In the spring of 1919 I went down with the flu that was raging at the time. I was never robust, and was already overtired by the strain of the Orphanage life, and the germ attacked me in the most virulent form. I became so ill that I was moved down from my dreadful little attic room, and put into the big room on the first floor which was normally the babies’ dormitory. They were distributed round the other dormitories, and Matron moved into the big room with me, and nursed me day and night. I owe my life to her devoted care, for I ran an incredible temperature, and was alternately unconscious and delirious for days.
During this period I had a very strange experience. I was quite aware, though of course no one had told me, that I was very near death, and the prospect held nothing but the most joyful and eager anticipation. Of course I was well acquainted with the Pilgrim’s Progress, and the idea of death as a river to be crossed, was very familiar. One day consciousness returned to me, and opening my eyes I saw the foot of the bed standing midway across all clear and smooth running river. The bed itself looked misty, but the river was perfectly distinct. Across the river I could see an expanse of lovely smooth grass, running right down to the brink, with a fringe of trees beyond. Everything was bathed and glowing in a light of such beauty and clarity as can never be approached in this world. Presently I saw people walking on the grass, and coming down to the edge of the river and waving to me. I knew quite well who they were, though I had never known any of them in this world. One, I remember, was one of Mother’s sisters who had died many years before I was born. I was consumed by an unspeakable longing to wade the few yards across the river arid join them, but then the vision faded, as I lapsed into unconsciousness again. When next I regained consciousness I was overwhelmed with bitter disappointment to find I was still in this world, and imprisoned in my tired, weary body. Ever since then my one longing has always been to be permitted to leave this world, and enter that glorious, exquisite country of which I had had so clear a view.
The flu developed into acute pneumonia and nephritis, and it was many weeks before I was able to move. Aunt Janey kept my parents informed of everything, but neither of them came to see me. It did not strike me as strange at the time, but I know that Matron was furiously incensed at their apparent callousness. As soon as I was fit to move, she took me home and left me in Mother’s care, and I was at home for several months before I slowly crept back to health.
Once every year the orderly routine of the Orphanage was rent and shattered by an earthquake. From her aunt, Mrs. Grover, of whom I have recorded the story of her protection of the hunted stag which took sanctuary in her drawing room, Aunt Janey had inherited a large piece of ground in the village of Farnham Royal, near Slough, together with a row of very old cottages. Aunt Janey had had doors knocked through at strategic points, thus uniting the whole row into one rambling house, which she called “The Rest”. At the beginning of each summer she hired a large pantechnicon [furniture removal] van, and a lorry for oddments, and transported the entire Orphanage down to The Rest for the summer months. All the mattresses, the bedding, the children’s clothes, the cooking utensils, the dog, the cats, the poultry, the bantams, everything was swept up holus-bolus, and with the excited children perched all over the bales and bundles, off they all went.
The children adored The Rest, for one thing it made a glorious change in their restricted lives, for another the school holidays took place for four weeks while they were there, and they had a huge unkempt garden in which they were permitted to play with far less supervision than was enforced at the Orphanage. The older girls also found endless delight in a small barred window which looked direct on to the village street, and through which they carried on assiduous flirtations with the lads of the village. These assignations gained all the greater zest from the knowledge of the dire penalties which would ensue if discovered.
It was to The Rest that I came when at length I was strong enough to return to work. When Mother told me that she wished me to go back, for the one and only time in my life I broke down in tears in the presence of both my brothers. Much as I loved Aunt Janey, the prospect of returning to that dreary grind, and to work that I loathed, was more than I could bear. I begged and implored Mother not to make me go back, but I might just as well have addressed a brick wall, Mother felt that I was doing good work, and my own wishes and desires counted for no more than chaff in the wind.
Life at The Rest was, however, certainly pleasanter than at the Orphanage. The house was a perfect maze of doors and staircases. I believe there were at least six staircases, and more than sixty doors. Lighting was by means of candles and oil lamps. Small oil lamps were hung at intervals all over the winding passages and at strategic points over unexpected steps. Matron, with her usual unselfish energy, undertook the daily cleaning and filling of all these lamps, and I think I am remembering correctly when I say that she had over fifty lamps to do every day. I never did learn my way about that house, and was everlastingly losing myself. School had to start again as soon as I got back, but it was a far easier and less strenuous business than at the Orphanage.
One day Miss McGregor came looking for me with a message that Miss Phelps wanted to see me. I at once cast about wildly to try and remember some forgotten sin, but Miss McGregor just looked at me with a grave, kind expression, which sobered me immediately.
I made my way up to Aunt Janey’s room, where she was still in bed. She made me get a chair and sit down beside her, while I became more and more bewildered and vaguely apprehensive. She then told me that she had just received the news of Auntie Dick’s sudden death the previous day. I remember dropping my head in my hands and sitting perfectly still and silent for so long that Aunt Janey reached out and touched me gently to rouse me. No other death of any relation of friend, not even the deaths of my parents, has ever had such a profound effect upon me, I felt as if a part of myself had been torn away.
Aunt Janey then told me that Auntie Dick had merely felt slightly unwell for a couple of days, and had stayed in bed. No undue anxiety was felt, as she was never strong and quite frequently spent a day in bed for a rest. Uncle Wynnard had gone off as usual to the office, leaving her in the competent care of the maids. The cook, an elderly and lifelong retainer, had come up to Auntie Dick’s room for her daily orders, and Auntie Dick had just finished giving directions for dinner when she lay back quite quietly, and was gone. There had been no long illness, no distressing symptoms; she had passed out of the world with the same aloof and self-contained elegance with which she had passed through it.
I saw her in her coffin. She looked utterly lovely and quite unchanged, for the pallor of death was no different from her natural pallor in life. Her beautiful pale hair and exquisite features gave her the aspect of an angel in a Church window. The sight of death was not new to me. Mother had broken me in to it at a very early age, when she had sent me to see Dr. Bruce after his death while I was still quite a child, and in subsequent years she had sent me to see one and another of our departed friends in the village. I never liked these visits, but in later years I have been thankful for this early initiation when I have witnessed the shock and horror of my contemporaries, who had not had my uncompromising upbringing, on their first sight of death.
Uncle Wynnard sent all her lovely clothes to me. There were several trunks full, and they lasted me for years. The amazing thing
though so closely did I feel bound to her that it did not seem strange at the time - was that every single item of her wardrobe fitted me perfectly. Even her shoes and
tailor made costumes fitted me as if they had been made to measure on me. I loved her clothes, and was overjoyed to find I could wear them all,
chiefly because they were hers, but also because they were of a style and quality that had never come my way before.
Missionary Preparation Union
Soon after I went to the Orphanage, Mother had seen to it that I joined a Missionary Preparation Union. This was intended as a preliminary course of study before entering a Missionary. Training College. Everything was conducted by correspondence, a certain number of students being under the direction of a Study Leader. Books on appropriate subjects were circulated, and periodically a questionnaire was sent out on the recent subjects of study. The Leader also wrote to her students, asking various questions on details which would give her an idea of their background and capabilities. I fear I was an extremely slack and uninterested student, though I always did well in the questionnaires, due to the simple fact that I enjoyed exams for their own sake.
I never met my Study Leader, though she must have been an extremely nice and painstaking person, and genuinely interested in her students. As time went on she began to inquire as to what branch of the work I should like to undertake. Of course I replied at once that I wanted to be a doctor. Mission work, as such, had no appeal for me
whatever, it had been far too strongly thrust upon me all my life. I had not the slightest wish to be either a teacher or a nurse, and apart from the work of a doctor there seemed no other opening for me.
It was strange that my parents had never put this before me, particularly as Father had employed his own dispenser for many years.
The more I heard of it the more eager I became. This was the solution of all my years of groping and frustration. If I could not be a doctor, I could at least enter the charmed circle by this humbler door, and satisfy something of my craving for the medical world.
At first Mother was not keen, as her heart was still firmly set upon a missionary’s life for me; but my Study Leader very tactfully pointed out to her that there were occasional openings for a dispenser in the mission field, and that in any case it would be a useful training for me if later on I did decide to volunteer (or submit to coercion!) for the work.
Father was a Liveryman of the Apothecaries’ Society, and it was eventually decided that I should enter a training college and sit for their qualifying examination. Later on I got the qualification of the Pharmaceutical Society, though at that time there were far more openings for Apothecary trained dispensers in private practice than there are now.
Thus it was that in the spring of 1920 I joyously shook the dust of Victorianism off my feet, and, free at last and dizzy with the prospect of liberty, stepped out into the intoxicating world of the twenties.