At the beginning of the war Father volunteered immediately for the Medical Service, but to his bitter disappointment was refused as being over age. He thereupon undertook locum work for younger doctors who were on active service, and was away from home for long periods over several years.
Jack, who had gone up to Cambridge at seventeen, the youngest undergraduate of his year, was now eighteen and a half, and volunteered shortly after the outbreak of war. Owing to his short sight he was drafted into the A.S.C. and ended up by getting a mention in Despatches for good work on the Salonika front.
George, just seventeen, had another year to go before joining up, and remained at school, where he seemed to learn little else than a wonderful vocabulary of Flemish oaths, from some Flemish boys who had been taken into the school as refugees. All this elegant Flemish he painstakingly taught to me during his holidays, with the result that my command of Flemish is positively hair raising.
When the Belgian refugees began to flock into England, a wide appeal was made to families to take them into their homes. Father and Mother responded to this appeal, primarily on patriotic and philanthropic grounds, but also to provide companionship for me, and an opportunity to learn conversational French. So it was that Line whirled into our quiet ménage. She was a French speaking Walloon from Brussels, of very good family, very French in appearance and manner, vivacious, excitable and high-spirited. She was in her early thirties, and had a voluble command of English, which she used with terrific speed and crazy inaccuracy. After the first excitement of arrival, she found us terribly dull, for most of the time only Mother and. I were at home, even resident maids being a thing of the past, and she found herself expected to act as governess to a lame child, whose knowledge of French was of the usual meagre schoolgirl variety. Mother and I had. by this time got back almost to our original happy terms together, though my year of misery at school had left me with mental reservations which never entirely broke down. However my object in life was achieved, I was living at home again, and the price of lameness and constant pain seemed small indeed.
Line was great fun, and brought an unceasing atmosphere of gaiety and liveliness, though her high-speed,
slapdash ways tried poor Mother sorely. She would help herself to sewing materials out of Mother’s work basket, leaving it in chaos, and Mother’s work basket was completely sacrosanct; no one was ever allowed even to open it without express permission. She would dash away with Mother’s sewing machine at reckless speed, breaking needles one after the other, and constantly getting it out of order, Mother had used the same machine needle literally for years, a new needle was a major operation, but Line broke so many that Mother’s carefully hoarded stock very soon ran out. The machine was a very old model, though in perfect order, and poor Mother had the greatest difficulty in getting a new supply.
The youngest sister, Julie, some ten or twelve years younger than Line, the baby and pet of the family, had been taken to
France with friends, and Line had entirely lost sight of her. She was nearly frantic with anxiety about her beloved Julie, and Father took
endless trouble in helping to trace her through various organizations. Eventually, after months of
correspondence, she was traced to La Rochelle, and Line was quite hysterical with delight. The next trouble was to get her to England, for Julie wrote that she was very unhappy. The people who had taken her with them, had, as soon as they were settled in France, begun to treat her as a maid of all work, and an unpaid
slave. When Father and Line suggested her coming to us, they put every possible obstacle in the way, and retaliated upon Julie till her health began to break down, When she did eventually come to us,
she was a nervous wreck, and Line fussed and bossed and clucked over her to the exclusion of everything else.
When she first arrived Julie had no English whatever. My French had improved to a certain extent with Line, but her own command of English was quite sufficient for her own requirements, and she had not the patience to do much towards cultivating my French. After Line’s departure I was obliged to speak French with Julie, and we did so to such good effect that I rapidly became completely bilingual. Mother made no attempt whatever to speak French, and communicated with Julie entirely through me. When Father was at home, he would address careful little speeches to her in laboured French with an atrocious English accent, which despite her every effort, would reduce her to choking giggles.
When George came home on his first holidays after Julie’s arrival, life was very difficult. He had got on well with Line; for one thing she had voluble English, and for another she had no shyness whatever. Talking was such a prime necessity to Line that she would have chattered to a barn door if nothing better had offered. Julie was a very different proposition. She had no English, and she was acutely shy; George had only the usual schoolboy French, and was also very shy. For some days the household squirmed with painful embarrassment. Then one day Julie and I had been washing our hair, and were sitting out on the lawn in deck chairs, with our hair hung over the back, drying it in the sun. The two gleaming cascades of chestnut red, and pale gold, caught George’s eye, and he came out and walked solemnly round us, gazing in silence. At length he plucked up his courage, and summoning all his French to his aid, gingerly picked up a lock of Julie’s hair between finger and thumb, observing carefully "Tres joli". Julie was enchanted by this elaborate compliment, the ice was completely broken, and within a very short time the three of us were chattering away in French without the slightest inhibition. George’s French never became as good as mine, simply because he was not at home as much as I was; but he and I became so accustomed to conversing in French that it was our natural tongue to each other for many years. He was by now a very much nicer person than he had been in his early youth, and though he could never resist teasing, it was now very different from the earlier bullying. He and Julie became great friends, and it was his delight to come out with some frightful Flemish swear word, learnt at school, and ask Julie the meaning of it, with every appearance of inquiring innocence. Julie’s violent blushes, and squeaks of horror, accompanied by squirrel-like chattering and scolding, were an unfailing source of joy to him. Being a French-speaking Walloon, Julie had the usual scorn of the Flemish section of the Belgian community, which she had no hesitation in imparting to us.
We three were on very friendly terms with old Bill Smith of the Pike House, and it was our joy to teach him what we called French, but which actually consisted of the substitution of somewhat similar English words for the real ones. The old man quite understood that we were pulling his leg, and thoroughly entered into the joke of being taught what he called “M’amselle’s funny talk”. We taught him that for water he must say “Oh”, for horse — “shovel” (cheval) and ‘ for kettle — “bull” (bouloir), and the old man would chuckle and shake his head over the oddities of "furriners". One day he got back at us very neatly. We had been chatting with him for a time, when he remarked at length,
“Well, I must be off and put some Oh in the bull, and make me a cup o’ tea.”
A school in Somerset
After the treatment by the bonesetter I got back almost to normal very quickly, but the prolonged lameness had left its mark in
a slight spinal curvature, and I still had to spend a good deal of time resting, and could never walk far. By now it was nearly two years since my accident, and Mother and Father felt it was high time I went to school again, as, apart from French, and my greedy and omnivorous reading, my education had been at a standstill. I have always regretted that I did not go back to my old school, for I felt then, as I do still, that as a senior, I should have been very happy and got on well. However it was otherwise ordained, and I was sent to a school in Somerset, of which I believe my parents knew nothing except that the daughter of the Bank Manager in the neighbouring little town, and a very occasional playfellow of mine, was there, and seemed happy. As she was one of the most placid and
sweet-tempered girls imaginable, she would have been happy anywhere. She left this particular school a couple of terms after I went there, to go to another school where she would get a bit of real education, which has added to my doubts as to whether my parents had any ideas on my education whatever.
I could not take much part in the dancing as my foot was still very weak, and the amateur theatricals seemed to me a sheer waste of time. The Music, however, was quite up my street, and I passed a number of grades. I certainly got on with the girls much better than I had at my first school; for one thing my clothes were more up to date thanks to the influence of Line and Julie, though they were nothing to be compared for smartness and “grown-up-ness” with those worn by the other girls of my age. There were no school uniforms other than an all white outfit ordained for Sunday wear, which could be of any cut or style. All white seems a mad idea for school girls, and certainly the outfits, specially among the younger ones, were anything but white by the end of term. The standard of looks throughout the school was really remarkable, and many of the girls were outstandingly lovely. I believe there were quite a number of titles knocking about, and all the seniors on leaving could do nothing but chatter about the prospects of being Presented at Court.
The war was going through its worst phases while I was at this school, though we never seemed to hear anything about it, and it was not for many years afterwards that I connected war time food shortages with the fact that we were always hungry. I was never by nature a hungry child, but I know that at this school I always seemed to be ravenous. Bread and treacle, no butter, was a great treat, and we delighted in a strange confection known as “honey-sugar” on our bread, which I have never met elsewhere. On one occasion another girl and I were sent to the dining room about ten minutes ahead of all the others, with instructions to help ourselves as we had to get off to music lessons. A large dish of mince was put on the table in preparation for the whole crowd. Ravenously hungry as usual, Helen and I seized upon the heaven-sent opportunity, and wolfed the lot, then fled before anyone appeared on the scene. What the rest of the school had for supper we never inquired.
I stayed five terms at this school, and as I had my eighteenth birthday shortly before the end of the Christmas term, it seemed to dawn on my parents that I was growing up rapidly and learning completely nothing. I was very young for my age, both in appearance and outlook at this time, in fact I was as much too young then as I had been too old when I went to my first school. No one had the least idea what to do with me, least of all myself. I had for some time begun to wish I could go to the University and then become a doctor, for I loved study for its own sake, and the medical profession drew me strongly. But my tentative suggestions on this score met with no encouragement at home. Mother still clung to her original plan for me to be a missionary, and I was quietly developing the passive resistance which later flared into open rebellion. Father had little use for women doctors, but I believe he would have allowed me to go in for it, except for the fact that he knew that I had not the physical stamina for the long and arduous training. Mother would have been quite pleased for me to be a nurse, partly because that had been her own profession, but chiefly with the mission field in view. But nursing never appealed to me. Dealing with objects and theories and abstract ideas has always interested me far more than the intimate dealing with people which nursing entails. The impersonal atmosphere of the laboratory has always been my spiritual home. We had come to a deadlock over my future career, so there seemed nothing for it but to send me to school again.
By this time George was in the Army. Owing to his chronic inability to pass exams he never got a Commission, as Jack did, but he saw quite a lot of active service in
France as a corporal.