Memory is the Mother of the Muses, the prototype of the Artist. As a rule she selects and relieves out the important, omitting what is accidental or trivial. Now and then, however, she makes mistakes like all other artists. Nevertheless I take Memory in the main as my guide.
I was born on the 14th of February 1855, and named James Thomas, after my father’s two brothers: my father was in the Navy, a lieutenant in command of a revenue cutter or gunboat, and we children saw him only at long intervals.
My earliest recollection is being danced on the foot of my father’s brother James, the Captain of an Indiaman, who paid us a visit in the south of Kerry when I was about two. I distinctly remember repeating a hymn by heart for him, my mother on the other side of the fireplace, prompting: then I got him to dance me a little more, which was all I wanted. I remember my mother telling him I could read, and his surprise.
The next memory must have been about the same time: I was seated on the floor screaming when my father came in and asked: “What’s the matter?”
“It’s only Master Jim”, replied the nurse crossly,
“he’s just screaming out of sheer temper, Sir, look, there’s not a tear in his eye”.
A year or so later, it must have been, I was proud of walking up and down a long room while my mother rested her hand on my head, and called me her walking stick.
Later still I remember coming to her room at night: I whispered to her and then kissed her, but her cheek was cold and she didn’t answer, and I woke the house with my shrieking: she was dead. I felt no grief, but something gloomy and terrible in the sudden cessation of the usual household activities.
A couple of days later I saw her coffin carried out, and when the nurse told my sister and me that we would never see our mother again, I was surprised merely and wondered why.
My mother died when I was nearly four, and soon after we moved to Kingstown near Dublin. I used to get up in the night with my sister Annie, four years my senior and go foraging for bread and jam or sugar. One morning about daybreak I stole into the nurse’s room, and saw a man beside her in bed, a man with a red moustache. I drew my sister in and she too saw him. We crept out again without waking them. My only emotion was surprise, but next day the nurse denied me sugar on my bread and butter and I said: “I’ll tell” — I don’t know why: I had then no inkling of modern journalism.
“Tell what?” she asked.
“There was a man in your bed”, I replied, “last night.”
“Hush, hush!” she said, and gave me the sugar.
After that I found all I had to do was to say “I’ll tell!” to get whatever I wanted. My sister even wished to know one day what I had to tell, but I would not say. I distinctly remember my feeling of superiority over her because she had not had sense enough to exploit the sugar mine.
When I was between four and five, I was sent with Annie to a girl’s boarding-school in Kingstown kept by a Mrs. Frost. I was put in the class with the oldest girls on account of my proficiency in arithmetic, and I did my best at it because I wanted to be with them, though I had no conscious reason for my preference. I remember how the nearest girl used to lift me up and put me in my high-chair and how I would hurry over the sums set in compound long division and proportion, for as soon as I had finished, I would drop my pencil on the floor, and then turn round and climb down out of my chair, ostensibly to get it, but really to look at the girls’ legs. Why? I couldn’t have said.
I was at the bottom of the class and the legs got bigger and bigger towards the end of the long table, and I preferred to look at the big ones.
As soon as the girl next me missed me, she would move her chair back and call me, and I’d pretend to have just found my slate-pencil, which I said had rolled, and she’d lift me back into my high-chair.
One day I noticed a beautiful pair of legs on the other side of the table, near the top. There must have been a window behind the girl; for her legs up to the knees were in full light and they filled me wth emotion giving me an indescribable pleasure. They were not the thickest legs, which surprised me. Up to that moment, I had thought it was the thickest legs I liked best; but now I saw that several girls, three anyway, had bigger legs, but none like hers, so shapely, with such slight ankles and tapering lines. I was enthralled and at the same time a little scared.
I crept back into my chair with one idea in my little head: could I get close to those lovely legs and perhaps touch them — breathless expectancy. I knew I could hit my slate-pencil and make it roll up between the files of legs. Next day I did this and crawled right up till I was close to the legs that made my heart beat in my throat and yet gave me a strange delight. I put out my hand to touch them; suddenly the thought came that the girl would simply be frightened by my touch and pull her legs back and I should be discovered and — I was frightened.
I returned to my chair to think, and soon found the solution. Next day I again crouched before the girl’s legs, choking with emotion. I put my pencil near her toes, and reached round between her legs with my left hand as if to get it, taking care to touch her calf. She shrieked, and drew back her legs, holding my hand tight between them, and cried: “What are you doing there!”
“Getting my pencil”, I said humbly, “it rolled.”
“There it is”, she said, kicking it with her foot.
“Thanks” I replied, overjoyed, for the feel of her soft legs was still on my hand.
“You’re a funny little fellow”, she said, but I didn’t care; I had had my first taste of Paradise and the forbidden fruit — authentic heaven!
I have no recollection of her face: it seemed pleasant; that’s all I remember. None of the girls made any impression on me but I can still recall the thrill of admiration and pleasure her shapely limbs gave me.
I record this incident at length, because it stands alone in my memory, and because it proves that sex-feeling may show itself in early childhood.
One day about 1890 I had Meredith, Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde dining with me in Park Lane and the time of sex-awakening was discussed. Both Pater and Wilde spoke of it as a sign of puberty; Pater thought it began about 13 or 14 and Wilde to my amazement set it as late as 16. Meredith alone was inclined to put it earlier.
“It shows sporadically”, he said, “and sometimes before puberty”.
I recalled the fact that Napoleon tells how he was in love before he was five years old with a school-mate called Giacominetta, but even Meredith laughed at this and would not believe that any real sex-feeling could show itself so early. To prove the point, I gave my experience as I have told it here, and brought Meredith to pause: “very interesting”, he thought, “but peculiar!”
“In her abnormalities”, says Goethe, “Nature reveals her secrets”; here is an abnormality, perhaps as such, worth noting.
I hadn’t another sensation of sex till nearly six years later when I was eleven, since which time such emotions have been almost incessant.
My exaltation to the oldest class in arithmetic got i ue into trouble by bringing me into relations with the headmistress, Mrs. Frost, who was very cross and seemed to think that I should spell as correctly as I did sums. When she found I couldn’t, she used to pull my ears and got into the habit of digging her long thumbnail into my ear till it bled. I didn’t mind the smart; in fact, I was delighted, for her cruelty brought me the pity of the elder girls who used to wipe my ears with their pocket-handkerchiefs and say that old Frost was a beast and a cat.
One day my father sent for me and I went with a petty officer to his vessel in the harbor: my right ear had bled on to my collar. As soon as my father noticed it and saw the older scars, he got angry and took me back to the school and told Mrs. Frost what he thought of her, and her punishments.
Immediately afterwards, it seems to me I was sent to live with my eldest brother Vernon, ten years older than myself, who was in lodgings with friends in Galway while going to the College.
There I spent the next five years, which passed leaving a blank. I learned nothing in those years except how to play “tig”, “hide and seek”, “footer” and ball. I was merely a healthy, strong, little animal without an ache or pain or trace of thought.
Then I remember an interlude at Belfast where Vernon and I lodged with an old Methodist who used to force me to go to church with him and drew on a little black skullcap during the Service, which filled me with shame and made me hate him. There is a period in life when every thing peculiar or individual, excites dislike and is in itself an offense.
I learned here to “mitch” and lie simply to avoid school and to play, till my brother found I was coughing and having sent for a doctor, was informed that I had congestion of the lungs; the truth being that I played all day and never came home for dinner, seldom indeed before seven o’clock, when I knew Vernon would be back. I mention this incident because, while confined to the house, I discovered under the old Methodist’s bed, a set of doctor’s books with colored plates of the insides and the pudenda of men and women. I devoured all the volumes and bits of knowledge from them stuck to me for many a year. But curiously enough the main sex fact was not. revealed to me then; but in talks a little later with boys of my own age.
I learned nothing in Belfast but rules of games and athletics. My brother Vernon used to go to a gymnasium every evening and exercise and box. To my astonishment he was not among the best; so while he was boxing I began practicing this and that, drawing myself up till my chin was above the bar, and repeating this till one evening Vernon found I could do it thirty times running: his praise made me proud.
About this time, when I was ten or so, we were all brought together in Carrickfergus; my brothers and sisters then first became living, individual beings to me. Vernon was going to a bank as a clerk, and was away all day. Willie, six years older than I was, Annie four years my senior, and Chrissie two years my junior, went to the same day-school, though the girls went to the girls’ entrance and had women teachers. Willie and I were in the same class; though he had grown to be taller than Vernon, I could beat him in most of the lessons. There was, however, one important branch of learning, in which he was easily the best in the school. The first time I heard him recite “The Battle of Ivry” by Macaulay, I was carried off my feet. He made gestures and his voice altered so naturally that I was lost in admiration.
That evening my sisters and I were together and wo talked of Willie’s talent. My eldest sister was enthusiastic, which I suppose stirred envy and emulation in me, for I got up and imitated him, and to my sisters’ surprise I knew the whole poem by heart. “Who taught you?” Annie wanted to know, and when she heard that I had learned it just from hearing Willie recite it once, she was astonished and must have told our teacher, for the next afternoon he asked me to follow Willie and told me I was very good. From this time on, the reciting class was my chief education. I learned every boy’s piece and could imitate them all perfectly, except one redheaded rascal who could recite the “African Chief” better than anyone else, better even than the master. It was pure melodrama; but Redhead was a born actor and swept us all away by the realism of his impersonation. Never shall I forget how the boy rendered the words:
“Look, feast thy greedy eyes on gold,
Long kept for sorest need;
Take it, thou askest sums untold
And say that I am freed.
Take it; my wife the long, long day
Weeps by the cocoa-tree,
And my young children leave their play
And ask in vain for me.”
I haven’t seen or heard the poem these fifty odd years. It seems tawdry stuff to me now; but the boy’s accents were of the very soul of tragedy and I realized clearly that I couldn’t recite that poem as well as he did. He was inimitable. Every time his accents and manner altered; now he did these verses wonderfully, at another time those, so that I couldn’t ape him; always there was a touch of novelty in his intense realization of the tragedy. Strange to say it was the only poem he recited at all well.
An examination came and I was first in the school in arithmetic and first too in elocution; Vernon even praised me, while Willie slapped me and got kicked on the shins for his pains. Vernon separated us and told Willie he should be ashamed of hitting one only half as big as he was. Willie lied promptly, saying I had kicked him first. I disliked Willie; I hardly know why, save that he was a rival in the school-life.
After this Annie began to treat me differently and now I seemed to see her as she was and was struck by her funny ways. She wished both Chrissie and myself to call her “Nita”; it was short for “Anita”, she said, which was the stylish French way of pronouncing Annie. She hated “Annie” — it was “common and vulgar”; I couldn’t make out why.
One evening we were together and she had undressed Chrissie for bed, when she opened her own dress and showed us how her breasts had grown while Chrissie’s still remained small, and indeed “Nita’s” were ever so much larger and prettier and round like apples. Nita let us touch them gently and was evidently very proud of them. She sent Chrissie to bed in the next room while I went on learning a lesson beside her. Nita left the room to get something,. I think, when Chrissie called me and I went into the bedroom wondering what she wanted. She wished me to know that her breasts would grow too, and be just as pretty as Nita’s. “Don’t you think so?” she asked, and taking my hand put it on them, and I said, “Yes” for indeed I liked her better than Nita who was all airs and graces and full of affectations.
Suddenly Nita called me, and Chrissie kissed me, whispering “don’t tell her” and I promised. I always liked Chrissie and Vernon. Chrissie was very clever and pretty, with dark curls and big hazel eyes, and Vernon was a sort of hero and always very kind to me.
I learned nothing from this happening. I had hardly any sex-thrill with either sister, indeed, nothing like so much as I had had, five years before, through the girl’s legs in Mrs. Frost’s school, and I record the incident here chiefly for another reason. One afternoon about 1890, Aubrey Beardsley and his sister Mabel, a very pretty girl, had been lunching with me in Park Lane Afterwards we went into the Park. I accompanied them as far as Hyde Park Corner. For some reason or other, I elaborated the theme that men of thirty or forty usually corrupted young girls, and women of thirty or forty in turn corrupted youths.
“I don’t agree with you”, Aubrey remarked: “It’s usually a fellow’s sister who gives him his first lessons in sex. I know it was Mabel here, who first taught me.”
I was amazed at his outspokenness; Mabel flushed crimson and I hastened to add:
“In childhood girls are far more precocious; but those little lessons are usually too early to matter.” He wouldn’t have it, but I changed the subject resolutely and Mabel told me some time afterwards that she was very grateful to me for cutting short the discussion: “Aubrey”, she said, “loves all sex things and doesn’t care what he says or does”.
I had seen before that Mabel was pretty: I realised that day when she stooped over a flower that tier figure was beautifully slight and round. Aubrey caught my eye at the moment and remarked maliciously:
“Mabel was my first model, weren’t you, Mabs? I was in love with her figure”, he went on judicially, “her breasts were so high and firm and round that I took her as my ideal”. She laughed, blushing a little, and rejoined, “Your figures, Aubrey, are not exactly ideal”.
I realised from this little discussion that most men’s sisters were just as precocious as mine and just as likely to act as teachers in the matter of sex.
From about this time on, the individualities of people began to impress me definitely. Vernon suddenly got an appointment in a bank at Armagh and I went to live with him there, in lodgings. The lodging-house keeper I disliked: she was always trying to make me keep hours and rules, and I was as wild as a homeless dog, but Armagh was a wonder city to me. Vernon made me a day-boy at the Royal School: it was my first big school; I learned all the lessons very easily and most of the boys and all the masters were kind to me. The great Mall or park-like place in the centre of the town delighted me; I had soon climbed nearly every tree in it, tree-climbing and reciting being the two sports in which I excelled.
When we were at Carrickfergus, my father had had me on board his vessel and had matched me at climbing the rigging against a cabin-boy and though the sailor was first at the cross-trees, I caught him on the descent by jumping at a rope and letting it slide through my hands, almost at falling speed to the deck. I heard my father tell this afterwards with pleasure to Vernon, which pleased my vanity inordinately and increased, if that were possible, my delight in showing off.
For another reason my vanity had grown beyond measure. At Carrickfergus I had got hold of a book on athletics belonging to Vernon and had there learned that if you went into the water up to your neck and threw yourself boldly forward and tried to swim, you would swim; for the body is lighter than the water and floats.
The next time I went down to bathe with Vernon, instead of going on the beach in the shallow water and wading out, I went with him to the end of the pier and when he dived in, I went down the steps and as soon as he came up to the surface I cried, “Look! I can swim too”, and I boldly threw myself forward and, after a moment’s dreadful sinking and spluttering, did in fact swim. When I wanted to get back I had a moment of appalling fear: “Could I turn round!” The next moment I found it quite easy to turn and I was soon safely back on the steps again.
“When did you learn to swim?”, asked Vernon coming out beside me. “This minute”, I replied and as he was surprised, I told him I had read it all in his book and made up my mind to venture the very next time I bathed. A little time afterwards I heard him tell this to some of his men friends in Armagh, and they all agreed that it showed extraordinary courage, for I was small for my age and always appeared even younger than I was.
Looking back, I see that many causes combined to strengthen the vanity in me which had already become inordinate and in the future was destined, to shape my life and direct its purposes. Here in Armagh everything conspired to foster my besetting sin. I was put among boys of my age, I think in the lower Fourth, and the form-master finding that I knew no Latin, showed me a Latin grammar and told me I’d have to learn it as quickly as possible, for the class had already begun to read Caesar: he showed me the first declension mensa, as the example, and asked me if I could learn it by the next day. I said I would, and as luck would have it, the Mathematical master passing at the moment, the form-master told him I was backward and should be in a lower form.
“He’s very good indeed at figures”, the Mathematical master rejoined, “he might be in the Upper Division”.
“Really!” exclaimed the Form-master. “See what you can do,” he said to me, “you may find it possible to catch up. Here’s a Caesar too, you may as well take it with you. We have done only two or three pages”.
That evening I sat down to the Latin grammar, and in an hour or so had learned all the declensions and nearly all the adjectives and pronouns. Next day I was trembling with hope of praise and if the form-master had encouraged me or said one word of commendation, I might have distinguished myself in the class work, and so changed perhaps my whole life; but the next day he had evidently forgotten all about my backwardness. By dint of hearing the other boys answer I got a smattering of the lessons, enough to get through them without punishment, and soon a good memory brought me among the foremost boys, though I took no interest in learning Latin.
Another incident fed my self-esteem and opened to me the world of books. Vernon often went to a clergyman’s who had a pretty daughter, and I too was asked to their evening parties. The daughter found out I could recite, and soon it became the custom to get me to recite some poem everywhere we went. Vernon bought me the poems of Macaulay and Walter Scott and I had soon learned them all by heart, and used to declaim them with infinite gusto: at first my gestures were imitations of Willie’s; but Vernon taught me to be more natural and I bettered his teaching. No doubt my small stature helped the effect and the Irish love of rhetoric did the rest; but every one praised me and the showing off made me very vain and — a more important result — the learning of new poems brought me to the reading of novels and books of adventure. I was soon lost in this new world: though I played at school with the other boys, in the evening I never opened a lesson-book; but devoured Lever and Mayne Reid, Marryat and Fenimore Cooper with unspeakable delight.
I had one or two fights at school with boys of my own age: I hated fighting; but I was conceited and combative and strong and so got to fisticuffs twice or three times. Each time, as soon as an elder boy saw the scrimmage, he would advise us, after looking on for a round or two, to stop and make friends. The Irish are supposed to love fighting better than eating; but my school-days assure me that they are not nearly so combative or perhaps I should say, so brutal, as the English.
In one of my fights a boy took my part and we became friends. His name was Howard and we used to go on long walks together. One day I wanted Mm to meet Strangways, the Vicar’s son, who was fourteen but silly, I thought; Howard shook his head: “he wouldn’t want to know me”, he said, “I am a Roman Catholic”. I still remember the feeling of horror his confession called up in me: “A Roman Catholic! Could anyone as nice as Howard be a Catholic!”
I was thunderstruck and this amazement has always illumined for me the abyss of Protestant bigotry, but I wouldn’t break with Howard who was two years older than I and who taught me many things. He taught me to like Fenians, though I hardly knew what the word meant. One day I remember he showed me posted on the Court House a notice offering 5000 Pounds sterling as reward to anyone who would tell the whereabouts of James Stephen, the Fenian Head–Centre. “He’s travelling all over Ireland”, Howard whispered, “everybody knows him”, adding with gusto, “but no one would give the Head–Centre away to the dirty English”. I remember thrilling to the mystery and chivalry of the story. From that moment Head–Centre was a sacred symbol to me as to Howard.
One day we met Strangways and somehow or other began talking of sex. Howard knew all about it and took pleasure in enlightening us both. It was Cecil Howard who first initiated Strangways and me too in self-abuse. In spite of my Novel reading, I was still at eleven too young to get much pleasure from the practice; but I was delighted to know how children were made and a lot of new facts about sex. Strangways had hair about his private parts, as indeed Howard had, also, and when he rubbed himself and the orgasm came, a sticky milky fluid spirted from Strangway’s cock which Howard told us was the man’s seed, which must go right into the woman’s womb to make a child.
A week later, Strangways astonished us both by telling how he had made up to the nursemaid of his younger sisters and got into her bed at night. The first time she wouldn’t let him do anything, it appeared, but after a night or two he managed to touch her sex and assured us it was all covered with silky hairs. A little later he told us how she had locked her door and how the next day he had taken oft’ the lock and got into bed with her again. At first she was cross, or pretended to be, he said, but he kept on kissing her and begging her, and bit by bit she yielded, and he touched her sex again: “it was a slit”, he said. A few nights later, he told us he had put his prick into her and “Oh! by gum, it was wonderful, wonderful!”
“But how did you do itf” Ave wanted to know and he gave us his whole experience. “Girls love kissing,” he said, “and so I kissed and kissed her and put my leg on her, and her hand on my cock and I kept touching her breasts and her cunny (that’s what she calls it) and at last I got on her between her legs and she guided my prick into her cunt (God it was wonderful!) and now I go with her every night and often in the day as well.” She likes her cunt touched, but very gently”, he added, “she showed me how to do it with one finger like this” and he suited the action to the word.
Strangways in a moment became to us not only a hero but a miracle-man; we pretended not to believe him in order to make him tell us more, but in our hearts we knew he was telling us the truth, and we were almost crazy with breathless desire.
I got him to invite me up to the Vicarage and I saw Mary the nurse-girl there, and she seemed to me almost a woman and spoke to him as “Master Will” and he kissed her, though she frowned and said “Leave off” and “Behave yourself”, very angrily; but I felt that her anger was put on to prevent my guessing the truth.
I was aflame with desire and when I told Howard, he, too, burned with lust, and took me out for a walk and questioned me all over again and, under a haystack in the country we gave ourselves to a bout of frigging which for the first time thrilled me with pleasure.
All the time we were playing with ourselves I kept thinking of Mary’s hot slit, as Strangways had described it, and at length a real orgasm came and shook me; the imagining had intensified my delight.
Nothing in my life up to that moment was comparable in joy to that story of sexual pleasure as described, and acted for us, by Strangways.
Father was coming: I was sick with fear: he was so strict and loved to punish. On the ship he had beaten me with a strap because I had gone forward and listened to the sailors taking smut: I feared him and disliked him ever since I saw him once come aboard drunk.
It was the evening of a regatta at Kingston. He had been asked to lunch on one of the big yachts. I heard the officers talking of it. They said he was asked because he knew more about tides and currents along the coast than anyone, more even than the fishermen. The racing skippers wanted to get some information out of him. Another added, “he knows the slants of the wind off Howth Head, ay, and the weather, too, better than anyone living!” All agreed he was a first-rate sailor “one of the best, the very best if he had a decent temper — the little devil”.
“D’ye mind when he steered the gig in that race for all? Won? av course he won, he has always won — ah! he’s a great little sailor an’ he takes care of the men’s food too, but he has the divil’s own temper — an’ that’s the truth”.
That afternoon of the Regatta, he came up the ladder quickly and stumbled smiling as he stepped down to the deck. I had never seen him like that; he was grinning and w r alking unsteadily: I gazed at him in amazement. An officer turned aside and as he passed me he said to another: “Drunk as a lord”. Another helped my father dow I n to his cabin and came up five minutes afterwards: “he’s snoring: he’ll soon be all right: it’s that champagne they give him, and all that praising him and pressing him to give them tips for this and that”.
“No, no!” cried another, “it’s not the drink; he only gets drunk when he hasn’t to pay for it”, and all of them grinned; it was true, I felt, and I despised the meanness inexpressibly.
I hated them for seeing him, and hated him — drunk and talking thick and staggering about; an object of derision and pity! — my “Governor”, as Vernon called him; I despised him.
And I recalled other griefs I had against him. A Lord of the Admiralty had come aboard once: father was dressed in his best; I was very young: it was just after I had learned to swim in Carrickfergus. My father used to make me undress and go in and swim round the vessel every morning after my lessons.
That morning I had come up as usual at eleven and a strange gentleman and my father were talking together near the companion. As I appeared my father gave me a frown to go below but the stranger caught sight of me and laughing called me. I came to them and the stranger was surprised on hearing I could. swim. “Jump in, Jim!” cried my father, “and swim round”.
Nothing loath I ran down the ladder, pulled off my clothes and jumped in. The stranger and my father were above me smiling and talking; my father waved his hand and I swam round the vessel. When I got back, I was about to get on the steps and come aboard when my father said:
“No, no, swim on round till I tell you to stop.”
Away I went again quite proud; but when I got round the second time I was tired; I had never swum so far and I had sunk deep in the water and a little spray of wave had gone into my mouth; I was very glad to get near the steps, but as I stretched out my hand to mount them, my father waved his hand. —
“Go on, go on!” he cried, “till you’re told to stop”.
I went on: but now I was very tired and frightened as well, and as I got to the bow the sailors leant over the bulwarks and one encouraged me: “Go slow, Jim, you’ll get round all right.” I saw it w I as big Newton, the stroke-oar of my father’s gig, but just because of his sympathy I hated my father the more for making me so tired and so afraid.
When I got round the. third time, I swam very slowly and let myself sink very low, and the stranger spoke for me to my father, and then he himself told me to “come up”. . ..
I came eagerly, but a little scared at what my father might do; but the stranger came over to me, saying, “he’s all blue; that water’s very cold, Captain: someone should give him a good towelling”.
My father said nothing but “Go down and dress”’, adding, “get warm”.
The memory of my fear made me see that he was always asking me to do too much, and I hated him who could get drunk and shame me and make me run races up the rigging with the cabin boys who were grown men and could beat me. I disliked him.
I was too young then to know that it was probably the habit of command which prevented him from praising me, though I knew in a half-cons-cious way that he was proud of me, because I was the only one of his children who never got sea-sick.
A little later he arrived in Armagh, and the following week was wretched: I had to come straight home from school every clay, and go out for a long walk with the “governor” and he was not a pleasant companion. I couldn’t let myself go with him as with a chum; I might in the heat of talk use some word or tell him something and get into an awful row. So I walked beside him silently, taking heed as to what I should say in answer to his simplest question. There was no companionship!
In the evening he used to send me to bed early: even before nine o’clock, though Vernon always let me stay up with him reading till eleven or twelve o’clock. One night I went up to my bedroom on the next floor, but returned almost at once to get a book and have a read in bed, which was a rare treat to me. I was afraid to go into the sitting-room; but crept into the dining-room where there were a few books, though not so interesting as those in the parlour; the door between the two rooms was ajar. Suddenly I heard my father say:
“He’s a little Fenian.”
“Fenian”, repeated Vernon in amazement, “really, Governor, I don’t believe he knows the meaning of the word; he’s only just eleven, you must remember.”
“I tell you” broke in my father, “he talked of James Stephen, the Fenian Head Centre, today with wild admiration. He’s a Fenian alright, but how did he catch it?”
“I’m sure I don’t know”, replied Vernon, “he reads a great deal and is very quick: I’ll find out about it.”
“No, no!” said my father, “the thing is to cure him: he must go to some school in England, that’ll cure him.”
I waited to hear no more but got my book and crept upstairs; so because I loved the Fenian Head–Centre I must be a Fenian.
“How stupid Father is”, was my summing up, but England tempted me, England — life was opening out.
It was at the Royal School in the summer after my sex-experiences with Strangways and Howard that I first began to notice dress. A boy in the sixth form named Milman had taken a liking to me and though he was five years older than I was, he often went with Howard and myself for walks. He was a stickler for dress, said that no one but “cads” (a name I learned from him for the first time) and common folk would wear a made-up tie: he gave me one of his scarves and showed me how to make a running lover’s knot in it. On another occasion he told me that only “cads” would wear trowsers frayed or repaired.
Was it Milmans talk that made me self-conscious or my sex-awakening through Howard and Strangways? I couldn’t say; but at this time I had a curious and prolonged experience. My brother Vernon hearing me once complain of my dress, got me three suits of clothes, one in black with an Eton jacket for best and a tall hat and the others in tweeds: he gave me shirts, too, and ties, and I began to take great care of my appearance. At our evening parties the girls and young women (Vernon’s friends) were kinder to me than ever and I found myself wondering whether I really looked “nice” as they said.
I began to wash and bathe carefully and brush my hair to regulation smoothness (only “cads” used pomatum, Milman said) and when I was asked to recite, I would pout and plead prettily that I did not want to, just in order to be pressed.
Sex was awakening in me at this time but was still indeterminate, I imagine; for two motives ruled me for over six months: I was always wondering how I looked and watching to see if people liked me. I used to try to speak with the accent used by the “best people” and on coming into a room I prepared my entrance. Someone, I think it was Vernon’s sweet-heart, Monica, said that I had an energetic profile, so I always sought to show my profile. In fact, for some six months, I was more a girl than a boy, with all a girl’s self — consciousness and manifold affectations and sentimentalities: I often used to think that no one cared for me really and I would weep over my unloved loneliness.
Whenever later, as a writer, I wished to picture a young girl, I had only to go back to this period in my consciousness in order to attain the peculiar view-point of the girl.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09