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Authors: Phyllis Bentley

Noble in Reason

BOOK: Noble in Reason
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PHYLLIS BENTLEY

Noble in Reason

Contents

Chapter 1. Family

2. School

3. World

4. Failure

5. War

6. Post-War

7. Flashpoint

8. Escape

9. Victory

10. VitaÏ Lampada

11. Age

1
Family
1

Life has faded and gone down the wind for me, and yet it seems that I am now only at last beginning to understand it. The agonizing fears of my childhood, the stormy resentments of my youth, the wretched failures of my manhood, now reveal themselves to me, in the light of the reason 1 have striven so long to acquire, as explicable in the simple if solemn terms of general human experience. As such, they are no longer a unique misery of my own, an unfair imposition upon Christopher Jarmayne by a malignant Fate, but a typical example of the general human predicament, a small fragment of the common burden shouldered by humanity in its uneven progress towards the light. Moreover, my judgment of the various human beings who played their parts in my story has been modified, not only by these general considerations, but by particular facts about them, unknown to me at the time, which have now emerged from their obscurity—the kind of facts which every person carries buried deep in his personality and imagines (erroneously) to be known and understood by all. So, in writing this record, it is my plan to relate the events of my life as I saw them while I lived them; then to follow each with what I now see to be their real truth. The difference between the two points of view is a tragic commentary on human misunderstanding.

Take for instance our family household in the solid mid-Victorian semi-detached house named Ashroyd, in Walker Lane on the outskirts of the West Riding textile town of
Hudley. As a child I saw it as a jungle of conflicting personalities, in which no path was safe. With Netta on my arm— sometimes a source of tender pleasure, more often of troubled responsibility—I hurried fear-driven through its lurid landscapes, glimpsing here and there delicious vistas of bright flower and gentle stream which sharp sword grass, huge macerating thistles, impenetrable tangles of green proliferating ropy vegetation, and a lurking population of ferocious carnivores, barred off for ever from an anxious little boy.

My father, Edward Etherton Jarmayne—to our family unit the source of all wealth and power—with his crisp fulvous hair and beard and fierce blue eyes appeared to me like a prowling lion, whom one strove ever to evade, in vain. (I often dreamed in those days of escaping from lions; great maned beasts, terrible in growl and paw.) His gold-rimmed pince-nez, worn slightly askew, and the two vertical frown-lines above, were as much the cause and the symbol of fear to me as the markings of a real lion's awful face. It was a welcome relief when my father, whose improving short-sight enabled him in middle age to read more easily without glasses than with, removed these pince-nez in order to study his newspaper. His face was kinder so; moreover his quick piercing glance was for a time at least removed from us and our peccadilloes.

For my father's passion for cleanliness and order, his zeal for work, his punctilious manners, his strict rules about money, his sense of duty, set standards which no son could hope to reach—certainly no son as dreamy, careless and untidy as I was then. Besides, with a young child there are always certain physical lapses—excretory or vomitory—which depress his spirit and undermine his confidence if too seriously regarded. Even at my present age I can remember well two such occasions—that is, the details are vague, but the feelings of anguish, of despairing guilt and hopeless inferiority which
these traumatic incidents induced, are still strong within me today. Indeed last week, just as, in formal dress and amid every circumstance of public solemnity, I rose to reply to a toast in my honour at an important West Riding function, suddenly these scenes flashed into my mind. I saw a weeping, trembling little boy, crouching, once in our old-fashioned mahogany-rimmed bath, once on the floor of my parents' bedroom, while above me raged a storm of disgust and horror aroused by my failure in cleanliness. “Look at the carpet! Look at the towel!” It was my father who stormed. It was also my father who took the practical steps necessary to remove the hateful traces of my sin. But this was an added source of grief. To compel so majestic a parent to so revolting a task— how disgusting, how unworthy, on my part! I hung my head in abject shame; never, never should I be able to maintain the level of behaviour required by filial duty.

My father's speech was quick and sharp, his temper impatient, his disposition touchy. He had a great contempt for all modes of thought other than his own; but this was oddly united with an acute awareness of public opinion. It was thus almost impossible to come through any day without offending one of his numerous predilections or defaulting on one of his standards, and his rebukes for any such trespass were trenchant. “Christopher! Christopher!” Even the remembered sound of my name called thus in my father's vehement, commanding, and usually disapproving tones, still makes my heart beat faster. My father despised nicknames and endearments, they offended his sense of decency; accordingly we boys always received our full baptismal names from him; it was understood that Netta was an exception only while she was an infant; soon she too was to assume adult nomenclature.

My father's fiery complexion made him always too hot in sun or firelight; out walking, he darted across to the shadow (and we were obliged to follow); in the house, with a sudden
exclamation he would rush to the window and throw it vehemently up, admitting great gusts of cold West Riding air in which I personally shivered. This affair of the temperature was, however, only one of the personal insults which life continually offered to my father; he was a perfectionist, and some detail was always imperfect, whatever his situation. Of each and all of these defects he complained with accuracy and vehemence. His taste was austere, he hated anything garish or florid; the darker of two available hearthrugs, carpets, suits, curtains, was always the one selected—it would “wear well.” Thus our home in Walker Lane always appeared to me joyless, strict and sombre.

To pass from the company of my father to that of my mother was to experience a relief, a relaxation of tension, a transfer from a nipping to a balmy climate, exquisitely soothing. My mother, before her marriage Ada Appia—romantic name!— seemed to me the most beautiful and aristocratic of women. Where my father was short, slight and as it seemed always quivering with angry life, my mother was large, slow and apparently passive. Her dark hair was wonderful: immensely long, immensely thick and straight, it seemed—unlike the fierce curls of my father—to offer a mild sheltering dusk to a boy fleeing from the harassing demands of the too glaring, too scrutinizing, too inquisitive daylight. This wonderful chevelure was, it seemed, a source at once of gratification and irritation to my father. My mother dressed it very loosely, in great loops and braids; in a picture it would have looked magnificent, but amid the realities of Walker Lane in the 1890's its unfashionable excess struck our Victorian contemporaries as alarming. I remember my mother's hair as always in disorder, for the braids continually uncoiled, the loops descended, from their own heavy weight; scattered hairpins were always being picked up all over the house, arousing in my father sometimes a sudden tenderness, sometimes a flare of wrath. A straight
though wide nose, full pale lips continually curved in a half smile, large dark sleepy eyes with a strange grey iris, a warm heavy bosom, a large gentle hand, a soft slow speech, were elements in my mother's soothing spell.

My mother loved the sunshine and would sit basking in it, smiling, neglecting the housework which awaited her. She loved rich colours and sometimes decked herself with a bright belt or bow quite unsuited, by the taste of the time, to the rest of her dress. This maddened my father, who snapped out: “Really, Ada!” and twisted his neat features into a furious frown, in my view altogether excessive and over-vehement for the fault, if it were a fault, committed. My mother was not keenly aware of details. She was often unpunctual and sometimes left buttons undone on her dress; when she dusted a room the ornaments on the mantelpiece—so numerous in that era—were never replaced in the strict alignment thought necessary by my father, who as soon as he entered the room on returning from the mill frowned, crossed to the hearth and with a quick neat hand adjusted the pairs of china cherubs or bronze horses to an exact correspondence. At this my mother laughed gently, and turned her cheek to my father for his kiss, which he gave with warmth. When my father scolded me, or jerked my sailor blouse into place, my mother, surveying me with a calm bland air of affectionate interest, gently stroked back my hair. “Never mind, Chris,” she said. Even while deploring my father's excess of emotion, I wished for more from my mother on my behalf. But
never mind
was a favourite phrase of my mother's; she used it even to my father.

“Never mind, Edward; what does it matter?” she murmured in her deep slow tones when my father agitated himself over some minor domestic failure, some unpunctual meal or undercooked joint.

“It
does
matter!” cried my father. “Really I am surrounded
by fools. How can you expect a man to make any headway when he is surrounded by such fools?”

I burned with fury to hear my mother called a fool, but she continued to smile calmly.

My mother was easily pleased; whichever seat in a tram or portion of food fell to her lot was right for her; domestic breakages or mistakes never aroused her wrath; she never grumbled about the weather. To me indeed she seemed always happy.

Thus, in practical difficulties where aid was needed, we all sought my father, whose claim to omnipotence was undisputed; but my mother was my comfort and my joy in my hours of ease. All in me that loved colour, scent, sweet sound, warm touch, happy laughter—all the sensuous side of my nature— turned to her; I loved her, I was passionately on her side.

My two elder brothers seemed to me to have natures as strongly differentiated as their parents'. The result was a continual clash of these colossi bestriding the nursery, amidst which I anxiously peeped about to find myself—not perhaps a dishonourable grave as in Cassius' line, but some temporary oasis of peace and safety.

John, the eldest—he was baptised John Etherton but grew crimson with vexation if anyone referred to his second name— was short, broad-shouldered, sturdy. His hair was in colour fairish like my father's, but in texture thick and straight like my mother's; his sanguine complexion, snub nose and large mouth gave him an appearance which I then thought plebeian. His speech was rough and more Yorkshire in accent than that of any other member of our family, and as a boy he was careless and slovenly in dress. He was rough, too, in manner, and abounded in those blunt home-truths for which our county is so famous. He had a loud cheerful laugh when some obvious joke pleased him—but such a joke was always, it seemed to me, at somebody else's expense.

Henry on the other hand was tall and slender and handsome, with crisp dark chestnut hair, an aquiline profile, and long fine hands and feet. Proud, hot-tempered, intelligent, disdainful, obstinate, very sure of himself within his own limits, which, however, were narrower than he thought, he was always polite to everyone, irrespective of their status or age. He spoke with precision from a large vocabulary; in moments of scorn and rage—such moments were frequent with Henry—his nostrils quivered and his language became more and more formal as his anger mounted. He detested anything coarse or gross.

Thus, again, between John and Henry I was always in trouble. If only they had been alike, I often mourned, how much easier to avoid their displeasure! As it was, if one of them approved some nursery incident, the other was in a fury; I staggered between the two of them, too young and weak to set up a line for myself.

BOOK: Noble in Reason
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