No apology for writing this book. An imperative duty under present conditions. Description of my parents and their personal appearances. Description of Mon Repos, Angela Gardens. Long anxiety prior to my birth. Intense joy when at last this takes place. My father's decision as to my Xtian name. Early selection of my first godfather.
It is customary, I have noticed, in publishing an autobiography to preface it with some sort of apology. But there are times, and surely the present is one of them, when to do so is manifestly unnecessary. In an age when every standard of decent conduct has either been torn down or is threatened with destruction; when every newspaper is daily reporting scenes of violence, divorce, and arson; when quite young girls smoke cigarettes and even, I am assured, sometimes cigars; when mature women, the mothers of unhappy children, enter the sea in one-piece bathing-costumes; and when married men, the heads of households, prefer the flicker of the cinematograph to the Athanasian Creed - then it is obviously a task, not to be justifiably avoided, to place some higher example before the world.
For some time - I am now forty-seven - I had been feeling this with increasing urgency. And when not only my wife and her four sisters, but the vicar of my parish, the Reverend Simeon Whey, approached me with the same suggestion, I felt that delay would amount to sin. That sin, by many persons, is now lightly regarded, I am, of course, only too well aware. That its very existence is denied by others is a fact equally familiar to me. But I am not one of them. On every ground I am an unflinching opponent of sin. I have continually rebuked it in others. I have strictly refrained from it in myself. And for that reason alone I have deemed it incumbent upon me to issue this volume.
I propose in the first instance to deal with my earliest surroundings and the influence exerted upon me by my father. Believing as I do that every man (and to a lesser extent every woman) is almost entirely the product of his or her personal endeavours. I cannot pretend, of course, to attach much importance to merely paternal influence. Nevertheless in the lives of each one of us it undoubtedly plays a certain part. And although my father had numerous faults, as I afterwards discovered and was able to point out to him, he yet brought to bear on me the full force of a frequently noble character.
That such was his duty I do not of course deny. But duty well done is rare enough to deserve a tribute. And in days such as these, when fatherhood is so lightly regarded, and is so frequently, indeed, accidental, too much attention can surely not be given to so opposite an instance.
At the time of my birth, then, and until his death, my father was a civic official in a responsible position, being a collector of outstanding accounts for the Consolidated Water Board. In addition, he was one of the most respected and trustworthy agents of the Durham and West Hartlepool Fire and Burglary Insurance Company, a sidesman of the Church of St James-the-Less in Camberwell, and the tenant of Mon Repos, Angela Gardens. This was one of some thirty-six admirably conceived houses of a similar and richly ornamented architecture, the front door of each being flanked and surmounted by diamond-shaped panes of blue and vermilion glass; and though it was true that this particular house had been named by the landlord in a foreign tongue, it must not be assumed that this nomenclature in any way met with my father's approval. On the contrary, he had not only protested, but such was his distrust of French morality that he had always insisted, both for himself and others, upon a strictly English pronunciation.
Somewhat under lower middle height, my father, even as a boy, had been inclined to corpulence, a characteristic, inherited by myself, that he succeeded in retaining to the end of his life. Nor did he ever lose - or not to any marked extent - either the abundant hair that grew upon his scalp, his glossy and luxurious moustache, or his extraordinarily powerful voice. This was a deep bass that in moments of emotion became suddenly converted into a high falsetto, and he never hesitated, in a cause that he deemed righteous, to employ it to its full capacity. Always highly coloured, and the fortunate possessor of an exceptionally large and well-modelled nose, my father's eyes were of a singularly pale, unwinking blue, while in his massive ears, with their boldly outstanding rims, resided the rare faculty of independent motion.
My mother, on the other hand, presented hardly a feature that could, in the strictest sense, have been called beautiful, although she was somewhat taller than my father, with eyes that were similar in their shade of blue. Like my father's, too, her nose was large, but it had been built on lines that were altogether weaker, and the slightly reddish down upon her upper lip might even by some people have been considered a disfigurement. She had inherited, however, together with five hundred pounds, an apparently gentle disposition, and was a scion or scioness of the Walworth Road branch of the great family of Robinson. Herself the eldest of the nine daughters of Mortimer Robinson, a well-known provision merchant, my father had claimed relationship for her, albeit unsuccessfully, with Peter Robinson of Oxford Street, while he used half humorously to assert her connection with the fictional character known as Robinson Crusoe. Clean in her habits, quiet about the house, and invariably obedient to his slightest wish, he had very seldom indeed, as he often told me, seriously regretted his choice of a wife.
With sufficient capital, therefore, not only to furnish his house, but to pay its first year's rent and establish an emergency fund, my father might well have been supposed by an ignorant observer to be free from every anxiety. Such was not the case, however, and he was obliged, almost immediately, to face one of the sternest ordeals of his married life. Ardently desiring increase, it was not for nine and a half months that Providence saw fit to answer his prayers, and as week succeeded week and the cradle still remained empty, only his unfaltering faith saved him from despair. But the hour came at last, and so vividly has my father described it to me that I have long since shared its triumphant joy.
Born at half-past three on a February morning, the world having been decked with a slight snow-fall, it was then that my mother's aunt, Mrs Emily Smith, opened the bedroom door and emerged on the landing. My father had gone outside to lean over the gate, and was still leaning there when she opened the door, but my mother's mother, with another of my mother's aunts, were standing with bowed heads at the foot of the stairs. Prone in the parlour, and stretched in uneasy attitudes, five of her eight sisters were snatching a troubled sleep, while two fellow-members of my mother's Mothers' Guild were upon their knees in the back kitchen. But for the fact, indeed, that two of my mother's sisters had not, at that time, had their tonsils removed, the whole house would have been wrapped in the profoundest stillness.
My mother's mother was the first to see Mrs Smith, though she only saw her, as it were, through a mist. Mrs Smith was the first to speak, in a voice tremulous with emotion.
`Where's Augustus?' she said. Augustus was my father's name.
`He's just gone outside,' said my mother's mother.
Something splashed heavily on the hall linoleum. It was a drop of moisture from Mrs Smith's forehead.
`Tell him,' she said, `that he's the father of a son.'
My mother's mother gave a great cry. My father was beside her in a single leap. Always, as I have said, highly coloured, his face at this moment seemed literally on fire. The two fellow-members of my mother's Mothers' Guild, accompanied by my father's five sisters-in-law, rushed into the hall. Mrs Smith leaned over the banisters.
`A boy,' she said. `It's a boy.'
`A boy?' said my father.
`Yes, a boy,' said Mrs Smith.
There was a moment's hush, and then Nature had its way. My father unashamedly burst into tears. My mother's mother kissed him on the neck just as the two fellow-members burst into a hymn; and a moment later, my mother's five sisters burst simultaneously into the doxology. Then my father recovered himself and held up his hand.
`I shall call him Augustus,' he said, `after myself.'
`Or tin?' suggested my mother's mother. `What about calling him tin, after the saint?'
`How do you mean - tin?' said my father.
`Augus-tin,' said Mrs Emily Smith.
But my father shook his head.
`No, it shall be tus,' he said. `Tus is better than tin.'
Then his five sisters-in-law resumed the singing, from which the two fellow-members had been unable to desist, until my father, who had been rapidly thinking, once again held up his hand.
`And I shall give the vicar,' he said, `the first opportunity of becoming Augustus's godfather.'
Then he took a deep breath, threw back his shoulders, tilted his chin, and closed his eyes; and with the full vigour of his immense voice, he, too, joined in the doxology.