Another and rather similar incursion into the realm of magic had consequences that were equally disastrous. As a child I was not encouraged to believe in the more frivolous elements of the supernatural world. On the few occasions when my mother or my nurse had told me fairy tales, their narrative style had seemed to be almost deliberately lacking in conviction. But, in spite of this materialistic policy on their part, I succeeded in amassing quite a substantial collection of fairy-story books, Grimm, Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, a volume of Russian folk-lore and an edition of the Arabian Nights, in which the fact that the text had been so carefully expurgated that it resembled a plum-pudding without the plums was amply compensated for by the Oriental voluptuousness of the illustrations. These books I used to devour with ecstatic enjoyment until at last I became completely engrossed in the fantastic world they chronicled. But I remember that I was always more interested in the pageantry of fairyland than in the personality of its inhabitants. In the story of Cinderella I was far more thrilled by the pumpkin coach, by the glass slipper, than by the young woman who rode in the former and wore the latter. Ali Baba meant less to me than the cave of the Forty Thieves; I thought more of the Chinese setting of Aladdin, of the Lamp, of the Palace of the Genii than of Aladdin himself; Rapunzel remained a vague and hazy figure while I could visualize clearly the tower from which she let down her hair.
Another neighbour of ours who stood out from the back. ground of more ordinary county folk was Mr. Vivian Pratt.
Distantly related to a ducal family, he enjoyed a greater consideration in the county than he might otherwise have done. Mr. Vivian Pratt was considered eccentric, but nothing more. In those days people were more naive with regard to certain aspects of life than they are now. It was said of him that he had odd mannerisms, that he was inclined to be effeminate, and there criticism ceased. Mr. Vivian Pratt had a mincingly ingratiating voice and he moved with an undulating gait. When walking through a room he looked as though he were trying to avoid imaginary chairs and tables, and he would describe elaborate circles with the middle portion of his body. His clothes had a fashion-plate neatness and always seemed a little inappropriate to the country, but when he appeared on horseback nobody could present a more dapper picture of horsiness. His get-up, however, like that of Miss Lucy Glitters when she appeared in the hunting-field, looked as if it could not have weathered even the mildest of rainstorms. .
His manners were excessive in their courtliness and he used to annoy my mother by addressing her as ”Dear lady.”
The only form of natural history cultivated at Elmley was the collecting of beetles, cock-chafers, caterpillars and kindred insects. This was known comprehensively as ”bug-hunting.” And, in this connection, an incident arose which may be quoted as a fair example of the ridiculous quandaries in which schoolmasters sometimes find themselves placed.
Late one afternoon, during a half-holiday, the bell tolled and an assembly was called. There was always a mysterious excitement attached to the calling of an assembly. It generally meant that some grave scandal had occurred. The air would be heavy with an atmosphere of crime. There would be wild speculation as to the nature of the offence and its perpetrators. Even the most righteous would be obsessed by a sense of guilt, for the crimes committed were frequently unconscious ones.
The whole school trooped into the large Assembly Room, where the Headmaster stood at his desk, wearing an air of tremendous gravity.
”Boys,” he said, ”in connection with this new craze for the collecting of insects, a very unfortunate word has arisen. I believe that those who indulge in this practice are known as bug-hunters, and the expression to which I am referring is a contraction of that word. Now, boys, I have not the least doubt that this word has been employed in complete ignorance. I am convinced that its true significance is one that is undreamt of by any of you. But, in point of fact, it is a very horrible and disgraceful expression, one that would bring a blush to the cheeks of your mothers and sisters, and one that no gentleman would ever dream of using.
”The word must henceforth be expunged from your Vocabulary, and any boy heard making use of it in future Will render himself liable to very severe punishment. Boys, you may go.”
At last the Summer term came to an end. An eternity of time seemed to have passed since that day when I first stood, small and trembling, upon the threshold of Elmley. In stature I had not grown appreciably larger, but spiritually my outlook had widened. New expansions had taken place within my little soul. The sense of Free Will which, in the nursery, had never given me cause for thought, now seemed to be thwarted at every turn by Predestination in the shape of schoolmasters, school conventions and public opinion. I discovered, however, that physical strength and superiority in games were the most reliable assets of Free Will. Although I had not yet mastered the technique of bluff, so important in our dealings with our fellow human beings, I had already managed to acquire a certain skill in hypocrisy I was beginning to learn how to adapt the expression of such opinions as I held to their suitability.
I overheard one of the neighbours say that Mrs. Harvey was very ”fin de siecle.” What this exactly implied I never quite understood, but I know that she was interested in all that was going on in the world of art and literature at the time. She had known Walter Pater, Whistler, Wilde and Swinburne. But of this, of course, I knew nothing in those days, such names having never been mentioned in the family circle. My mother’s culture stopped with Tennyson.
Life in the ’nineties, in a distant provincial neighbourhood such as ours, had seemed to me up till then a little devoid of charm. It was a tawdry, unprepossessing period. In the country life of the ’eighties there had been at least a certain solid grandeur; this had now given place to gimcrack. The Zeitgeist was represented by the bicycle. The costume of the period (the leg-of-mutton sleeves, the straw hats, the blouses, the masculine collars and ties worn by the women), which when reproduced on the stage nowadays raises a sympathetic smile, seemed to me at the time to be of an unmitigated plainness. Interior decoration was equally depressing. Whatever the aesthetic cult may have produced in the way of beauty elsewhere in the neighbourhood there was nothing but a welter of cane and bamboo furniture, draped easels, standard lamps with flounces, mirrors with roses and chrysanthemums painted on them, Moorish fretwork, Indian embroidery, pampas grass and palms; an effort, no doubt to escape from the cumbrous smugness of the Mid-Victorian style, but which could hardly be described as successful from an artistic point of view.
I find it difficult to speak of Mrs. Harvey, at this distance of time, without falling into exaggeration. The impression she made on my youthful mind is too highly coloured and gilded with the sentimental memory of the past. Her personality, when she first arrived like a meteor in our midst, seemed to me so radiant, her conversation so brilliant, that it was as though she were a being outside the ordinary range of daily life, the materialisation of some personage of fiction. I had heard it said that she was like a character from one of George Meredith’s novels, and for days I struggled with Diana of the Crossways. But I came to the conclusion that the somewhat recondite epigrams of the heroine were not a patch on those of Mrs. Harvey.