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The Life of Katherine Mansfield



As nothing can stale the wonder of love as it suddenly flowers at fourteen, so there is nothing to prepare for it. It is a miracle. All else has had its warning, its intimations, some faint echo in the consciousness from experience at an age before perception; or some “memory” before consciousness began. But adolescent love comes from the page 161 unknown. Who can say it is less “real” than “real love” (when it comes); that it is less keen?

“I am alone in the house…. Footsteps pass and repass—that is a marvellous sound—and the low voices—talking on—dying away. It takes me back years—to the agony of waiting for one's love.”

When Katherine first heard Arnold Trowell play the ‘cello, he was already a “wunderkind.” Gerardy had heard him; he must be sent to Frankfort (the Master said) to study at the Hoch Conservatorium under Hugo Becker. Not only was he to be the youngest pupil receiving instruction from that celebrated teacher (Arnold was fifteen), but the first to become a pupil without having gone through a preparatory course at the Conservatorium. He was Wellington's acknowledged genius; the city itself was raising the funds to send him abroad to study.

Katherine met him at her own house at a “musical” (as Juliet calls it in her “novel”). What must have been the effect on one who had all the unawakened responses to art in a country which had had no art to offer? It is doubtful whether she had ever heard a ‘cello (she herself says that she had not). There was no music; there were no plays or pictures or new books in Wellington in those days.

Fortunately, we possess in the first chapter of Juliet, Kathleen's own account of her meeting with Arnold Trowell. It is youthful, as it should be— the writing of a girl: yet somehow this self-portrait of a girl is completely convincing.

“Juliet sat in front of the mirror brushing her hair. Her face was thoughtful and her hands trembled per- page 162 ceptibly. Suddenly she bent forward and stared at her reflection…. Her face was square in outline, and her skin very white. The impression which it gave was not by any means strictly beautiful. When in repose it conveyed an idea of extreme thoughtfulness; her mouth dropped slightly at the corners; her eyes were shadowed—but her expression was magnetic—her personality charged with vitality. She looked a dreamer—but her dreams were big with life.
“But Juliet noticed none of these characteristics. Since her very early days she had cultivated the habit of conversing very intimately with the Mirror face.
“Her childhood had been lonely—the dream face her only confidant. She was the second in a family of four. The eldest girl, Margaret, was now seventeen. Juliet was fourteen—and then two babies, Mary and Henry, aged seven and six, respectively. The mother was a slight, pale little woman. She had been delicate and ailing before her marriage and she never could forget it.
“Margaret and she looked after the babies and Mr. Wilberforce, a tall, grey-bearded man with prominent blue eyes—large, ungainly hands, and inclined to stoutness, was a general merchant, director of several companies, chairman of several societies, thoroughly commonplace and commercial. The great part of his life had been spent in New Zealand, and all the children had been born there.
“Juliet was the odd moment of the family—the ugly duckling. She had lived in a world of her own—created her own people—read anything and everything which came to hand—was possessed with a violent temper, and completely lacked placidity. She was dominated by her moods which swept through her and in number were legion. She had been, as yet, utterly idle at school—drifted through her classes, picked up a quantity of heterogeneous knowledge and all the pleadings and protestations of her teachers could not induce her to learn that which did not page 163 appeal to her. She absorbed everybody and everything with which she came in contact, and wrapped herself in a fierce white reserve. I have four passions,' she wrote in an old diary—‘ Nature, people, mystery, and, the fourth no man can number.’ Of late she had quarrelled frequently with the entire family through lack of anything definite to occupy her thoughts. She had no defined path, no goal to reach. She felt compelled to vent her energy upon somebody, and that somebody was her family.
“The large bedroom where she slept looked very dim and dark. There was a small fire in the grate, and a big rocking chair before it, but these were the two positive luxuries the room boasted of. Pictures were conspicuous by their absence, and all those little familiar things which marked the sum total of so many girls' bedrooms found no place here. The long, unvarnished bookshelf was nailed above the bed, and a most miscellaneous collection of volumes found a resting place there. A glass of red roses stood on the dressing-table, and all her party clothes were carefully laid out on a chair. She dressed very deliberately in her white muslin frock—open at the neck—showing her full, round throat—and tied her broad silk sash. Her hair hung in two great braids, unadorned with combs or ribbon. She put up her hands and patted its smooth, heavy folds. Juliet's hands were as distinctive as any part of her. They were large and exquisitely modelled. Her fingers were not very long —and blunted at the tops, but no amount of work could change their beauty. She gesticulated a great deal, and had a habit of sitting always nursing one knee—her fingers inter-locked.
“Before leaving her room, she crossed over to the window. Outside a great pine tree was outlined against the night sky—and the sea, stretching far in the distance—called to her— ‘Juliet—Juliet.’
“‘O night,’ she cried—leaning far out and turning her face up to the stars. ‘O adorable night.’ …
“Then she picked up her long cloak and ran page 164 lightly downstairs. In the hall her Mother and Father were waiting. Mr. Wilberforce, wrapping up his throat in a great silk handkerchief, with all that care and precision so common to perfectly healthy men who imagine they wrestle with weak constitutions.
“‘We shall drop you at Mrs. Cecil's on the way, Juliet,’ said her mother, carefully drawing on her long evening gloves, ‘and then at ten o'clock you can call for us at Mrs. Black's, and we shall come back together. You can wait in the hall if we're not ready. It's only a musical party.’
“The girl replied, and they walked out of the house, down the broad stone steps, and up the long moonlit road. In the presence of so many stars and so many trees, Juliet utterly forgot all the petty grievances of the day. She walked along beside her parents and ‘let it all sink in.’
“‘Do be careful of your clothes, child,’ the mother said, as Mr. Wilberforce held the gate open for her, ‘and don't be late.’ … In front of her was the brilliantly lighted house; sounds of merriment came to her—uproarious laughter, shrieks of excitement. And for two hours she played as vigorously as the rest; then—inwardly rebelling and very satisfied when the clock pointed to five minutes to ten. The ‘party’ stood and watched her from the door—cried to her not to be afraid—to remember ‘ghosts in the garden,’ but she laughed, and holding her coat tightly around her, ran the whole length of the way.
“On the doorstep of Mrs. Black's, she paused to recover breath, and a faint, a very faint wave of music was wafted to her.
“The drawing-room seemed extraordinarily bright after the night outside. She was a little confused at first. The maid had said that they were all at supper, and she was to wait there. She went over to a table, and bent over a bowl of flowers, but the sound of a chair being pushed back in a corner caused her to look up, startled. A boy of very much her own age was watching her curiously. He stood beside a great page 165 lamp, and the light fell full on his face and his profusion of red-brown hair. Very pale he was, with a dreamy, exquisite face, and a striking suggestion of confidence and power in every feature.
“Juliet felt a great wave of colour spread over her face and neck. They stood staring into each other's eyes; then he walked up to the table where she stood, a faint smile playing around his lips.
“‘If you are fond of flowers, there are roses just outside the window,’ he said, ‘and you can reach out your hands and touch them; the scent is perfect. Come and see.’
“Side by side they crossed over to the great open window. Both leaned out. O the late roses below them—thousands, there seemed to Juliet….
“‘Will you tell me your name?’
“‘Juliet—and yours?’
“‘David. I am a musician. I have been playing to-night—a'cellist you know. I am going to Europe next year.’
“‘I, too, but not for music—to complete my education.’
“‘Do you want to go away?’
“‘Yes—and no. I long for fresh experiences— new places—but I shall miss the things that I love here.’
“‘Do you like nights, Juliet?’
“‘I feel like a chrysalis in the daytime—compared to my feelings after sunset …’ said Juliet sadly. ‘There are few opportunities … and a'cello; I have never heard a'cello.’
“… ‘Then I shall be the first to show you what can be,’ he said.
“… The walk home was silent. Margaret was awaiting their arrival, and immediately began telling Mrs. Wilberforce how ‘used up’ the babies seemed. Henry had certainly a beastly little cough, and Mary looked so pasty.
“‘We shall leave town in a couple of days,’ Mrs. Wilberforce said. ‘To-morrow that young boy is page 166 coming here to play, and father has asked a few men.'
“Juliet bade them goodnight and fled up to her room. Her heart was beating furiously. She could hardly repress a feeling of the most intense joy that bade her cry out. She sat on the side of the bed, staring at the darkness, her breath coming quickly. Sleep was impossible. The world had changed, and he was coming again to-morrow and she should hear him play. She crept into bed and lay still thinking. A curious sensation stole over her—as though she was drifting into a great fiery sea of thoughts—and every thought was sweet.
“When she pulled up the blind next morning the trees outside were being tossed to and fro … and the sea lashed into fury by a wild south-easterly gale. Juliet shuddered. The wind always hurt her—unsettled her. It was a Saturday, so there was no thought of school. She wandered about all the morning, and in the afternoon put on her reefer coat and went for a walk up the hills that spread like a great wall behind the little town. The wind blew fiercer than ever. She held on to bushes and strong tufts of grass, and climbed rapidly, rejoicing in the strength that it required. Down in a hollow, where the gorse stirred like a thick green mantle, she paused to recover breath. The utter loneliness of it filled her with pleasure. She stood perfectly still, letting the wind blow cold and strong in her face, and toss her hair. The sky was dull and grey, and vague thoughts swept through her … of all the Future … of her leaving this little island and going so far away—of all that she knew and loved—all that she wished to be. ‘O I wish I was a poet,’ she cried…. She walked home more slowly. Now that the excitement of climbing had left her, she felt tired and depressed. Clouds of dust whirled up the road. Dry particles of dust stung her face. She longed for the evening to come, yet almost dreaded it.
“When tea was over, Juliet went back to her room page 167 —tried to read and failed, and walked up and down— nine steps one way, nine steps another. The feeling soothed her.
“She heard the front door bell ring, and knew that the guests had come, but stayed there until Margaret brought her down with great indignation. The room seemed full of people, but Juliet was not shy. She held her head a little higher than usual, and an expression of absolute indifference came into her face. David stood by the piano, unfastening his music case. She shook hands with him, and threw him a quick, keen glance of recognition. Then she curled herself up in a corner of the sofa and watched the people with amusement and interest. She liked to listen to little pieces of conversation, and create her idea of them. There was the usual amount of very second rate singing concerning ‘Swallows’ and ‘Had I Known’; Margaret played several nondescript pieces on the piano. At last David, himself, came…. She became utterly absorbed in the music. The room faded—the people faded. She saw only his sensitive, inspired face—felt only the rapture that held her fast…. Suddenly the music ceased. The tears poured down her face and she came back to reality. She put her handkerchief to her eyes, and when she looked around, became aware of the amused glances of the company, and heard the steady, almost prophetic-sounding voice of David's Father—‘ That child is a born musician.’ … Mr. Wilberforce praised the boy and said, ‘You might come and give my little daughter a few lessons and see if she has any talent.’ She never forgot their leave-taking. The wind was furious, and she stood on the verandah and saw David turn and smile at her before he passed out of sight.”

It must be remembered that this account of the meeting between Kathleen and Arnold Trowell was written in 1906, four years after the event. The event in the life of the girl of thirteen is transformed page 168 into the experience of the young woman of seventeen. The Kathleen Beauchamp who was enraptured by the boy'cellist was still a child. There is a contemporary record of her feelings in a little manuscript book of verses, called Little Fronds, which she composed on the voyage to England. They are quite naive; nor do they show any particular promise. The gulf between the author of Little Fronds and the author of Juliet was immense; so was the gulf between the girl-admirer of the boy musician on the voyage to England in 1903 and the distinctly sophisticated young lady on the voyage back in 1906.

Meanwhile, before the family left New Zealand, she persuaded her father to let her take'cello lessons from old Mr. Trowell. Mr. Beauchamp, too, was musical; his wife and Vera were pianists; Kathleen of course, had taken desultory piano lessons from Mr. Parker. Her father was very proud of this new enthusiasm of hers, and bought her the expensive instrument and paid for her tuition. She threw all her suppressed ardour into learning to play; it became her passion. She even dressed in brown, when she could, to “tone” with her'cello. For the first time in her life she surrendered herself completely : she felt that she was a violoncello.

In January, 1903, the Beauchamp family sailed for England in the s.s. Niwaru, going the long route round the Horn. At the first port Kathleen wrote back to Arnold Trowell in Wellington—a letter so glowing, so gay, so vividly casting the picture of Mexicans against the gorgeous tapestry of their country—that he awoke to her existence as he never had awakened to it when she lived in Tinakori Road.

page break page break
The Beauchamp Family, 1903Top Row—Kathleen, (Sir) Harold, Officers of S.S. Niwaru, Vera Second Row—Charlotte Mary, Annie Burnell, Captain Niwaru, Bell Dyer Third Row—Leslie Heron, Jeanne

The Beauchamp Family, 1903
Top Row—Kathleen, (Sir) Harold, Officers of S.S. Niwaru, Vera
Second Row—Charlotte Mary, Annie Burnell, Captain Niwaru,
Bell Dyer
Third Row—Leslie Heron, Jeanne

page 169

He himself had never been further than the South Island of New Zealand. All his imaginative dreams were thrown out toward this new world that he was to discover; she was already a part of it—who was already there. He identified her, as he read her descriptions, with this gorgeous Unknown. He thought all the outer world must be like that; and she belonged to that world. Their correspondence continued, almost uninterrupted, for the next six years. Kathleen felt that “he was the first person with whom she could really be herself.” Arnold felt that “she really understood him.” They “told each other everything.”

On the Niwaru the Beauchamps and the officers made a family party, of which record remains in a photograph. In the little budget of immature verses which she wrote on the voyage, we hear of a tiger-cub which the Chief kept during the day in No. 2 hold and exercised at night upon deck, to the alarm of the women-passengers. But of that incident apparently no memory remained nearly twenty years after, when she wrote to her father:

“I envy you your voyage in the ‘Aquitania.’ I must be a most interesting experience to travel in one of those huge liners—very different to the good old ‘Star of New Zealand.’ Still I have a very soft corner in my heart for the ‘Niwaru,’ for example. Do you remember how Mother used to enjoy the triangular-shaped pieces of toast for tea? Awfully good they were, too, on a cold afternoon in the vicinity of the Horn. How I should love to make a long sea voyage again one of these days! But I always connect such experiences with a vision of Mother in her little sealskin jacket with the collar turned up. I can see her as I write.”
page 170

About six months after the Beauchamp girls, the Trowell boys sailed for Europe. They gave two farewell concerts in Wellington at the end of June, 1903,“before their departure from Wellington to prosecute their studies in Leipsic,” as the enthusiastic press notice put it. But it was not to Leipsic that they went, but to Brussels.