John Cornelius. His Life and Adventures - Hugh Walpole - ebook

John Cornelius. His Life and Adventures ebook

Hugh Walpole

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This is a story about the life of a genius who has only dreams. But really make dreams a reality? After all, this is not a fantasy world. Walpole wrote mainly about a character whose life was never very real, and who could not find happiness, except in strange moments because of this abyss between him and the world. Walpole’s romantic flights have a realistic break to temper them.

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Contents

PART I

SEA AND LAND

FOREWORD

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

PART II

THE BRIGHT-GREEN SHOES

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

PART III

FLYING GULLS

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

PART I

SEA AND LAND

FOREWORD

It has been only after much thought and consideration that I have finally decided on the form that this book must take. John Cornelius died on December 8th, 1921. During the years since his death there has appeared an official biography; also, among others, two critical works of especial importance.

Mr. Speed’s biography contains everything about Cornelius necessary for the world to know and it is written in an admirably wise and judicious spirit.

It may be said, moreover, that the constant appreciation and attention now given to Cornelius’ work, the universal fame that some of his books, especially The Bright-Green Shoes and The Flight of the Wild Swans, have now obtained for him, make any further account at present a work of supererogation. For a considerable time I was myself of this opinion. It is true that in the later years of Cornelius’ life I was his closest and most intimate friend, but I most willingly gave Mr. Speed the use of any knowledge that I might have, many hundreds of letters from Cornelius to myself, and other documents.

The fact remains, however, that I have been driven to write this book. Stefan Zweig says, in his preface to his Life of Mary Stuart: “Mystery is a spur to creative imagination.’ And here it is my creative imagination that has been most especially at work. Creative imagination working on facts should lead to something behind the facts–that I have tried here to solve some of Cornelius’ mystery is my only justification.

This book has been written in the form of a novel. I shall be perfectly content if many of my readers consider it only as a novel. And yet I would strongly maintain that it is more than a novel based on the life of John Cornelius. Cornelius enjoyed greatly to speak of himself and his life. He was the greatest egoist I have ever known and the least exasperating. For hours one could listen to him as he described his youth, his first strange days in London, his meetings with Carstang, Charlie Christian, Anne Swinnerton and many more, his marriage, his War experiences and the rest. He would give you conversations, word by word, dramatically impersonating the actors, would describe scenes in all their natural details. Many of these I copied afterwards into my notebooks.

I may myself have been sometimes in this book unjust in my verdicts, biased in my summaries.

What I have tried to do is to re-create the scene and Cornelius in the middle of it. Many things were told me by Carstang, by Anne, by Charlie Christian. They had, each one of them, his or her separate idea and notion of Cornelius. No one of them was wholly right. I cannot hope that I have been wholly right either. But I feel, as I re-read these pages, that for myself at least Cornelius, as I knew him, is here. He would himself, I am sure, have preferred this form.

He said to me once: “I would like to write my life like a novel. They say that no novel in the first person can ever be true because no one can recall conversations as they actually occurred nor remember the physical details of past scenes. But that is not so. I can recall the white shine of the paint on the little chair in my mother’s cottage and how she would say “Ah, Lordy, Lordy, what a life it is!”... But I can’t write it. It would turn into one of my less credible fairy-stories. But you shall; one day you shall. As a novel, with the sea coming in, the lifting salt waves meeting the trickling fresh-water stream, then the hats with the roses and poppies of Lady Max–and myself, watching in the wings of the theatre, shivering with cold and fright, and Carstang with his bottle of green ink, and the friends I sat with in the château at Baupon... write it all down. Even if they never believe it, it will be true all the same.’ His memory was prodigious, but not more so than that of Malleson or Rose or Roughwood, to all of whom I have listened about their childhood. Perhaps many of us, if encouraged by an attentive audience, could describe our earlier years in the same detail.

So that I have tried to do, in the way that he would like it, even to the old-fashioned chapter-headings.

Meanwhile it is of Cornelius only that I have been thinking–Cornelius whom I loved, who so often irritated me to frenzy, who was compounded of so many opposites, who, nevertheless, was of an absolute simplicity.

The one word finally to be used about him was, I think, fidelity. He was faithful; faithful to his friends, to his work–above everything else, faithful to himself.

H. W.

CHAPTER I

AT THE AGE OF FIVE HIS ADVENTURES WERE NUMEROUS; THERE WERE THE DUCKLINGS; ALSO HIS FATHER AND MOTHER

His mother was the daughter of William Baring, proprietor of the White Horse Inn at Caerlyn Sands. Baring, from all I ever heard, must have been a grand, boasting, foolish character, famous locally and known even in distant parts of Glebeshire.

I have seen a brown faded daguerreotype of himself and his wife, she a small mean-faced woman with a tight mouth and with a locket almost as large as her face hanging on her meagre bosom. He greatly took my eye, big as an ox and dressed, for the occasion of the photograph, in awkward Sunday clothes, but his eyes were open and frank, his mouth strong and smiling. He carried in his hand one of those old top-hats with a broad and curling brim. Across his great spreading waistcoat was a vast gold watch-chain and against his trouser a fine swaggering fob.

He looked as though he could swallow his mean little wife at a mouthful, but of course it wasn’t so. She swallowed him. For a time things went well with him. He made the “White Horse’ pay and was the best wrestler and boxer in North Glebeshire; a good cricketer too, I believe. Then horses were too much for him. He went to the races at Drymouth, drank more than he should, neglected his home (I should fancy out of distaste for Mrs. Baring).

He was killed in a drunken fight in Drymouth, and his widow, with her four children, went to Polchester to live with a sister. They ran a small dressmaking business there and did fairly well with it. Of the two boys, Cornelius’ uncles, one went to sea, the other died in the South of Spain somewhere.

Daisy Baring, Cornelius’ mother, must have been a most beautiful girl. In a faded photograph of her she is standing straight up, in her ridiculous ugly clothes, her head proudly erect, looking out into the world with an eagerness that seemed to expect, even to demand, anything and everything of it. Her eyes remind me of her son’s, filled with expectation, almost merry anticipation.

She is tall and of fine carriage in this picture of her, strong-boned, firm-flanked, peasant stock, radiant with health. Soon she was stout and, later on, grossly fat. Laughing. Courageous. Hard-working. Stupid. Yes, I am sure that that was Daisy Cornelius.

As a little girl she hated Polchester where, after her father’s death, she lived with her mother, her aunt and her brothers and sister. They lived in a poky little house beside the river at the bottom of Orange Street. She told John again and again of the Cathedral bells, the mist rising from the river, the cows lowing and the sheep bleating on market-days and the fluffy pieces of cloth and calico lying about from the dressmaking.

She was always a country girl; she hated the town and her aunt; she would long passionately for her grand, broad-chested, brave, horse-riding father. She quarrelled with her aunt although she was really so good-tempered and warm-hearted, but her aunt was mean and meagre like her mother. So she went into the country to work on a farm, and there she met John’s father who was a gentleman and owned Penny Hall, an ironic name because he and his little bow-legged father hadn’t a farthing between them.

John never saw Penny Hall where his grandfather lived. When he was grown-up and went to look for it it was gone; nothing left of it, only the rooks’ nests in the trees and the smell of dog-roses and, very faintly, the echo behind echo of the sea like a woman sighing or, when the wind was right, an old man heavily snoring.

All the same, although John never saw Penny Hall, it was there as part of his life until he died. The Cornelius family had lived in it for hundreds and hundreds of years, ever since Hans Cornelius, the Dane, built it in thirteen hundred and something. He was a Danish sailor wrecked on the coast in a storm. He made money breeding horses and married a Glebeshire girl and built that little house in the middle of the thick trees with the rooks cawing and the echo of the sea that had tried to drown him coming across the road like an old man’s snore just as it did hundreds of years later.

There they stayed, the Corneliuses, and turned into gentlemen, and one was killed at Bosworth Field and another served at Court in Henry VII’s time and one went with Raleigh on the sea, and one was killed at Sedgemoor and one was a poet in Queen Anne’s days.

At last all that they were was the little bow-legged man, John’s grandfather, who was always a bit queer in the head but, all the same, never found what he wanted in life.

They sold Penny Hall and lost what they got from it through unwise speculation and a scoundrelly lawyer. John’s grandfather lost his wits altogether and went to the Asylum at Port Merlin, and John’s grandmother lived in a cottage near the Asylum so that she might be close to him. John’s father and mother also lived in Port Merlin, where John’s mother did laundry-work and John’s father painted pictures and made sea-shell boxes and toys which he sold when he was lucky enough. Daisy Cornelius’ mother, now a shrivelled bitter little piece of needle and thread, died in Polchester, which was a good thing for everybody.

Port Merlin was, in those days in the ‘eighties, a very interesting little town; everything that John had and was and afterwards did came from that place.

He talked of it so often to myself and everyone else that I can only see it with his eyes; it is of no use to say that the Port Merlin I now write of is not the Port Merlin that anyone can go to to-day in a train or motor-car. Of course it is not: John’s Port Merlin will never be seen by anyone again.

Once upon a time–a phrase that will rightly recur often in Cornelius’ story–Merlin was one of the two principal seaports of Glebeshire, Drymouth being the other one. It supplied ships and men for Elizabeth’s navy, and even in Nelson’s time ship-building still had its place there. After the Reform Bill it sank into an undisturbed domestic peace, but, throughout the nineteenth century, it kept many of its old features, the Town Hall with the clock that has the brass figures playing the drum and fife, the Theatre with the red and gold decorations and the famous paintings of Venus and Adonis, the Penitentiary outside whose grey wall the old women on sunny days would sit and sew, the Church of St. Mark and St. Luke with the Wrecked Mariners’ Pulpit, the stocks in the Market-place, and Seamen’s Row, perhaps the oldest line of tumble-down cottages in England.

Some of these things are still there, but as with Treliss and other little Glebeshire and Cornish towns modern advertisement, modern tourists, modern traffic, have covered over the old loveliness with a new bustling life and trade, whether for final loss or profit who will be able to say until the Last Trump shall sound?

But the beautiful Theatre, the mother and father of Cornelius’ art, is gone, the old houses of Seamen’s Row where Mother Propit the witch once lived and the ghost of John Curley, the Demon Sailor, haunted are replaced with red-brick villas, there is a car park where the stocks once stood, and the old women sew no longer outside the Penitentiary.

But it must have been very much as it had been for three hundred years on May 12th, 1884, the sunny morning when John Cornelius was born. Two sounds he remembers as beating concurrently and consistently on his ears from the very first–the swish and roll of the sea only a step or two away, and the wind singing through the wallpaper....

Then as now the sea dominated the town; not time nor the constant inventions of restless man can affect that. From the very beginning John was carried and settled in the sheltered corner of the sea-wall where he could be out of the way, and his twinkling, lively, humorous, expectant eyes would lookout to the Lion Rock–shaped like a lioness, her three cubs nestled at her side–where seals often were and on stormy days you could see the white tongues of the sea rise and fall through the mist and spume. In good weather he would gather into his very soul the deep purple shadows streaked with ebony, and the green glassy fields of clear water and the long line of mother-of-pearl created by the sun from the wet sand.

From the very beginning John, like every other Port Merlin child, breathed the sea, in all its moods and habits, into his very soul, and that is why so many of the stories–The Mermaid who lost her Comb, The Crab with the Broken Claw, The Big Seal and the Little Seal, The Fisherman and his Three Sons–have the very sound and smell of the sea in every line of them.

But John Cornelius, from the start, had an endless curiosity and wonder about his fellow human beings so that the town was very soon as important to him as the sea. It must have been from very very early years that his father began to take him about with him everywhere. There was but very little room for him in the small overcrowded cottage.

His mother never had any of the gifts of tidiness or natural arrangement of things, nor, I fear, had she a passion for cleanliness. The three rooms all smelt alike of steaming clothes, and always Daisy Cornelius was behindhand with her laundry and meals were not prepared, beds not made, nothing brushed or put away. Daisy Cornelius did not mind the confusion, and stout, red-faced, perspiring, would be always in a bustle, always despairing because things were not done, always amazed at the muddle of life, always cheerful except when she had drunk a drop too much and then her temper was uncertain.

It was natural enough then that John’s father should be most of his time out of doors and, as soon as he could walk, little John would be with him. Even before that, father Cornelius (who was a small man) would carry the child to some safe and warm place and then, sitting there, would paint his pictures or the lids of his shell-boxes or read aloud from Shakespeare or chat with neighbours or talk to his son about Penny Hall and the old days when he was a gentleman and went to dances in the family carriage.

John was a very ugly baby and soon grew into a yet more ugly boy. He developed almost at once that long and gawky body that would one day be well known. I have seen a cheap bad photograph of him when he was five or so, standing with his hand on a plush-covered table, a large white pillar and a storm-rolling sea in the background. He is wearing a sailor suit far too small for him so that his bony wrists project awkwardly from the sleeves, and his lanky legs with the thin ankles have little to say to the trousers that cover them. On his head is a ridiculous kind of jockey-cap, a prophecy of the curious hats that in later years so uncertainly failed to cover his head. There is here his sharp bony nose, his loose large mouth, here too his beautiful, lively eyes and the expression of sweetness and friendliness to all the world that led him into so many friendships, so many errors, so many misunderstandings.

“What a hideous, attractive child!’ you might say, looking at this photograph. “I am fortunate,’ he once said to me, “to have had so many friends in my life, being, I suppose, the ugliest man in the world.’ And then his impossibly childlike vanity would, of course, come in. “But what a charming ugliness!’

Merlin in those days was a kind of family affair, everyone knew everyone else. Snobbish it was, as all small English towns were and are and always will be. Merlin’s snobbishness was of a very special variety, for the great family of the West-Darlings still made it their headquarters. There was the Great House on the hill above the town, and Sir George West-Darling in his carriage with the two white horses, and Lady West-Darling, very like Queen Victoria both in regal dignity and homely maternal care for those whom she called her “people.’

One of John’s very first public appearances was on the occasion when he was all but run over by the West-Darling carriage. He remembers the metal of the harness flashing in the sun and one great white horse rearing. He had run out into the middle of the street to see the man strike the drum on the Town Hall clock. The hour was three, and as the bell sounded the sea rushed in from the edge of the sky, the great white legs of the horse were raised, there was a cry and a shout. He fell on his face. But he was not hurt. That surely was a miracle and showed him, even if nothing else did, that he was destined for wonderful things.

Covered in dirt he was held in his father’s arms while the pseudo-Queen Victoria leant graciously from the carriage and said that it was not the coachman’s fault, but nevertheless...

She was, I am sure, greatly surprised by the strange little boy who, face muddy and chin bleeding, looked at her full of excitement. “You’re a brave little fellow,’ she said, and gave him half a crown. Then she drove on. That was the first time that he had held any coin larger than sixpence in his hand.

He gave it at once to his father. Neither then nor ever could he hold on to money. He gave it away as soon as he got it. And his father threw it into the road. He was trembling with rage; it might be the reaction of that moment of horror, of terror when he thought his son was killed.

But he felt that he had been patronized. He saw Penny Hall, the dining-room with the dark-brown panelling, with the sound of the sea and the smell of the roses and the whirr of the haymaking machine coming in through the window on a fine summer day. I know just how he felt. “I’m as good as she is. Every bit as good.’

But Johnny didn’t care. He never gave the half-crown a thought. He was happy because he had been the centre of attraction. A small crowd had collected, morbidly hoping that there had been a bad accident, but the ugly boy stood there, his clothes and face very dirty, laughing and ready, for twopence, to recite the poem his grandmother had taught him–”Little Nell and the Caged Bird.’

However, his father hurried him away. He was taken home and washed; that evening his father talked and talked–about Penny Hall, the grand family of Cornelius, and the ancestor who had written poetry in the reign of Queen Anne....

For John, Port Merlin was, all his life, a town blazing with colour. When, as a grown man, he returned to it he must have found that it was not so, for all the houses in Glebeshire are grey.

Nevertheless he insisted. The Theatre was red and gold, there were the coloured windows in the Church, there were the booths brilliant with flowers on market-days, there was the shining metal of the clock on the Town Hall. Perhaps he was right. What we believe to be true is true if we believe it hard enough. About the Theatre especially there could not be colour enough. The playbills were bright yellow with red lettering: sometimes he would see scenery being carried in through the big side door–blue mountains, red houses, and once a Chinese temple....

In his own home there were many bright things. For the first ten years of his life he slept in the front room which served as kitchen, dining-room and laundry. The windows had flowered calico curtains, red roses and green leaves. On his little bed was a rag counterpane, fragments of every possible colour worked into a crazy quilt. The room was steamy with heat; there were pots of mignonette in the windows and the floor was gritty with the sand that people brought in on their boots and shoes from the seashore. On a little table near one window stood the toys and boxes that his father was making, and these were always brilliant in colour, toy soldiers shining with red paint, dolls with orange skirts and green jackets with silver beads. The boxes were painted crimson and very bright blue, and on to their brilliance the shells, silver and rose-pink and white like snow, were stuck with glue; you could smell the glue, the paint, the mignonette, the sea-sand, the humid damp from the drying clothes. He smelt it, he told me, all his life.

There were two yellow canary birds in a cage hanging in front of one of the windows between the calico curtains and they sang all day long. They had been given to his father once, instead of payment, for some work done. Although these pleasant friendly things were around him, nevertheless when the candle was blown out and the room was dark save for the ruby glow of the dying fire he would, night after night, lie there fighting his fears. He could hear through the thin door the murmur of the voices of his father and mother, but soon they would die away. He was terrified of the dark and with good reason, for he knew, so very much better than most, of all the strange and fearful inhabitants of the dark. The old women who sewed in the sun outside the Penitentiary, they had many tales to tell him–of the man with one eye who, on a dark night, comes up from the sea across the sand; he has teeth like a dog and sometimes he drops on all-fours and crawls; he scratches on the window-pane with his long nails. Then there is the old woman with a face as black as jet and the white cat on her shoulder. You wake up and see her sitting at the end of the bed, she rolls the whites of her eyes. Her cat stretches itself and then slowly begins to walk across the bed towards you. Also there is the very old man who eats little children. He is shrivelled like a monkey and you can hear him crunching bones with his teeth. There is the policeman, seven feet high, who carries a lantern. He snatches little boys, takes them under his arm and locks them into a prison cell, quite dark, water dripping from the walls and toads crawling across the floor.

Then there were other nightmare figures of whom Cornelius told me; these are all I remember. There were, of course, the good fairies, the kind old woman with a basket full of gold and silver, the mermaids who sang such beautiful songs, the prince who carried you for a ride on his great white charger, the dear old lady with the spinning-wheel, and many more, but these good creatures never came in the dark. Only when there was a moon did they come out and enjoy the fun.

But although he was afraid of the dark all his life long he was not a coward. He could not help his fear, but he could help surrendering to it. He would lie there, his eyes wide open, his heart hammering, and repeat to himself the prayer that his grandmother had taught him:

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

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