Excerpt from Chapter 1
I HAVE A FANCY TO TAKE PEN IN HAND AND TELL MY STORY, FOR now that I am arrived, so to speak, at a favourable hilltop, a safe situation above water level, I may look back on such mires, floods, tempests and raging tides as I have encountered with a tolerably tranquil eye; besides, my history should serve as a guide (or at least afford some diversion) to those who may be at present less favourably placed.
While, as to the dark that lies ahead, who can chart it?
In short and without further preamble I'll begin.
I have no information as to the circumstances of my birth, or even in what county that event took place; indeed I doubt if there is any record of it.
My first memories are of the year 1797, when I must have been, I believe, about three or four years of age, and, from the circumstances of my life, already a shrewd and noticing child. As an infant I had been, I heard, somewhat frail and puny, and with the unlucky blemish that caused me to be scorned by some and feared by others. My foster-mother, Hannah Wellcome, having at that period several boys in her care greater in size than myself, and fearful that, among them, I might receive some fatal injury (thus depriving her of my foster-fee) daily dispatched me with a halfpenny, from the time that I could walk, to the vicarage and the decidedly questionable custody of the parson, Dr Moultrie. With the halfpenny I bought three cakes at the village baker's for my dinner; and Dr Moultrie, to keep me from plaguing him with questions, for he was a slothful old party given to drowsing away many of the daylight hours in his chair, lost no time in teaching me to read, and turning me loose in his library. There, having run through such tales of Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-Killer and Gold-Locks as remained from the days of his own children (long since grown and gone), I was obliged to munch on more solid fare, Goldsmith's History of England, volumes of the Spectator, the plays of Shakespeare, and much poetry and theology, besides Berquin's Ami des Enfants and some simple Italian tales (in consequence of which I acquired a readiness and taste for learning foreign tongues that has later stood me in good stead).
There was one volume that I read over and over, The Death of Arthur it was called, and I found the tales in it of knights and battles, Sir Beaumain, Sir Persaint, Merlin the enchanter and King Arthur himself, most haunting; they held sway over my mind for weeks together. But alas! one day, absorbed in the tale of the death of King Hermance, I dropped a great blob of jam from the tart I was eating on to the page of the book. When Dr Moultrie discovered this, he gave me a terrible beating, after which I could hardly crawl home, and he locked the book away; I never laid eyes on it again.
However, to his credit, it must be said that finding me an eager pupil Dr Moultrie was prepared to emerge from his torpor for an hour or two each day to instil in me the rudiments of Greek, Latin and Euclid, besides a thirst for wider knowledge.
But I run ahead of my tale.
Hannah Wellcome, my foster-mother, appeared good-natured and buxom: round red cheeks and untidy yellow ringlets escaping from her cap would predispose a stranger in her favour. I believe a certain native cunning had incited her to marry as she had done, thereby endowing herself with a propitious name and the status of a matron; Tom, her husband, kept in the background and was seldom seen; a narrow, dark, lantern-jawed ferret of a man, he scurried among the lanes on questionable pursuits of his own. But she, smiling and curtseying at the door of their thatched cottage, her ample bulk arrayed in clean apron, tucker and cap, might easily create an impression of kindly honesty, and had, at any one time, as many small clients as the house would hold.
The house, whitewashed and in its own garden, lay at the far end of a straggling hamlet sunk deep in a coombe. Our muddy street wound its way, like a crease through a green and crumpled counterpane, between steeply tilted meadows and dense patches of woodland, close to the border of Somerset and Devon. There were no more than twenty dwellings in all, besides the small ancient church presided over by Dr Moultrie. He had, as well, another village in his cure, perched high on the windy moor seven miles westwards. This was Over Othery. From long-established use and local custom, our hamlet, Nether Othery, was never thus referred to, but always, by the country folk round about, given the title of 'Byblow Bottom'.
I write, now, of days long since passed away, when it was still the habit amongst all ladies of the gentle classes no matter how modest their degree, even the wives of attorneys, vicars, and well-to-do tradesmen, not to suckle their own infants, but always to put them out to wet-nurse. The bosoms of ladies, it seemed, were not for use, but strictly for show (and indeed, at the time I am recalling, bosoms were very much in evidence, bunched up over skimpy high-waisted dresses and concealed by little more than a twist of gauze and a scrap of cambric; what with that, and the fashion for wearing dampened petticoats and thin little kid slippers out of doors, very many young ladies must have gone to their ends untimely, thereby throwing even more business in the way of foster-mothers). Whatever the reason, it was held that the babies of the upper classes throve and grew faster when fed and tended by women of a lower order, and so the new-born infant would be directly dispatched, perhaps merely from one end of a village to the other, perhaps half across England to some baronial estate, to be reared in a cottage for two, three, or even four years, while its own mother, if so minded, need never lay eyes on it for that space of time. Of course I do not say this was the rule; many mothers, no doubt, visited their children very diligently, very constantly; but many others, I am equally sure, did not.