HERNE HILL, 9th Feb., 1875.
I HAVE been so much angered, distressed and defeated, by many things, during these last autumn and winter months, that I can only keep steadily to my business by insisting to myself on my own extreme value and importance to the world; and quoting, in self-application, the most flattering texts I can find, such as, “Simon, Simon, Satan hath desired to have you,” and so on; hoping that at least a little more of my foolishness is being pounded out of me at every blow; and that the dough I knead for Fors rnay be daily of purer wheat.
I wish I could raise it with less leaven of malice, but I dislike some things and some people so much, that, having been always an impetuous, inconsiderate, and weakly communicative person, I find it impossible to hold my tongue in this time of advanced years and petulance. I am thankful, to-day, to have one most pleasant thing first to refer to;— the notable speech, namely, of Mr. Johnson, the President of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, on the immorality of cheapness: the first living words respecting commerce which I have ever known to be spoken in England, in my time;— on which, nevertheless, I can in no wise dilate to-day, but most thankfully treasure them for study in a future letter; having already prepared for this one, during my course of self-applause taken medicinally, another passage or two of my own biography, putting some of the reasons for my carelessness about Agnes’ proficiency in reading or writing, more definitely before the reader.
Until I was more than four years old, we lived in Hunter Street, Brunswick Square, the greater part of the year; for a few weeks in the summer breathing country air by taking lodgings in small cottages (real cottages, not villas, so-called) either about Hampstead, or at Dulwich, at ‘Mrs. Kidley’s,’ the last of a row in a lane which led out into the Dulwich fields on one side, and was itself full of buttercups in spring, and blackberries in autumn. But my chief remaining impressions of those days are attached to Hunter Street. My mother’s general principles of first treatment were, to guard me with steady watchfulness from all avoidable pain or danger; and, for the rest, to let me amuse myself as I liked, provided I was neither fretful nor troublesome. But the law was, that I should find my own amusement. No toys of any kind were at first allowed;— and the pity of my Croydon aunt for my monastic poverty in this respect was boundless. On one of my birthdays, thinking to overcome my mother’s resolution by splendour of temptation, she bought the most radiant Punch and Judy she could find in all the Soho bazaar — as big as a real Punch and Judy, all dressed in scarlet and gold, and that would dance, tied to the leg of a chair. I must have been greatly impressed, for I remember well the look of the two figures, as my aunt herself exhibited their virtues. My mother was obliged to accept them; but afterwards quietly told me it was not right that I should have them; and I never saw them again.
Nor did I painfully wish, what I was never permitted for an instant to hope, or even imagine, the possession of such things as one saw in toyshops. I had a bunch of keys to play with, as long as I was capable only of pleasure in what glittered and jingled; as I grew older, I had a cart and a ball; and when I was five or six years old, two boxes of well-cut wooden bricks. With these modest, but I still think entirely sufficient possessions, and being always summarily whipped if I cried, did not do as I was bid, or tumbled on the stairs, I soon attained serene and secure methods of life and motion; and could pass my days contentedly in tracing the squares and comparing the colours of my carpet;— examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses; with rapturous intervals of excitement during the filling of the water-cart, through its leathern pipe, from the dripping iron post at the pavement edge; or the still more admirable proceedings of the turncock, when he turned and turned till a fountain sprang up in the middle of the street. But the carpet, and what patterns I could find in bed-covers, dresses, or wall-papers to be examined, were my chief resources, and my attention to the particulars in these was soon so accurate, that when at three and a half I was taken to have my portrait painted by Mr. Northcote, I had not been ten minutes alone with him before I asked him why there were holes in his carpet. The portrait in question represents a very pretty child with yellow hair, dressed in a white frock like a girl, with a broad light-blue sash and blue shoes to match: the feet of the child wholesomely large in proportion to its body; and the shoes still more wholesomely large in proportion to the feet.
These articles of my daily dress were all sent to the old painter for perfect realization; but they appear in the picture more remarkable than they were in my nursery, because I am represented as running in a field at the edge of a wood with the trunks of its trees striped across in the manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds; while two rounded hills, as blue as my shoes, appear in the distance, which were put in by the painter at my own request; for I had already been once, if not twice, taken to Scotland; and my Scottish nurse having always sung to me as we approached the Tweed or Esk,—
“For Scotland, my darling, lies full in my view,
With her barefooted lasses, and mountains so blue,”
I had already generally connected the idea of distant hills with approach to the extreme felicities of life, in my (Scottish) aunt’s garden of gooseberry bushes, sloping to the Tay.
But that, when old Mr. Northcote asked me (little thinking, I fancy, to get any answer so explicit) what I would like to have in the distance of my picture, I should have said “blue hills” instead of “gooseberry bushes,” appears to me — and I think without any morbid tendency to think overmuch of myself — a fact sufficiently curious, and not without promise, in a child of that age.