I remember my childhood very distinctly. I do not think that the
fact argues a good memory, for I have never been clever at learning words
by heart, in prose or rhyme; so that I believe my remembrance of events
depends much more upon the events themselves than upon my possessing any
special facility for recalling them. Perhaps I am too imaginative,
and the earliest impressions I received were of a kind to stimulate the
imagination abnormally. A long series of little misfortunes, so connected
with each other as to suggest a sort of weird fatality, so worked upon
my melancholy temperament when I was a boy that, before I was of age, I
sincerely believed myself to be under a curse, and not only myself, but
my whole family and every individual who bore my name.
I was born in the old place where my father, and his father, and all his
predecessors had been born, beyond the memory of man. It is a very
old house, and the greater part of it was originally a castle, strongly
fortified, and surrounded by a deep moat supplied with abundant water from
the hills by a hidden aqueduct. Many of the fortifications have been
destroyed, and the moat has been filled up. The water from the aqueduct
supplies great fountains, and runs down into huge oblong basins in the
terraced gardens, one below the other, each surrounded by a broad pavement
of marble between the water and the flower-beds. The waste surplus
finally escapes through an artificial grotto, some thirty yards long, into
a stream, flowing down through the park to the meadows beyond, and thence
to the distant river. The buildings were extended a little and greatly
altered more than two hundred years ago, in the time of Charles II., but
since then little has been done to improve them, though they have been
kept in fairly good repair, according to our fortunes.
In the gardens there are terraces and huge hedges of box and evergreen,
some of which used to be clipped into shapes of animals, in the Italian
style. I can remember when I was a lad how I used to try to make
out what the trees were cut to represent, and how I used to appeal for
explanations to Judith, my Welsh nurse. She dealt in a strange mythology
of her own, and peopled the gardens with griffins, dragons, good genii
and bad, and filled my mind with them at the same time. My nursery
window afforded a view of the great fountains at the head of the upper
basin, and on moonlight nights the Welshwoman would hold me up to the glass
and bid me look at the mist and spray rising into mysterious shapes, moving
mystically in the white light like living things.
"It's the Woman of the Water," she used to say; and sometimes she would
threaten that if I did not go to sleep the Woman of the Water would steal
up to the high window and carry me away in her wet arms.
The place was gloomy. The broad basins of water and the tall evergreen
hedges gave it a funereal look, and the damp-stained marble causeways by
the pools might have been made of tombstones. The gray and weather-beaten
walls and towers without, the dark and massively furnished rooms within,
the deep, mysterious recesses and the heavy curtains, all affected my spirits.
I was silent and sad from my childhood. There was a great clock tower
above, from which the hours rang dismally during the day, and tolled like
a knell in the dead of night. There was no light nor life in the
house, for my mother was a helpless invalid, and my father had grown melancholy
in his long task of caring for her. He was a thin, dark man, with
sad eyes; kind, I think, but silent and unhappy. Next to my mother,
I believe he loved me better than anything on earth, for he took immense
pains and trouble in teaching me, and what he taught me I have never forgotten.
Perhaps it was his only amusement, and that may be the reason why I had
no nursery governess or teacher of any kind while he lived.
I used to be taken to see my mother every day, and sometimes twice a day,
for an hour at a time. Then I sat upon a little stool near her feet,
and she would ask me what I had been doing, and what I wanted to do.
I dare say she saw already the seeds of a profound melancholy in my nature,
for she looked at me always with a sad smile, and kissed me with a sigh
when I was taken away.
One night, when I was just six years old, I lay awake in the nursery.
The door was not quite shut, and the Welsh nurse was sitting sewing in
the next room. Suddenly I heard her groan, and say in a strange voice,
"One--two--one--two!" I was frightened, and I jumped up and ran to
the door, barefooted as I was.
"What is it, Judith?" I cried, clinging to her skirts. I can remember
the look in her strange dark eyes as she answered:
"One--two leaden coffins, fallen from the ceiling!" she crooned, working
herself in her chair. "One--two--a light coffin and a heavy coffin,
falling to the floor!"
Then she seemed to notice me, and she took me back to bed and sang me to
sleep with a queer old Welsh song.
I do not know how it was, but the impression got hold of me that she had
meant that my father and mother were going to die very soon. They
died in the very room where she had been sitting that night. It was
a great room, my day nursery, full of sun when there was any; and when
the days were dark it was the most cheerful place in the house. My
mother grew rapidly worse, and I was transferred to another part of the
building to make place for her. They thought my nursery was gayer
for her, I suppose; but she could not live. She was beautiful when
she was dead, and I cried bitterly.
The light one, the light one--the heavy one to come," crooned the Welshwoman.
And she was right. My father took the room after my mother was gone,
and day by day he grew thinner and paler and sadder.
"The heavy one, the heavy one--all of lead," moaned my nurse, one night
in December, standing still, just as she was going to take away the light
after putting me to bed. Then she took me up again and wrapped me
in a little gown, and led me away to my father's room. She knocked,
but no one answered. She opened the door, and we found him in his
easy chair before the fire, very white, quite dead.
So I was alone with the Welshwoman till strange people came, and relations
whom I had never seen; and then I heard them saying that I must be taken
away to some more cheerful place. They were kind people, and I will
not believe that they were kind only because I was to be very rich when
I grew to be a man. The world never seemed to be a very bad place
to me, nor all the people to be miserable sinners, even when I was most
melancholy. I do not remember that anyone ever did me any great injustice,
nor that I was ever oppressed or ill treated in any way, even by the boys
at school. I was sad, I suppose, because my childhood was so gloomy,
and, later, because I was unlucky in everything I undertook, till I finally
believed I was pursued by fate, and I used to dream that the old Welsh
nurse and the Woman of the Water between them had vowed to pursue me to
my end. But my natural disposition should have been cheerful, as
I have often thought.
Among the lads of my age I was never last, or even among the last, in anything;
but I was never first. If I trained for a race, I was sure to sprain
my ankle on the day when I was to run. If I pulled an oar with others,
my oar was sure to break. If I competed for a prize, some unforeseen
accident prevented my winning it at the last moment. Nothing to which
I put my hand succeeded, and I got the reputation of being unlucky, until
my companions felt it was always safe to bet against me, no matter what
the appearances might be. I became discouraged and listless in everything.
I gave up the idea of competing for any distinction at the University,
comforting myself with the thought that I could not fail in the examination
for the ordinary degree. The day before the examination began I fell
ill; and when at last I recovered, after a narrow escape from death, I
turned my back upon Oxford, and went down alone to visit the old place
where I had been born, feeble in health and profoundly disgusted and discouraged.
I was twenty-one years of age, master of myself and of my fortune; but
so deeply had the long chain of small
unlucky circumstances affected
me that I thought seriously of shutting myself up from the world to live
the life of a hermit and to die as soon as possible. Death seemed
the only cheerful possibility in my existence, and my thoughts soon dwelt
upon it altogether.
I had never shown any wish to return to my own home since I had been taken
away as a little boy, and no one had ever pressed me to do so. The
place had been kept in order after a fashion, and did not seem to have
suffered during the fifteen years or more of my absence. Nothing
earthly could affect those old gray walls that had fought the elements
for so many centuries. The garden was more wild than I remembered
it; the marble causeways about the pools looked more yellow and damp than
of old, and the whole place at first looked smaller. It was not until
I had wandered about the house and grounds for many hours that I realized
the huge size of the home where I was to live in solitude. Then I
began to delight in it, and my resolution to live alone grew stronger.
The people had turned out to welcome me, of course, and I tried to recognize
the changed faces of the old gardener and the old housekeeper, and to call
them by name. My old nurse I knew at once. She had grown very
gray since she heard the coffins fall in the nursery fifteen years before,
but her strange eyes were the same, and the look in them woke all my old
memories. She went over the house with me.
"And how is the Woman of the Water?" I asked, trying to laugh a little.
"Does she still play in the moonlight?"
"She is hungry," answered the Welshwoman, in a low voice.
"Hungry? Then we will feed her." I laughed. But old Judith
turned very pale, and looked at me strangely.
"Feed her? Aye--you will feed her well," she muttered, glancing behind
her at the ancient housekeeper, who tottered after us with feeble steps
through the halls and passages.
I did not think much of her words. She had always talked oddly, as
Welshwomen will, and though I was very melancholy I am sure I was not superstitious,
and I was certainly not timid. Only, as in a far-off dream, I seemed
to see her standing with the light in her hand and muttering, "The heavy
one--all of lead," and then leading a little boy through the long corridors
to see his father lying dead in a great easy chair before a smoldering
fire. So we went over the house, and I chose the rooms where I would
live; and the servants I had brought with me ordered and arranged everything,
and I had no more trouble. I did not care what they did provided
I was left in peace and was not expected to give directions; for I was
more listless than ever, owing to the effects of my illness at college.
I dined in solitary state, and the melancholy grandeur of the vast old
dining-room pleased me. Then I went to the room I had selected for
my study, and sat down in a deep chair, under a bright light, to think,
or to let my thoughts meander through labyrinths of their own choosing,
utterly indifferent to the course they might take.
The tall windows of the room opened to the level of the ground upon the
terrace at the head of the garden. It was in the end of July, and
everything was open, for the weather was warm. As I sat alone I heard
the unceasing splash of the great fountains, and I fell to thinking of
the Woman of the Water. I rose and went out into the still night,
and sat down upon a seat on the terrace, between two gigantic Italian flower
pots. The air was deliciously soft and sweet with the smell of the
flowers, and the garden was more congenial to me than the house.
Sad people always like running water and the sound of it at night, though
I cannot tell why. I sat and listened in the gloom, for it was dark
below, and the pale moon had not yet climbed over the hills in front of
me, though all the air above was light with her rising beams. Slowly
the white halo in the eastern sky ascended in an arch above the wooded
crests, making the outlines of the mountains more intensely black by contrast,
as though the head of some great white saint were rising from behind a
screen in a vast cathedral, throwing misty glories from below. I
to see the moon herself, and
I tried to reckon the seconds before she must appear. Then she sprang
up quickly, and in a moment more hung round and perfect in the sky.
I gazed at her, and then at the floating spray of the tall fountains, and
down at the pools, where the water lilies were rocking softly in their
sleep on the velvet surface of the moonlit water. Just then a great
swan floated out silently into the midst of the basin, and wreathed his
long neck, catching the water in his broad bill, and scattering showers
of diamonds around him.
Suddenly, as I gazed, something came between me and the light. I
looked up instantly. Between me and the round disk of the moon rose
a luminous face of a woman, with great strange eyes, and a woman's mouth,
full and soft, but not smiling, hooded in black, staring at me as I sat
still upon my bench. She was close to me-- so close that I could
have touched her with my hand. But I was transfixed and helpless.
She stood still for a moment, but her expression did not change.
Then she passed swiftly away, and my hair stood up on my head, while the
cold breeze from her white dress was wafted to my temples as she moved.
The moonlight, shining through the tossing spray of the fountain, made
traceries of shadow on the gleaming folds of her garments. In an
instant she was gone and I was alone.
I was strangely shaken by the vision, and some time passed before I could
rise to my feet, for I was still weak from my illness, and the sight I
had seen would have startled anyone. I did not reason with myself,
for I was certain that I had looked on the unearthly, and no argument could
have destroyed that belief. At last I got up and stood unsteadily,
gazing in the direction in which I thought the face had gone; but there
was nothing to be seen--nothing but the broad paths, the tall, dark evergreen
hedges, the tossing water of the fountains and the smooth pool below.
I fell back upon the seat and recalled the face I had seen. Strange
to say, now that the first impression had passed, there was nothing startling
in the recollection; on the contrary, I felt that I was fascinated by the
face, and would give anything to see it again. I could retrace the
beautiful straight features, the long dark eyes, and the wonderful mouth
most exactly in my mind, and when I had reconstructed every detail from
memory I knew that the whole was beautiful, and that I should love a woman
with such a face.
"I wonder whether she is the Woman of the Water!" I said to myself. Then
rising once more, I wandered down the garden, descending one short flight
of steps after another from terrace to terrace by the edge of the marble
basins, through the shadow and through the moonlight; and I crossed the
water by the rustic bridge above the artificial grotto, and climbed slowly
up again to the highest terrace by the other side. The air seemed
sweeter, and I was very calm, so that I think I smiled to myself as I walked,
as though a new happiness had come to me. The woman's face seemed
always before me, and the thought of it gave me an unwonted thrill of pleasure,
unlike anything I had ever felt before.
I turned as I reached the house, and looked back upon the scene. It had
certainly changed in the short hour since I had come out, and my mood had
changed with it. Just like my luck, I thought, to fall in love with
a ghost! But in old times I would have sighed, and gone to bed more
sad than ever, at such a melancholy conclusion. To-night I felt happy,
almost for the first time in my life. The gloomy old study seemed
cheerful when I went in. The old pictures on the walls smiled at
me, and I sat down in my deep chair with a new and delightful sensation
that I was not alone. The idea of having seen a ghost, and of feeling much
the better for it, was so absurd that I laughed softly, as I took up one
of the books I had brought with me and began to read.
That impression did not wear off. I slept peacefully, and in the
morning I threw open my windows to the summer air and looked down at the
garden, at the stretches of green and at the colored flower- beds, at the
circling swallows and at the bright water.
"A man might make a paradise of this place," I exclaimed. "A man
and a woman together!"
From that day the old Castle no longer seemed gloomy, and I think I ceased
to be sad; for some time, too, I began to take an interest in the place,
and to try and make it more alive. I avoided my old Welsh nurse,
lest she should damp my humor with some dismal prophecy, and recall my
old self by bringing back memories of my dismal childhood. But what
I thought of most was the ghostly figure I had seen in the garden that
first night after my arrival. I went out every evening and wandered through
the walks and paths; but, try as I might, I did not see my vision again.
At last, after many days, the memory grew more faint, and my old moody
nature gradually overcame the temporary sense of lightness I had experienced.
The summer turned to autumn, and I grew restless. It began to rain.
The dampness pervaded the gardens, and the outer halls smelled musty, like
tombs; the gray sky oppressed me intolerably. I left the place as
it was and went abroad, determined to try anything which might possibly
make a second break in the monotonous melancholy from which I suffered.
End of PART ONE..... GO TO PART