The Life of Katherine Mansfield
Chapter IV: Karori
Chapter IV: Karori
“I think the only way to live as a writer is to draw upon one's real, familiar life—to find the treasure…. And the curious thing is that if we describe this which seems to us so intensely personal, other people take it to themselves and understand it as if it were their own.” —K. M. (Letter to S. M., Cape Town.)
Karori is a secluded valley 800 feet above the sea, closed in by rugged hills covered by gorse. In the 'nineties, before the gorse had been planted for a thorn-hedge and had spread beyond control, these hills were still bush-covered. The very valley had once been a forest. Wakefield wrote in 1842:“The floor of the valley was a tract of the very finest totare timber.” But by that year the pioneers had already begun to clear and settle, finding their way in by an old Maori trail. Generations before the Maoris, who always chose the best locations for their pahs, had settled in Karori. By 1843, the road had crossed the steep part of Kaiwharawhara, and Karori was the first rural settlement connected with Lambton Harbour. The very name,“Devious,” indicated the tortuous, difficult mountain road which wound for three and a half miles S.W. from Wellington.
This was the road which the “store-man” followed on that windy night in 1893, when he page 96 collected Kezia and Lottie from their old home at 11 Tinakori Road and delivered them at “Chesney Wold.” The road began at Hawkstone Street, in Wellington; ran up Tinakori Road past the red fire-house to the Botanical Gardens, where it turned to the right (not the left as the newer tram-road does), around the horseshoe bend (where Lambton Harbour disappeared from view); to the “Shepherds' Arms”; across the Kaiwharawhara Valley and its broad stream; up the rocky gully, and down the hill where the wild bush nearly met on either side; to St. Mary's, the old Karori Church, and the white cemetery; on to the “Karori General Store”; then along the flat and out into the Karori valley.
There a little village of white houses clustered, almost like the ring of tombstones on the flat. The first settlers had gathered together around the house of Chief Justice Chapman, whose stockade would serve as refuge and rallying place. It never had been necessary to use this for safety, but it had drawn the early homesteads together.
The Beauchamps' home was beyond, on the further side of the valley, not far from the South Karori Road. There was only one other homestead near. Mr. Beauchamp had bought “Chesney Wold,” a house built by Stephen Lancaster, an early pioneer. It was one of the first houses built in Karori—in the style of Colonel Wakefield's, with low, sloping roof (which had been raised before the Beauchamps' time), a broad verandah banked with periwinkle, and wide paddocks. The Karori stream wound below the house, down to the sea beyond the far page 97 hills at Tongue Point. There were orchards of damsons and old apple trees below the garden. It was an historic place and an old landmark; the first church service in Karori had been held in this house in 1852.
It was most unusual, in the 'nineties, for a family to move out to Karori from Wellington, especially when the father had his business in town. Those who were children then still remember their delighted astonishment when the doll's house arrived on the dray with the Beauchamps' goods. Karori was an old settlement. Most of the residents had lived there for two generations.
The move to Karori meant that Mr. Beauchamp must be driven twice every day by the new gardener, Pat Sheehan, over the mountain road; or he must walk the distance. It took an hour to walk down to the Government Buildings on Lambton Quay; but the land would be valuable one day. And Karori—with its seclusion and its freedom, its fresh sea and mountain air—was a most healthful and desirable place in which small children could grow up.
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!”
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.
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.page 104
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.page 108
“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 breakpage 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.
Vera, Marie (as Tom Thumb), Kathleen (as Mrs. Tom Thumb), Jeanne.
“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.”
The five MacKelvies were well-known “characters” in Karori in the 'nineties. Mrs. MacKelvie, a stout neat little Cockney with “an Australian voice,” was the village washerwoman. She was amusing, and a great talker. Everyone hired her; she knew everything and everyone, and talked to all alike. One of the reasons she was given such free range was that she was either too witty or too wise to gossip indiscriminately. She told a good story page 114 and people were always repeating her philosophic comments on life.
On the day that Mrs. MacKelvie came to wash, the mistress of the house was likely to drift down to the wash-house to listen, while the fat red arms splashed in and out of the foaming tubs, and the Australian voice rose and fell.
She told Mrs. Waters that Zoe, the second eldest, should have been her child. No one knew why. Zoe was apparently rather feeble—not quite bad enough to be exactly “mental.” But Mrs. MacKelvie thought her wonderful. She looked like her mother, with her great wad of crinkled black hair; yet she was untidy and had a silly smile. Lil, the eldest, was the only normal one; she married, later, and had seven children; but she apparently was too normal to interest her mother.“Our Else,” the artistic one, was the mother's favourite. She called her “The Heavenly Child.” They all looked after her. Else used to paint on glass, and Mrs. MacKelvie gave the results about to the people she worked for. This pathetic “little wishbone of a child” cared for only the one thing: she loved to paint. Later, someone taught her to do chromos, and she made huge, unearthly castles, tottering on the brink of dark precipices. Could the child have made up these strange things? Yet they were well drawn. She had undoubted talent of some kind. Framed in ornate gold, they hung on the MacKelvie's parlour walls; and Mrs. MacKelvie said:“What I 'aven't room for on the wall, I 'ang under the bed.”
“Mum, Our Lord lived in a stable; didn't He? I met Dad on the wharf on Saturday, and married him on Monday, and we lived in a tent. Lil, clear the combustable off that table. Let 'er 'ave 'er tea.”
“Dad” MacKelvie was a little dried man, a “proper” gardener. He trailed in the wake of his wife to work in the gardens while she washed; and if she intrigued the grown-ups, Mr. MacKelvie filled the children with astonishment and admiration.
He had a bushy whiskered face like a cinema close-up—contorting, registering surprise, chagrin, wonder, delight. As he leaned on his hoe over the weeds and rolled his eyes for the children, he made the most extraordinary sounds. When he sneezed, when he cleared his throat, the children stood petrified into dolls by delicious horror and surprise. How such a loud sound could come from such a small man! And his thunderish voice was made to carry against the Wellington wind.page 116
“I tried to marry once before,” he roared at the children.
“Why didn't you, Mr. MacKelvie?”
“She said ‘no,’ not ‘yes.’”
Finally he went blind, and Mrs. MacKelvie had him put into the “Home for In-curables,” as she called it. There she spent all her time when she wasn't washing. Once, one of the Karori children, who by then was a grown-up herself, was walking through the Home, when she heard the familiar “Australian voice” :
“Isn't that Miss Edy? Come see 'im, Miss Edy. Mr. MacKelvie'll be wantin' to see you. Our Else is married, but 'e seemed a bit soft in the 'ead. I didn't think as she could get on alone, so I sent Zoe, too; an' you might sy as 'e married the both of 'em. But 'e got so bad we sent 'im to Porirua [the asylum]. Now you've got something to go 'ome an' tell the family!”
Kathleen shared a seat with Lena Monaghan. The rows were tiered, built up on flat, wide steps; and the seats were made for two. Kass was plump and liked to sit in her own special way: with her knees tight together, both feet on the floor, and her elbows hugging her sides. Lena was a thin little thing with sharp, protruding bones. She was perky, like a bird, quick and sudden in movement and in speech—a nervous trigger type with an air assuming that all she might say was right. Her sudden movements sometimes brought her sharp little bones into Kass's soft thighs. Lena felt that Kass was “too fat and took more than half the seat.” This may have been the basis of a memory which became somewhat symbolic:
“To me it's just as though I'd been going home from school and the Monaghans had called after me, and you—about the size of a sixpence—had defended me and p'raps helped me to pick up my pencils and put them back in the pencil box. (I'd have given you the red one.)”
And one day around the memory of it all Katherine Mansfield's experience was to crystallise. The moment came when she wrote in 1916:
“I begin to think of an unfinished memory which has been with me for years. It is a very good story if only I can tell it right, and it is called ‘Lena’.”page 118
But what subtle changes the memory had still to undergo before it was created into The Doll's House are beyond discovery, and probably even beyond Katherine's own knowledge.
The little MacKelvies did not enter the Karori Primary School until a year after Kathleen. At the end of 1895 the South Karori School, which they had previously attended, was closed, and they began the daily trail to school and back past the gates of “Chesney Wold,” of which The Doll's House is the enduring record.
With the Beauchamps and the Monaghans and the MacKelvies were the Waters boys: Eric, timid and sensitive, who had inherited his father's love of music, Barry, the dashing and original, who after an adventurous career in Australia and Africa, returned to New Zealand to die of tuberculosis. He was Pip of Prelude. He it was at the Karori School who burned holes in the frames of the slates for the sponge-string.
“Did you ever burn a hole in the frame? It was Barry Waters' speciality, with his initials burnt, too—and a trimming.”
“And a trimming.” It was what Shakespeare meant by “the flourish set on youth,” which Time transfixes. There was a touch of the flamboyant in Barry which endeared him in especial to Kathleen's memory.
She now learned to read and to write on a slate and entered her second enchanted world. She took books to bed with her at night and read until the Grandmother had to carry away the candle left to keep off her “old bogey the dark” and the animals page 119 that she dreamed rushed at her “while their heads swelled e-normous.” She put the book under her pillow and waited for the light to come again. Finally, she read herself into headaches and had to wear little steel-rimmed spectacles which made her dark, searching gaze even more disconcerting than before. The grown-ups felt she was reading their minds when they used Maori words or ambiguous phrases and parts of quotations over the children's heads. The other children were fascinated by the rather owlish appearance of the plump, dark little girl with her serious, intent look, and her penetrating brown eyes framed in little silver frames. She herself was proud of the distinction.
She was eight years old when she won the school composition prize for a composition on “A Sea Voyage.” Was it, one wonders, a sea voyage of her own—the first form of her enchanted description of a voyage across the Strait to Picton? Or was it an imaginative report of the traveller's tale of her father and mother. They had but lately returned from one of their journeys home, and the mother had brought back for Kass a magic glass to spy upon the wonders of the world.
“When mother came back from Switzerland in 1894, she brought me a tie-pin made like a violet, and one shut one's eye and looked through it at the Lion of Lucerne!”
Kathleen liked the Karori School; but there was one mistress, a young and extremely pretty woman, who had a disconcerting way of hurling her commands:“Slates—one, two, three!” Kass was likely to be dreaming, and she jumped as the page 120 slates clattered from the backs of desks. But she turned hers quickly too. The penalty for missing three sums out of five, or for misspelling many words (and spelling was Kathleen's secret weakness) was the Dunce's Cap. She managed to avoid it. She was quick in arithmetic; to the end of her life she could do “marvellous accounts—you know, pages and pages where everything is reduced and then turned back again.” While for the spelling, she devised a method.
A new girl had come into the form—a girl named Turner. The teacher said coldly:“Sit by Kass Beauchamp, please!” After one quick look at her, Kathleen moved to the extreme end of the seat and was silent. But she observed that the new girl could spell—also that she couldn't add. Though she had the whole seat to herself while Turner stood on the floor wearing a yellow paper cap with red letters: Dunce, she easily visualised their positions reversed after a spelling class.
The next time that Turner glared helplessly at her slate, Kathleen nudged her. The teacher was looking.“What are you staring at, child?” she said sharply.
“I can't do all the sums.”
“Are you getting on all right, Kass-y?”
Kathleen stood up:“Yes, thank you, but this new girl doesn't know all the rules. If you don't mind, I shall show her.”
The teacher only turned away to explain the class problem; so under cover of the instruction, Kass pushed her slate across the desk. On it she had written:“What sums can't you do?”page 121
Speaking in school meant staying in, so Turner wrote the numbers. Kass did them and passed over the slate. Then when spelling hour came, Turner wrote out the spelling words for her.
One of the little boys was in danger of the Cap on a charge that seemed unfair. Kass raised her hand:“Please, he didn't hear the question!” Then she sat and stared at the Mistress who was sounding her a's and r's in a manner so affected for Karori. She sponged the sums off her slate, and wrote out a poem to show to Rose Ridler, when she stopped at the Waters' for a piece of gingerbread on the way home from school:
“Old Mother Lockett is full of conceit:
She struts about on her pigeon-toed feet.
Old Mother Lockett by this time must know
If conceit were consumption
She'd be dead long ago.—Kass.”
Rose was so delighted with the verse that she never forgot it.
The American elocution teacher had a special distinction: she had a husband who was said to be an author. Kass loved her because she loved to recite poetry. There was some strain in her of The True Original Pa Man who had stood on an upturned box, quoting Byron for an hour and a half. When she was small, this was more an instinct and an emotion than a developed talent; but as she looked back at her own ardour and delight in it, it seemed to her that she must have been really moving:
“Jinny Moore was awfully good at elocution. Was she better than I? I could make the girls cry when I page 122 read Dickens in the sewing class, and she couldn't. But then she never tried to.”
This was later in the Third Standard; but even those girls didn't remember her reciting, though they always remembered her epigrammatic turn of phrase, and things that she wrote.
She had a beautifully pitched voice, as she grew older; and she spoke exquisitely. At home she had learned sweetness of tone from the mother and the grandmother; and “Gran Dear” had taught her a certain fastidiousness of phrase. Here she was learning precision of speech, and clearness of enunciation. The children were not to say “How-doyoudo,” all run into one; but “How do you do?” each word clear and distinct.
Lena Monaghan practised it on Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp the next time she saw them riding in their phæton. Very distinctly and clearly:“How do you do?”
The following day at playtime, Kass told her the result:“Last night at tea, Mother said: ‘I saw Lena to-day, and she said,“How do you do?” to me.’ But Father said: ‘No, she said it to me.”’
It was only a sympathetic and understanding mistress who took Kathleen out of herself, in those days, but this one understood her:
“I saw Teacher's face smiling at me, suddenly—the cold, shivering feeling came over me—and then I saw the little house and ‘the little window where the sun came peeping in at morn’.”
“To stand before all those girls and Teacher, knowing my piece, loving it so much that I went in the knees and shivered all over, was joy.”
“On poetry afternoons grandmother let Mary and me wear Mrs. Gardener's white hemstitched pinafores because we had nothing to do with ink or pencil. Triumphant and feeling unspeakably beautiful, we would fly along the road, swinging our kits and half chanting, half singing our new piece. I always knew my poetry, but Mary, who was a year and a half older, never knew hers. In fact, lessons of any sort worried her soul and body. She never could distinguish between ‘m’ and ‘n.’ …
“I was a strong, fat little child who burst my buttons and shot out of my skirts to grandmother's entire satisfaction, but Mary was a ‘weed.’ She had a continuous little cough.
“‘Poor old Mary's bark,’ as father called it….
“‘I can't bear lessons, she would say woefully. ‘I'm all tired in my elbows and my feet.’ And yet, when she was well she was elfishly gay and bright— danced like a fairy and sang alike a bird. And heroic! She would hold a rooster by the legs while Pat chopped his head off. She loved boys, and played with a fine sense of honour and purity. In fact, I think she loved everybody; and I, who did not, worshipped her. I suffered untold agonies when the girls laughed at her in class, and when she answered wrongly I put up my hand and cried ‘Please teacher she means something quite different.’ … But on poetry afternoons I could not help at all….”
Learning poetry by heart was to remain a passion with Katherine—a solace in some of her bitterest and loneliest hours. If this story is autobiographical— and doubtless it is—it must have cost her no small sacrifice to surrender to Chaddie the prize—“the green plush bracket with a yellow frog stuck on it” page 124 —which she had won by reciting Tom Hood's “I remember, I remember” without a mistake. And, at least once again in her life, a frog was the precious thing surrendered: when she gave J. D. Fergusson her little brass “paddock” for a token that she acknowledged him (as she always did) as one of “her people.” For some reason such little figures were dear to her. At one time she possessed two charming little lizards of weathered bronze which lived (or appeared to live) in a shallow bowl of water on the floor before the fire. Probably, they also were given away as tokens.
Her most “secret” possession of the days at Karori School was never brought to the light of day in any of her stories. It was the memory of Tim Logan, her first sweetheart. They used to walk home together from school, in the ditch beside the road, hidden under the pine boughs holding hands.page break page break