« AnteriorContinuar »
(From the Memoir.) That must have been a happy home at North End, Hammersmith, into which, during the January of 1808, William Henry Smith was born, the youngest of a large family. His father, a man of strong natural intelligence, after having made a fortune sufficient for his wants, early retired from business, in consequence mainly of an asthmatic tendency, which had harassed him from the age of thirty. The impression I gained of him from his son's description was that of one peculiarly fond of quiet and of books, but whose will gave law to his household, and was uniformly seconded by the loving loyalty of his wife. The large family had a recognized head, a condition I have often heard my husband insist upon as essential to all healthy domestic life. Whatever the spirits of the children might prompt, it was an understood, a felt law, that “ Papa's ” tastes and habits must be respected. And these, being interpreted by so gentle a mother, were never viewed in the light of unreasonable restraints. This dear mother seems to have been a woman of a quite primitive type, full of silent piety, wrapped up in the home and the family. She was of partly German extraction; her mother had been an eminently saintly character, and I have caught glimpses too of a grandfather devoted to the study of Jacob Boehme, whose folio volumes, and the tradition of the veneration in which they had been held, still existed in the Hammersmith home.
How often, by the divination of love and sorrow, I have tried to conjure up that home before my mind! My husband once took me to its site, but the good old house had been cut up into shops, and the large garden was all gone, - the large garden, that had seemed so large to the happy child playing there by the hour “under the scarlet and purple blossoms of the fuchsias,” under the benignant eye, too, of a well-remembered old servant, gardener, and groom, who kept the plants and the sleek discreet horse “ Papa ” drove in his gig in equal order.
It was an every-day delight to play in that garden, a high privilege to ride in that gig. I think I can see the father, very tall, a little worn by asthma, with black eyes of peculiar piercing power, and a certain stateliness and natural dignity wbich were wont to receive from officials at public places a degree of deference, noticed with some amusement by the little observant companion and sight-seer. What he must have been at an early age a miniature then taken shows. It represents a fair, yellow-haired child of about three, with great black eyes full of the new joy and wonder of life, and a smile of singular sweetness, of almost benignity. No wonder that, as his eldest surviving sister affectionately recalls, “ he was the pet of both parents,” though his exceeding mobility did sometimes a little agitate the valetudinarian father, who would lay down a half-crown on the table and say, “ William, you shall have it, if you will only sit still for ten minutes !” A child with such an expression as the picture shows would surely have complied had it been any way possible; but he did not remember that the half-crown was
One day, when he was very small, a canary bird belonging to a sister died, and was buried beneath a flower-bush in the garden ; and on that occasion, when the bright and restless creature lying suddenly motionless on the palm of some young hand bad given the happy child his first experience of wondering sadness, he wrote his first verses.
1 The cheerful drawing-room in the Hammersmith home had a window at both ends. Round the one that looked into the garden clustered the white blossoms or hung the luscious fruit of a surpassing pear-tree - a swan-egg — the like of which was never met in later years.
From the other window the children could watch the following spectacle, which my husband evidently enjoyed recalling in a notice of Mr. Knight's “ Reminiscences,” published in 1864:
.. We are transported in imagination to a baywindow that commanded the great western road - the Bath Road, as people at that time often called it. Every evening came, in rapid succession, the earth tingling with the musical tread of their horses, seven mail-coaches out of London. The dark-red coach, the scarlet guard standing up in his solitary little dickey behind, the tramp of the horses, the ring of the horns -- can one ever forget them? For some miles out of London the guard was kept on his feet, blowing on his horn, to warn all slower vehicles to make way for his Majesty's mails. There was a turnpike within sight of us; how the horses dashed through it! with not the least abatement of speed. If some intolerable blunderer stopped the way, and that royal coachman had to draw up his team, making the splinter-bars rattle together, we looked upon it as almost an act of high treason. If the owner of that blockading cart had been immediately led off to execution, we boys should have thought he had but his deserts. Our mysterious seven were still more exciting to the imagination when, in the dark winter nights, only the two vivid lamps could be seen borne along by the trampling coursers. No darkness checked the speed of the mail ; a London fog, indeed, could not be so easily vanquished ; but even the London fog which brought all ordinary vehicles to a stand
1 The Memoir is sometimes slightly abbreviated in this reproduction.
still could not altogether subdue our royal mails. The procession came flaring with torches, men shouting before it, and a man with a huge link at the head of each horse. It was a thrilling and a somewhat fearful scene.”
The first sorrow that left a trace on my husband's membrance was the going to school, at the age, I think, of eight or nine. He did not go far, indeed, but to the sensitive and much-petted child the change from the atmosphere of love and joy that filled his home was simply appalling. He was sent to a clergyman of the name of Elwal, and found himself surrounded by a good many older boys, who appeared to him, and probably were, boisterous and brutal. At all events the little fellow, to whom the Bible his mother so loved was the most sacred of all things, could not read it, could not kneel night and morning beside his little bed, without jeers and taunts and rough dissuasives. He only read and prayed the more resolutely. The unflinching spirit that throughout life followed after truth at any cost, was even then awake in the lonely and sorrowful child. Then, too, the comparatively coarse fare, the inevitable fat, for which he had a constitutional loathing, somewhat impaired his health. Yet he probably kept back — with the strange reticence that belongs to childhood - the full amount of his unhappiness, or he would never have been left at this school; and no doubt, too, school-life to one so quick to learn, so active in play, must also have had a pleasant side.
The next school to which he went was in every way a contrast. Mr. Elwal taught well, but disregarded — as was indeed almost universal at that time — the material comforts of his pupils. At Radley, near Abingdon, the latter were well attended to, but the standard of learning was not high. . But the two years or so spent there were always cheerfully adverted to. It might jar the High Church susceptibilities of the present inmates of Radley Hall to know that early in the century it was a Dissent