show your little girls when you grow up,’ said grandmother.
“Slowly I slipped into my chair.
“‘Well, Kass, you don't look very pleased,’ cried one of the tactful callers.
“Mother looked at me severely.
“‘Don't say you are going to be a sulky child about your sister,’ she said.
“Even Mary's bright, little face clouded.
“‘You are glad, aren't you, dear?’ she questioned.
“‘I'm frightfully glad,’ I said, holding on to the handle of my mug (‘A silver mug—the handle of mine being silver, was always red hot, so that I had to lap up what was inside, like a kitten!’), and seeing all too plainly the glance of understanding that passed between the grownups…. Mary's bed was in the opposite corner of the room. I lay with my head pressed into the pillow. Then the tears came. I pulled the clothes over my head. The sacrifice was too great. I stuffed a corner of the sheet into my mouth to keep me from shouting out the truth. page 109 Nobody loved me, nobody understood me, and they loved Mary without the frog, and now that she had it I decided that they loved me less….”

Yet it would be as inexact to say she always felt left out of the family, as it would be to say she felt completely one of them. But, apart from her temperament, the very time of her birth made her “the odd one” : Vera and Marie, being the oldest and more alike, paired off; the two babies played together. This inevitable division among the children certainly accentuated Kathleen's natural consciousness of isolation and aloofness. In a New Zealand family,“the oldest” has great preference. The third child is of comparatively little importance —except while she is “the baby.” There had been a new baby when Kathleen was four and a half; and soon after the family moved to Karori, the long-hoped-for “Boy” was born.

Leslie Heron Beauchamp was not merely the only boy; he was an adorable, laughing, fair-and-curly-haired baby, besides. When he was christened at the Karori Church, he was given the best names the family could provide. He was named Leslie after C. R. Leslie, who had painted great-grandmother Stone, and Heron after great-uncle Henry Herron Beauchamp of Australia (the father of his second cousin Elizabeth). It was only after the baptism that his father discovered a mistake made in the spelling of one name: the “Boy” had been christened Leslie Heron.

He and Vera were the chosen children of the five in the subtle ways of living. But in the ordinary sense—in the visible ways—they all played together page 110 and had a great deal of fun, as on the day of the great Appollinaris adventure:

“‘Now let's go and play shipwrecks,’ suggested Beggles. There's a huge Appollinaris case in the back yard. We'll drag it round to the Dead Sea.’
“They found the case in the coal house, and pushed and pulled and groaned till they reached … a strip of waste ground where docks and long straggling grass grew in profusion.
“‘Now for provision,’ said Jinks (who was Kass) climbing through the pantry window…. They slipped everything into Lul's sunbonnet….
“A few minutes later, three Englishmen, armed to the teeth, were seen stealing round the Jungle. They seemed to be rather inconvenienced by numerous oceans, which they swam with great exertion and puffing….
“‘One man wounded,’ said Beggles, with great satisfaction, viewing Jinks’ knee….
“She sat in the bottom of the boat and Beggles doctored her. First he laid on the cool leaf, which they believed was used by the ancient Britons for medical purposes, and then tightly bound round the handkerchief. The rest of the morning they cruised around Fiji, had a look at Queen Victoria, an unimportant fight off the coast of China, and arrived home in time for lunch.”

Or they played “ladies and gentlemen,” which involved being “married in a daisy chain with the wedding service read from a seed catalogue.” Or they made mud-pies. Katherine's recollection of this heavenly occupation—its peculiar terrors and unique delights—was vivid.

“In the days of our childhood we lived in a great old rambling house planted lonesomely in the midst of huge gardens, orchards and paddocks. We had few page break page break
Black and white photgraph of Katherine Mansfield and siblings as children

Vera, Marie (as Tom Thumb), Kathleen (as Mrs. Tom Thumb), Jeanne.

page 111 toys, but—far better—plenty of good strong mud and a flight of concrete steps that grew hot in the heat of the sun and became dreams of ovens.
“The feeling of making a mud pie with all due seriousness, is one of the most delicious feelings that we experience; you sit with your mixture in the doll's saucepan, or if it is soup, in the doll's wash-hand basin, and stir and stir, and thicken and ‘whip,’ and become more deliciously grimy each minute; whilst the sense of utter wickedness you have if it happens to be on clean pinafore days thrills me to this hour.
“Well I remember one occasion when we made pies with real flour, stole some water from the dish by the dog's kennel, baked them and ate them.
“Very soon after three crushed, subdued little girls wended their way quietly up to bed, and the blind was pulled down.”

Or they played ladies and gentlemen and mud-pies all at once, as in the great game in Prelude where Kezia, as the servant, beat up a beautiful chocolate custard with half a broken clothes-peg.

Selected children from the Primary School—selected neighbour children—were allowed over to play with them; and then they had great parties in the garden, while the tall pines in front of “Chesney Wold” threw a cool shadow across the road. In the afternoon the children stayed to a “proper tea” in the nursery, with the Grandmother presiding. Afterward, they went to the drawing-room “all cleaned up,” and sang. Chaddie was close to the piano. Kass hung back. The mother played for them when they were quite small. Later, Vera accompanied.

But the best times, those which afterward became page 112 part of her “possession,” were the hours spent in the garden with Pat.

“Sometimes to make it more real, we had lunch together, sitting on the wheel-barrow turned down, and sharing the slice of German sausage and a bath bun with sugar loaf on it.”

Long afterward, when life had become for her something quite other, how she turned back to the companionship of those warm, sun-filled days in the back garden of “Chesney Wold” ! Pat was associated in her mind with all that was glowing and warm and paradisal. Of her garden of Eden, he was the gardener.

“Sparrows outside are cheeping like chickens. Oh heavens! What a different scene the sound recalls! The warm sun, the tiny yellow balls, so dainty, treading down the grass blades, and Sheehan giving me the smallest chick, wrapped in a flannel to carry to the kitchen fire.”


“I am all for feathery-topped carrots—don't you love pulling up carrots, shaking them clean and tossing them on a heap! And feeling the cauliflowers to see which one is ready to cut. Then Out comes your knife. When I was about the height of a garden spade I spent weeks—months—watching a man do all these things and wandering through canes of yellow butter beans and smelling the spotted broad bean flowers and helping to plant Giant Edwards and White Elephants.”

By then she had forgotten the flaw, if flaw there was at the time:

“Pat was never very fond of me. I am afraid he did not think my character at all desirable. I pro- page 113 fessed no joy in having a bird in a cage; and one day committed the unpardonable offence of picking a pumpkin flower. He never recovered from the shock occasioned by that last act of barbarism. I can see him now, whenever I came near, nodding his head and saying, ‘Well, now to think. It might have become the finest vegetable of the season, and given us food for weeks’.”

She remembered only what Pat really “meant” : understanding of the child's world, with the power to enter it himself.

He vanished from their world as unexpectedly as he had come:

“When we left that house in the country and went to live in town, Pat left us to try his luck in the gold-fields. We parted with bitter tears. He presented each of my sisters with a goldfinch, and me with a pair of white china vases cheerfully embroidered with forget-me-nots and pink roses. His parting advice to us was to look after ourselves in this world and never to pick the flowers out of the vegetable garden because we liked the colour.”