An Autobiography by Catherine Helen Spence - HTML preview

PLEASE NOTE: This is an HTML preview only and some elements such as links or page numbers may be incorrect.
Download the book in PDF, ePub, Kindle for a complete version.

Melrose Revisited

Jack Bakewell and Edward Lancelot Stirling went to see me off by the night train to Dunbar Station, five miles from Thornton-Loch, and I got there in time for breakfast. The old house was just the same except for an oriel window in the drawing room looking out on the North Sea. and the rocks which lay between it and Colhandy path (where my great-grandfather Spence had preached and his wife had preferred Wesley), and Chirnside, or Spence's Mains in the same direction. All the beautiful gardens, the farm village, where about 80 souls lived, the fields and bridges were just as I remembered them. My aunt Margaret was no longer the vigorous business-like woman whom I recollected riding or driving in her little gig an over the farm of 800 English acres which my great-grandfather had rented since 1811. Not the Miss Thompson whom I had introduced into "Uphill Work." She had had a severe stroke of paralysis, and was a prisoner to the house, only being lifted from her bed to be dressed, and to sit in a wheeled chair and be taken round the garden on fine days. The vigorous intellect was somewhat clouded, and the power of speech also; but she retained her memory. She was always at work with her needle (for her hands were not affected) for the London children, grandnieces, and nephews who called her grandmamma, for she had had the care of their Parents during 11 years of her brother Alexander's widowhood. But Aunt Margaret could play a capital game of whist--long whist. I could see that she missed it much on Sunday. It was her only relaxation. She had given up the farm to James Brodie, who had married her cousin Jane, the eldest of the two children she had mothered, and he had to come to the farm once or twice a week, having a still larger farm of his own in East Lothian, and a stock farm in Berwickshire also to look after. The son of the old farm steward, John Burnet, was James Brodie's steward, and I think the farm was well managed, but not so profitable as in old times. Aunt Mary said, in her own characteristic way, "she always knew that her sister was a clever woman, but that the cleverest thing she had done was taking up farming and carrying it on for 30 years when it was profitable, and turning it over when it began to fall off." But she turned it over handsomely, and did not interfere in the management. My Aunt Mary deserves a chapter for herself. She was my beau ideal of what a maiden aunt should be, though why she was never married puzzles more than me. Between my mother and her there was a love passing the love of sisters--my father liked her better than his own sisters. When my letter announcing my probable visit reached her she misread it, and thought it was Helen herself who was to come; and when she found out her mistake she shed many tears. I was all very well in my way, but I was not Helen. It was not the practice in old times to blazon an engagement, or to tell of an offer that had been declined; but my mother firmly believed that her sister Mary, the cleverest and, as she thought, the handsomest of the five sisters, had never in her life had an offer of marriage, although she had a love disappointment at 30. She had fixed her affections on a brilliant but not really worthy man, and she had to tear him out of her heart with considerable difficulty. It cost her a severe illness, out of which she emerged with what she believed to be a change of heart. She was a converted Christian. I myself don't think there was so much change. She was always a noble, generous woman, but she found great happiness in religion. Aunt Mary's disappointment made her most sympathetic to all love stories, and without any disappointment at all, I think I may say the same of myself. She was very popular with the young friends of her youngest brother, who might have experienced calf love; so very real, but so very ineffectual. One of these said to her:-"Oh, Miss Mary, you're just a delight, you are so witty." Another, when she spoke of some man who talked such delightful nonsense, said, "If you would only come to Branxholme I'd talk nonsense to you the haill (whole) day."

When I arrived at the old home I found Aunt Mary vigorously rubbing her hand and wrist (she had slipped downstairs in a neighbour's house, and broken her arm, and had to drive home before she could have it set). No one from the neighbour's house went to accompany her; no one came to enquire; no message was sent. When she recovered so far as to be able to be out, she met at Dunbar the gentleman and lady also driving in their conveyance. They greeted each other, and aunt could not resist the temptation to say:--"I am so glad to see you, and so glad that you have spoken to me, for I thought you were so offended at my taking the liberty of breaking my arm in your house that you did not mean to speak to me again." This little expression of what the French call malice, not the English meaning, was the only instance I can recollect of Aunt Mary's not putting the kindest construction on everybody's words and actions. But when I think of the love that Aunt Mary gathered to herself from brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, cousins, and friends--it seems as if the happiest wife and mother of a large family could not reckon up as rich stores of affection. She was the unfailing correspondent of those members of the family who were separated by land and ocean from the old home, the link that often bound these together, the most tolerant to their failings, the most liberal in her aid--full of suggestions, as well as of sympathy. Now, in my Aunt Margaret's enfeebled state, she was the head of the house and the director of all things. Although she had differed from the then two single sisters and the family generally at the time of the disruption of the Church of Scotland, and gone over to the Free Church, the more intensely Calvinistic of the two, though accepting the same standards--the Westminster Confession and the Shorter Catechism--all the harsher features fell off the living texture of her faith like cold water off a duck's back. From natural preference she chose for her devotions those parts of the Bible which I selected with deliberate intention. She wondered to find so much spiritual kinship with me, when I built on such a different foundation. When I suggested that the 109th Psalm, which she read as the allotted portion in "Fletcher's Family Devotions," was not fit to be read in a Christian household, she said meekly--"You are quite right, I shall mark it, and never read it again."

My mother always thought me like her sister Mary, and when I asked Mr. Taylor if he saw any resemblance between us, he said, with cruel candour--"Oh, no. Your Aunt Mary is a very handsome woman." But in ways and manners, both my sister Mary and myself had considerable resemblances to our mother's favourite sister; and I can see traces of it in my own nieces. There can be no direct descent from maiden aunts, though the working ants and bees do not inherit their industrious habits from either male or female parents, but from their maiden aunts. Galton's theory, that potentialities not utilized by individuals or by their direct descendants may miss a generation or two, opens a wide field of thought, and collaterals may draw from the original source what was never suspected. And the Brodies intermarried in such a way as to shock modern ideas. When my father was asked if a certain Mr. Dudgeon, of Leith, was related to him, he said--"He is my mother's cousin and my stepmother's cousin, and my father-in-law's cousin, and my mother-in-law's cousin." Except for Spences and Wauchopes there was not a relative of my father that was not related to my mother. Grandfather Brodie married his cousin, and Grandfather Spence married his late wife, Janet Parks cousin Katherine Swanston. I cannot see that these close marriages produced degenerates, either physical or mental, in the case of my own family.

Of the twelve months I spent in the old country, I spent six with the dear old aunts. How proud Aunt Mary was of my third novel, with the sketch of Aunt Margaret in it, of the Cornhill article, and the request from Mr. Wilson to write for The Fortnightly. I introduced her to new books and especially to new poets; she had never heard of Browning and Jean Ingelow. She was so much cleverer than her neighbours that I often wondered how she could put up with them. How conservative these farmers and farmers' wives and daughters were, to be sure. These big tenants considered themselves quite superior to tradesmen, even to merchants, unless they were in a big way. There was infinitely more difference between their standard of living and that of their labourers than between theirs and that of the aristocratic landlords. James Barnet, the farm steward, said to me--"you have brought down the price of wheat with your Australian grain, and you do big things in wool, but you can never touch us in meat." This was quite true in 1865. I expected to see some improvement in the farm hamlet, but the houses built by the landlord were still very poor and bare. The wages had risen a little since 1839, but not much. The wheaten loaf was cheaper, and so was tea and sugar, but the poor were still living on porridge and bannocks of barley and pease meal instead of tea and white bread. It was questionable if they were as well nourished. There were 100 souls living on the farms of Thornton and Thornton Loch.

A short visit from Mrs. Graham to me at Thornton Loch opened up to Aunt Mary some of my treasures of memory. She asked me to recite "Brother in the Lane," Hood's "Tale of a Trumpet," "Locksley Hall." "The Pied Piper," and Jean Ingelow's "Songs of Seven." She made me promise to go to see her, and find out how much she had to do for her magnificent salary of 30 pounds a year; but she impressed Aunt Mary much. Mrs. Graham had found that the Kirkbeen folks, among whom she lived, were more impressed by the six months' experiences of two maiden ladies, who had gone to Valparaiso to join a brother who died, than with her fresh and racy descriptions of four young Australian colonies. She had seen Melbourne from 1852 to 1855--a wonderful growth and development. The only idea the ladies from Valparaiso formed about Australia was that it was hot and must be Roman Catholic, and consequently the Sabbath must be desecrated. It was in vain that my friend spoke of the Scots Church and Dr. Cairns's Church. Heat and Roman Catholicism were inseparably connected in their minds.

Visiting Uncle and Aunt Handyside and grown-up cousins, whom I left children, I saw a lot of good farming and the easy circumstances which I always associated with tenants' holdings in East Lothian. Next farm to Fenton was Fentonbarns, a Show place, which was held by George Hope, a cousin of my grandmother's He was an exceptional man--a radical, a freetrader, and a Unitarian. Cobden died that year. Uncle Handyside was surprised that George Hope did not go into mourning for him. John Bright still lived, and he was the bete noire of the Conservatives in that era; and the abolition of the corn laws was held to be the cause of the agricultural ditress--not the high rent of agricultural land. George Hope was a striking personality. When my friend J. C. Woods was minister at St. Mark's Unitarian Church, Edinburgh, Mr. Hope used to be called the Bishop, though he lived 16 miles off. When the first Mrs. Woods died, leaving an infant son, it was Mrs. Hope who cared for it till it could go to his relatives in Ireland. Later he stood for Parliament himself. In the paper I wrote over the name of Edward Wilson for The Fortnightly I noted how the House of Commons represented the people--or misrepresented them. The House consisted of peers and sons of peers, military and naval officers, bankers, brewers, and landownership was represented enormously, but there were only two tenant farmers in the House. It was years after my return to Australia that I heard of his unsuccessful candidature, and that when he sought to take another lease of Fentonbarns, he was told that under no circumstances would his offer be entertained. Fentonbarns had been farmed by, three generations of Hopes for 100 years, and to no owner by parchment titles could it have been more dear. George Hope's friend, Russell, of The Scotsman, fulminated against the injustice of refusing a lease to the foremost agriculturist in Scotland--and when you say that you may say of the United Kingdom-because the tenant held certain political opinions and had the courage to express them. My uncle Handyside, however, always maintained that his neighbour was the most honourable man in business that he knew, and far from being an atheist or even a deist, he had family prayers, and on the occasion of a death in the family, the funeral service was most impressive. He was one of the salt of the earth, and the atmosphere was clearer around him for his presence.

But I must give some space to my visit to Melrose, my childhood's home. My father's half-sister Janet Reid was alive and though her two sons were, one at St. Kitts and the other at Grand Canary, she lived with an old husband and her only daughter in Melrose still.. I can never forget the look of tender pity cast on me as I was sitting in our old seat in church, looking at seats filled by another generation. The paterfamilias, so wonderfully like his father of 1839, and sons and daughters, sitting in the place of uncles and aunts settled elsewhere. They grieved that I had been banished from the romantic associations and the high civilization of Melrose to rough it in the wilds, while my heart was full of thankfulness that I had moved to the wider spaces and the more varied activities of a new and progressive colony. My dear old teacher was still alive, though the school had been closed for many years. She lived at St. Mary's with her elder sister, who had taught me sewing and had done the housekeeping, but she herself was almost blind, and a girl came every day to read to her for two or three hours. She told me what a good thing it was that she knew all the Psalms in the prose version by heart, for in the sleepless nights which accompany old age so often they were such a comfort to her in the night watches. I had sent her my two novels when they were published, "Clara Morison" and "Tender and True." She would have been glad if they had been more distinctly religious in tone. Indeed, the novel I began at 19 would have suited her better, but my brother's insistence on reading it every day as I wrote it somehow made me see what poor stuff it was, and I did not go far with it. But Miss Phin was, on the whole, pleased with my progress, and glad that I was able to go to see her and talk of old times. How very small the village of Melrose looked! How little changed! The distances to the neighbouring villages of Darnick and Newstead, and across the Tweed to Gattonsville, seemed so shrunken. It was not so far to Abbotsford as to Norwood. The very Golden Hills looked lower than my childish recollection of them. Aunt Janet Reid rejoiced over me sufficiently. "You are not like your mother in the face, but, oh, Katie, you are like dear Mrs. David in your ways. How I was determined to hate her when she came to Melrose first. I was not 13 and she was taking away the best of my brothers, the one that I liked best; but it did not take long before I was as fond of her as of David himself."

I also had the pleasure of visiting Mr. Murray, the parish schoolmaster. who taught my three brothers, then retired, living with his daughter, Louisa, an old schoolfellow at Miss Phin's. There was an absurd idea current in 1865 that all visiting Australians were rich and I could not disabuse people of that notion. Of all the two families of Brodies and Spences who came out in 1839 there was only my brother John who could be called successful. He was then manager of the Adelaide branch of the English, Scottish, and Australian Bank. If it had not been for help from the wonderful aunts from time to time both families would have been stranded. I had the greatest faith in the future of Australia, but I felt that for such gifts as I possessed there was no market at home. Possibly I should have tried literature earlier if I had remained in Scotland, but I am not at all sure that I could have succeeded as well. For the first time in my life I had as much money as I wanted. I am surprised now that I spent that 200 pounds when I had so much hospitality. In fact, except for a week in Paris, I never had any hotel expenses. I had got the money to enjoy it and I did. This was what my friend wished. I made a few presents. I bought some to take home with me. I spent money on dress freely, so as to present a proper appearance when visiting. I was liberal with veils, though I hate the practice. To a woman who had to look on both sides of a shilling since 1839 this experience was new and delightful. Among other people I went to see was Mrs. C----. the widow of the Tory writer and branch bank manager, who was my father's successful rival. He was not speculative like my father. He was a keen business man and had a great hunger for land.

On the gravestones around Melrose Abbey are many names with the avocation added-John Smith, builder; William Hogg, mason--but many with the word portioner. They were small proprietors, but they were not distinguished for the careful cultivation which in France is known as "LA PETITE CULTURE." No; the portions were most carelessly handled, and in almost every instance they were "bonded" or mortgaged. I recollect in old days these portioners used to make moonlight, flittings and disappear, or they sold off their holdings openly and went to America, meaning the United States. The tendency was to buy up these portions, and a considerable estate could be built up by any shrewd man who had money, or the command of it. Before we left Melrose in 1839, Mr. C---- had possession of a good deal of land. When he died he left property of the value of 90,000 pounds, an unheard-of estate for a country writer before the era of freetrade and general expansion. He had asked so much revenue from the railway company when the plan was to cut through the gardens we as children used to play in, that the company made a deviation and left the garden severely alone. The eldest daughter had married a landed proprietor, the second was single, the third married to a wealthy man in the west, the fourth the richest widow in Scotland. One son had land, and the other son land, and another business training. All was material success, and I am sure I did not grudge it to them, but when I took stock of real things I had not the least glimmering of a wish to exchange. One generally desires a little more money than one has; but even that may cost too much. I think my dear old Aunt Reid felt that the Spences had gone down in my father's terrible smash in 1839, and the C---- family had steadily gone up, and she was pleased that a niece from Australia, who had written two books and a wonderful pamphlet, and, more important still in the eyes of Mrs. Grundy, had money to spend and to give, was staying with her in Melrose, and wearing good and well made clothes. Old servants--the old laundress--old schoolfellows were visited. My father's old clerk, Allan Freer, had a good business in Melrose, though not equal to that of the Tory firm. I think the portioners were all sold out before he could enter the field, and the fate of these Melrose people has thoroughly emphasized for me the importance of having our South Australian workmen's blocks, the glory of Mr. Cotton's life, maintained always on the same footing of perpetual lease dependent on residence. If the small owner has the freehold, he is tempted to mortgage it, and then in most instances the land is lost to him, and added to the possessions of the man who has money. With a perpetual lease, there is the same security of tenure as in the freehold--indeed, there is more security, because he cannot mortgage. I did not see the land question as clearly on this 1865 visit, as I did later; but the extinction of the old portioners and the wealth acquired by the moneyed man of Melrose gave me cause for thinking.