I was the second child of my father and mother. My elder sister Margaret was some fifteen months my senior. I was born in a back room on the first floor of our house at 27 Great Brunswick Street. My Auntie Margaret (that was one name for my mother’s aunt, my dear fosterer and teacher) was present at my birth; and she has told me how her heart leaped when it was found that I was a boy. It has long been her desire that my mother’s first boy—for my mother was her favourite niece, as my grandfather was her favourite brother—should be called after that beloved brother. So it was decided that my name should be Patrick. The name of Henry was added, after my father’s youngest brother. Auntie Margaret carried me to the church—St Andrew’s, Westland Row—to be christened.
When I was six months old I had a dangerous illness, and it was thought I should die. Auntie Margaret disputed with my mother as to which of them was entitled to nurse me; they compromised and watched me together, winning me from death to the great surprise of the doctor. He had given me only a few days.
When the Theatre Royal went on fire, Auntie Margaret held me in her arms at a back window to see the flames. I do not remember it, for I was, I think, less than a year old.
My first recollection is of our living-room in the basement, and I am not sure how much of what I can piece together about that room in my own recollection, and how much has been told me by others. The room ceased to be our living-place some little time before I was two. It was a dim room, because the single large window opened, not on the street, but on my father’s workshop. I seem to remember a fire-place on which a kettle sang; a fire-place surrounded by clothes-horses, designed, I now imagine, as a barrier to my progress forwards. For the singing of the kettle was as the carolling of a cheerful fire-fairy inviting me to be its playmate.
All this is phantasmagoric and uncertain; imagined, perhaps, rather than recollected. Much more clearly defined in my memory are the characteristic sounds of the room: the carolling of the black fire-fairy, the ticking of a clock, and the rhythmic tap-tapping which came all day from the workshop. In this tap-tapping there were two distinct notes: one sharp and metallic, which I knew afterwards to be the sound of a chisel against hard marble; the other soft and dull, subsequently to be recognised as the sound of a chisel against Caen stone. In the one case the chisel was struck by an iron; in the other by a wooden mallet.
To this rhythmic and not unmusical sound, there was superadded at intervals a sound lawless and strident: later on I fixed it in my mind as the voice of a strenuous pig clamorously resisting the attempts of someone to force it into a bag. Still later, I knew it to be the sound of a chisel against marble whirled on a lathe. But in the beginning all these sounds were alike unexplained and inexplicable. They were among the eternal postulates, things that always were and always would be: like the crackling of the fire; like the carolling of the fire-fairy; like my mother’s voice!
Our dim room, at a period which I can scarcely determine, and by a process of which I can offer no explanation, transformed itself into a mountainside; a mountain on which yellow furze flamed and where larks sang. As in the case of the room, it is by its characteristic sounds I remember the mountain best; and its characteristic sound was the singing of larks. I have often re-visited it; indeed for long spells it has been my hone; and to me it is always a hill of larks. For ever larks sing there—trill there—vociferous, triumphant—above the furze, above the city, above the sea!
From the mountain-side we returned to the house in the city—not to the dim room, but to another room higher up, a bright room with great spaces of floor. And this event is to be regarded as a sort of Hegira in my history, the beginning of an era; before it, all is dim, shadowy, legendary; after it, all is clear, certain, historic. I speak henceforth of what I know.
I am familiar with every inch of the floor space of the immense room that now became our habitat. I knew every nail and knot and crevice by which its configuration was diversified. It is a matter of congratulation to me to have obtained at so early an age so intimate a knowledge of that large region. How a house of moderate size can have contained so vast a room is a matter which I am not very well able to explain; but that the room was vast beyond the custom of rooms I have, and can have, no doubt.
I have sailed over its surface in ships; I have traversed it in sleighs, in Roman chariots, in howdahs on the backs of elephants; I have discovered, in remote corners of it, jungles where wild beasts prowled; and I know that on one of its verges there stretched for miles a sandy desert across which caravans moved.
All these discoveries were not made at once; it takes a long time to know a room. In the beginning, my knowledge of this room was confined to the perception that it contained the black fire-fairy, the clock, and certain other familiar bulks and shapes translated, like myself, to this new country; that my sister was there, and my mother; that my father sometimes came up from the shop in his white blouse; that one Nannie, an exceedingly tall person, moved about with sweeping brushes; that there was a somnolent cat (named Minnie) who monopolised the centre of the hearthstone; and that there was an energetic dog (named Gyp) who made things lively in the house, and had continual hair-breadth escapes from death in the street.
The room had two large windows which looked out on a street where the most extraordinary things were always happening. Nearly opposite to us there was a break in the row of houses, through which we caught a glimpse of the green tops of trees. If one got out on one of the iron balconies, and craned one’s neck, one could see the wall and paling of the College; and the trees, we found out afterwards, were in the College Park. Their green tops were so beautiful and so high that I thought, for a long time, that they were in heaven.
I had many adventures in that sun-lit room, so near to heaven; adventure the most thrilling of all that have befallen me on land or sea, giving plenary satisfaction as only the adventures of childhood can. The real adventures of a man are like the adventures of a dream; they trail off inexplicably and end ingloriously or even ridiculously. The half-real, half-imagined adventures of a child are fully rounded, perfect, beautiful, often bizarre and humorous, but never ludicrous.