Trials of my infancy. Varieties of indigestion. I suffer from a local erythema. Instance of my father's unselfishness. Difficulty in providing a second godfather. Unexpected solution of the problem. The ceremony of my baptism. A narrow escape. Was it culpable carelessness? My father transfers his worship to St James-the-Lesser-Still, Peckham Rye.
With the portion of my life that intervened between my birth and my baptism I do not propose, owing to exigencies of space, to deal in the fullest detail. But it may be of some comfort to weaker fellow-sufferers to be assured that, from the outset, the ill health to which I have been a life-long martyr played its part in testing my character. Singularly well formed, of a sanguine complexion, and weighing not less than four and three-quarter pounds, Providence saw fit almost immediately to purge me without medicinal aid. Whether this was due, under Higher Supervision, as my father several times forcibly suggested to her, to some dietary excess or indiscretion on the part of my mother was never determined. But the fact remained that for several weeks I suffered from indigestion in two main directions.
Twice, indeed, on the grounds of health, the ceremony of my baptism had to be postponed; and for hours together, I have been told, I lay upon my back, with my knees drawn up and my fingers clenched, in an anguished endeavour to stifle the moans that I was too enfeebled wholly to suppress. Time after time, too, my mother's mother, the aunt that had stood with her at the bottom of the stairs, and various of my mother's sisters would recommend alternative forms of nourishment. But although, at my father's desire, each of these suggestions was given an immediate trial, it was not for two months, and until I had been subjected to a heart-breaking period of starvation, that an affliction abated to which I have since been liable at any moment of undue excitement.
Chastened within, however, as I had been, I was not to escape chastisement without. For no sooner had I begun, in some small measure, to assimilate the food provided for me than I became the victim of an unfortunate skin complaint known, as I am informed, as erythema. This was happily local, but it gave rise to a very profound irritation, and one that proved, as my father has often assured me, to be of a peculiarly obstinate character. Naturally diffident, owing to the site of the affection, to mention it even to the family doctor, my parents exhausted their every resource without procuring the least alleviation. Though for night after night they made it a matter of prayer, my sufferings were pitiful, I have been told, to. the last extreme; and almost hourly, from supper-time to breakfast, the darkness was rent with my cries.
Unable at last, owing to his acute sensibilities, to witness my agony any longer, my father was obliged, with the deepest reluctance, to confine himself to a separate bedroom. But it was in this extremity that his almost Quixotic unselfishness shone, if possible, with an added lustre. From the time of his marriage to the day of my birth, and as soon thereafter as the doctor had permitted her to rise, my father had been in the habit of enabling my mother to provide him with an early cup of tea. And this he had done by waking her regularly a few minutes before six o'clock. In view of the fact, however, that he was now occupying a different bedroom, and that, owing to my indisposition, she was awake most of the night, he offered to excuse her should she chance to be asleep at that hour, from the performance of this wifely duty. Needless to say, it was not an offer that she could accept. Indeed, in his heart he had not expected her to do so. And I have even considered the incident, in latter days, as illustrative of a certain weakness in my father's character. But I have never been able to regard it without affection or to forbear mentioning it on appropriate occasions.
That in most respects, however, my father's temperament was an exceptionally unflinching one was amply corroborated by the circumstances attendant upon the choice of my second godfather. This gave rise, as my father has frequently told me, to the most prolonged and anxious discussions, and entailed an enormous amount of correspondence, some of which has been preserved among the family documents. For with his ruthless determination, inherited by myself, to discover and expose every kind of wrong-doing, with his life-long habit of informing those in authority of any dereliction of duty in themselves and their subordinates, and with the passion for truth that compelled him on every occasion instantly to correct what he deemed the reverse, my father had necessarily but little leisure to cultivate the easy art of friendship. Amongst his acquaintances, indeed, there were but few that even remotely approximated to his standards; and he had found none that his conscience had permitted him to select for the purposes of personal friendship.
It was for this reason that, on the occasion of his marriage, he had dispensed with the services of a best man. And although the vicar had eventually agreed to act as one of my male sponsors, the appointment of a second began to assume the proportions of an almost insoluble problem. It being manifestly impossible to hope for a suitable candidate among such persons as occasionally called at the house, and my father's character having long ago isolated him from his more immediate masculine relatives, he resolved at last to appeal to the public sense of the higher officials of the Church of England.
Nor was the result ungratifying, as various letters still in my possession go to prove. Though unable, owing to so many similar and previously acquired obligations, to accede to my father's suggestion, all of them replied with the greatest courtesy. Thus the Dean of St Paul's wrote in person wishing me every success in life; the Bishop of London trusted that my father's aspirations as to my personal holiness would be realized; while the Archbishop of Canterbury commanded his secretary to express his gratification at the suggestion of an honour that only the exigencies of his position as Primate forbade him to accept. Needless to say, those in charge of the State, whom my father next approached, behaved very differently. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Secretary saw fit to reply at all, while the President of the Board of Trade merely expressed a formal regret. And yet in the end, as is so often the case, the solution proved quite a simple one. Turn but a stone, says a poet,* and start a wing. And my father did not even need to turn a stone. Sick at heart, he was returning home one night when he suddenly caught sight of himself in a cheese-monger's window. It was as though Providence, he said, had touched him on the shoulder. Whereas he had been blind, he said, then he saw. For a moment the shock was almost too much for him. A member of the constabulary, indeed, actually asked him to move on. But the solution was there, staring him in the face. Involuntarily he raised his hat. He himself was the man.
With my aunt, Mrs Emily Smith, only too eager to be my godmother, everything now seemed to be propitious for the happy consummation of my baptism, and no more earnest or reverent gathering could have been found that day in any Metropolitan church. The vicar being godfather, the actual ceremony was, at my father's suggestion, performed by the senior curate, the junior curate, in deference to my father's position as sidesman, being on the vicar's right hand between him and my mother.
On the senior curate's left stood my father, flanked on his own left by the verger, the circle round the font being completed by Mrs Emily Smith, my mother's mother, my mother's father, her eight sisters and the aunt that had stood with my mother's mother at the foot of the stairs. A soft April rain was refreshing the outside world, and the first part of the service had been successfully performed, when an incident occurred that might well have been attended with the most tragic and irreparable consequences. For there suddenly took place, just as I had been handed to the senior curate, so acute an exacerbation of the erythema that, in the ensuing convulsion, he was quite unable to retain me in his grasp.
I say unable, but, as my father pointed out to him immediately after the close of the service, had I suffered any provable damage he would certainly have taken legal advice. Falling from his arms, however, I remained poised for a moment upon the extreme brim of the font, and then fell forward, colliding with the vicar, who stumbled backwards in his efforts to save me. From the tottering vicar I then ricochetted, in what I believe is a military phrase, towards the feet of the junior curate, who became unexpectedly the instrument of Providence. I do not myself practise, nor do I greatly approve, any form of purely athletic exercise. But it was perhaps fortunate that the curate in question happened to be a skilful player of cricket. For just as my head was within an inch of the floor and the blood had receded from every countenance, he shot out his hand and succeeded in catching me in a position technically known, I believe, as the slips.
`Oh, well held, sir!' cried the senior curate, and then for a moment or two his emotion overcame him.
The vicar, still pale, recovered his balance.
`Poor little Augustus,' said my mother; `it's the irritation.' My father frowned at her.
`Without prejudice,' he said. And then for perhaps half a minute there was a deathly silence. It was fractured, I have been told, by myself, as the junior curate handed me back to the senior.
But my father intervened.
`Not again,' he said. `Never again; never in this world.'
The silence was resumed, broken only by myself. My father stood holding me, trembling with emotion. The vicar took a deep breath.
`Is the service to proceed?' he asked.
`Certainly,' said my father. `But in other hands.'
It was another instance of his dominating character, but also of his innate sense of justice.
`I am not insensible,' he said to the senior curate, `of the services that you have already rendered. But in the interests of my son, as you must surely agree, I cannot again trust him to your care.'
The senior curate bowed, but did not articulate a reply, and my father then handed me once more to the junior. For a moment the latter hesitated, but at the vicar's request accepted the privilege of concluding my baptism. Later, I have been told, there was a certain amount of argument, in which my father more than held his own, finally absolving the vicar from further sponsorial duties and notifying his decision to transfer his worship elsewhere.
For a man of my father's position this was a serious step. But it was one that he did not hesitate to take. And within a year, as I have always been proud to remember, he had made himself a sidesman at St James-the-Lesser-Still, Peckham Rye.