[from Hall Caine My Story]
ALTHOUGH so much of my childhood and boyhood was spent in the Isle of Man, my real home, the home of my parents, was in Liverpool. My father, as a younger son of a farmer who had dissipated the little he inherited, had recognised the necessity of going farther afield for a livelihood, and crossing to Liverpool while still a young man, he had estab- lished himself there in a humble way of life. If I were writing an autobiography in the accepted sense I think I should be tempted to tell some touching stories of how my father, as a friendless and penniless boy, scrambled and starved himself through the seven long years that were supposed to be necessary to teach him a trade ; and again, after he had married, and children had begun to come, starved and scrambled, or at least pinched and deprived himself, with the cheerful co-opera- tion of my mother, through the years in which I and my first brother and sister had to be sent to school. The world went well with him in later days, and his children of a younger brood knew nothing of his privations ; but it is not for me, as his eldest son, to forget the stoical unselfishness to which I owe so much.
I have spoken of the life of the Manx people in their own island as that of a close community, self-centred and conservative, and suffering in various ways from this cat-like devotion to home. But there is the gipsy in the Manx people too, and no lack of the adventurous spirit. Inheriting something from their Viking ancestors, Manxmen are good colonists, and I think there is no remote corner of the world yet visited by me where I have not found a Manxman settled. He does well nearly everywhere, and contentedly adapts himself to the country that becomes his foster-mother. But he never forgets his natural mother for all that, and whatever the greatness and grandeur of the country he lives in, he always clings to the belief that the Isle of Man is the most beautiful and desirable place in the world. It is a touching fact, and if it is a fallacy it is not the less sweet on that account. Our little island is a lovely place, and though the winds sweep over it in winter, and the sea that surrounds it is sometimes terrible, though there are greater and grander things in many countries, there are none of us to whom it is not, after all, the fairest spot the sun shines upon. But whatever it is, it is our mother, and just as blood calls to blood, though it may be over many generations, so across the countries which separate him from his home there is always a deep call to the Manxman's heart from the soil that gave him birth.
My father had the root of this in him through all the years of his exile in Liverpool ; but though he was so near to the island, he was rarely able to go back, and I find it a touching instance of the call of the blood that, not being able to go himself, he was always sending me for periods long or short ; and thus in a second generation his Manx- ness expressed itself in the end by the return of his family to his native soil.
But meanwhile it was in Liverpool for the most part that I went to school, and there, while I was still a very young boy, I started in life. I was something of an adventurous city gipsy myself when I first tramped out into the world, and my recollection is that the direction I took was due to nothing more serious than an impression that I could draw, and the sight of an advertisement asking for a pupil to an architect. The architect turned out to be a remote member of the Gladstone family, and through him I came into casual relations with the great statesman. It must have been in the year 1868 that I saw Gladstone first, for I have some recollection of running all day long, on the day of the great election, to his brother's office in Union Court, with telegrams announcing the results of the contests all over the country. I see him as he was then, sitting behind an office table, a tall man in a stiff-looking frock-coat of the fashion of an earlier day, with a pale face and side whiskers and very straight black hair, thin on the crown and brushed close across his forehead. He was my hero, my idol, my demigod in those days, but that did not prevent my blurting out the big news of great majorities before he had time to open his telegrams ; and then his pale, serious, shadowed face, almost sad, and apparently pre- occupied, would lighten to a smile that was like sunshine.
I saw Gladstone again a little later, when he was spending a few days on his property at Seaforth, which my master had been required to survey. The surveyor-in-chief had not appeared one morn- ing, and I, the smallest of boys of fifteen, acting as his deputy, was ordering about two or three big, hulking, indolent chain-men, when the statesman, now Prime Minister, and paler and graver than ever, came out of the vicarage to look on. I could see that he was more amused than I was, and then he came up to me and asked to see my maps and the figures in my survey-book ; and I remember that I gave him a large explanation of the peculiarities of his estate, with its hedges that ought to be straightened and its bye-roads that were bad. He listened quite attentively for a con- siderable time, and then, not having made any other remark, he patted me on the top of my head-it was easy to do so-and said I would do something some day.
I did not expect him to remember me, but I think he must have done so, for quite two years afterwards, without any intervening incident or other point of touch, I had a letter from the office in Union Court saying that his brother wished to make me the steward of the Gladstone estates in Lancashire. I was sorely tempted to accept the offer, for Gladstone was still my demigod, and I suppose if I had done so the whole current of my life might have been different ; but my friends ad- vised me to decline, having by this time conceived an idea that I had the makings of an architect, and that business, the inevitable adjunct of politics, would break my career.
Their expectations were, however, in no way of being fulfilled, for already books had called off the devotion that ought to have been given to the drawing-board and T-square, and I was consuming every kind of literature that came my way. The Free Library at Liverpool was my great hunting- ground in those days, and surely no young reader ever ran so wild in a wilderness of books. I read everything without guidance of any kind-poetry, history, drama, romance, metaphysics, theology- galloping through all at equal pace, a fresh book about every other day, until I had more miscel- laneous literature on the top of my head than any boy I have ever known or ever wish to know. This went on in its irregular and scarcely service- able way for several years, so that in later life I seem to have been doing little else than reading over again, I trust with a more tutored mind, a few of the books I read before I was twenty years of age.
I was writing, too (I can hardly recall a time when I did not write), with the same aimless and unguided ardour, essays, poems, plays, novels, and histories-generally histories whereof facts were not always the principal factors. There was the "scribbling itch" in all this, but I cannot remember that there was any of the publishing mania, for as soon as a thing was done it was done with, and it found its way to the bottom of a trunk. Naturally a desire to enlighten the world came in its due course ; and how I began to publish is another story.
From my earliest school-days I had had a friend, a boy of Welsh parentage, whose upbringing had been not unlike my own. He is dead now, but he lived long enough to hear that Tolstoy had spoken of one of his works as " the best example of modern English fiction," and yet his beginnings were not such as might lead any one to expect that he would become known as a writer of books. When I saw him first I can no more tell than one could say when he began to know his own twin-brother. My earliest recollections are of a stiff-set little chap, with twinkling eyes, a merry laugh, and two round cheeks like rosy apples, fond of mimicry, always in mischief, often in disgrace, frequently going through various forms of punishment, and taking his drubbings in the spirit of one who thought they were part of the humour of daily life.
This was William Tirebuck, and after he too had left school and launched himself in the school of life, going through all manner of grotesque experiences which he turned to high account in later life, we began, he and I, still in our teens, to unite our powerful interest in literature. Our activities were first directed towards the establishment of a monthly manuscript magazine, which we conducted for about two months, with the strenuous assistance of an elder and more staid- minded sister of my friend. What his own literary qualifications were at that moment I cannot now remember, except that he wrote a clear and rapid hand, and that he was always ready to put this good and gracious gift at the service of his chief contributor. My recollection is that my friend played the parts of editor, printer, publisher, and postman, while I charged myself with the duties of principal author. Of course, ours was a serious publication, and if it is anywhere still extant it may at least be of interest as the first book of two budding collaborators, who, at sixteen and seventeen respectively, undertook, each in his own way, to settle for a select circle the problems of the universe.
Then came an event of immense consequence to both of us. One of the contributors to our manuscript magazine inherited a small fortune, and, by what means I cannot say, came into control of it while he was still a boy. That was bad for the fortune, and not good for the boy, but it was decidedly stimulating to our literary ambitions. The first thing we did was to print our magazine. We only printed it once, I remember, but I think the publication must have been quite alone of its kind. It consisted chiefly, or entirely, of a very long blank-verse poem written by me, and a glowing appreciation of it, written by my friend. I believe we struck off ten thousand, but I never heard of anybody buying a copy. Nobody has ever told that he has seen that poem, and I doubt if anybody ever will.
Thus our first free plunge into literature proved to be a plunge into hot water, and when the fortunes of our boy capitalist were finally submerged, my friend put on the life-belt of sober sense for a time, and swam back to commerce, his place as junior clerk in a merchant's office, while I with less wisdom threw up my architecture at the first hint of one of the nervous attacks which even then beset me, and returned to the Isle of Man. This time I went to another uncle, in another part of the island, a schoolmaster and a man of some culture, who comforted my father and mother, after I had gone through many parental scoldings and been the cause of many parental tears, by giving it as his opinion that if the worst came to the worst I might some day be able to make a living by my pen.
No such material consideration, however, had any influence with me then, and I was fully content to teach in the schoolhouse four or five hours a day, if only during the rest of my time I could be allowed to do what I liked. What I liked just then was to write anonymous and gratuitous articles for one of the little Manx newspapers on religious and economic questions of the largest conceivable range. That was the moment when Ruskin started his "Guild of St. George," and rumours came to us of undergraduates digging the ground outside Oxford in pursuance of the principles which the Master was propounding in his Fors Clavigera. It was at this fire I lighted my torch, and for many months I went on writing denunciations of the social system and of the accepted interpretation of the Christian faith. Thus I was a Christian Socialist a good many years before the name was known, and perhaps something of a New Theologian also. That my articles affected me profoundly I was perfectly sure, that they perplexed my uncle I had some grounds to fear ; but that they made so much as a ripple on the placid surface of Manx life I had no reason to believe. No reason, at least, except one, the fact that a humorous clergy- man, who must have got a " scoot" into my anonymity, and discovered the compromising name of the boyish scribbler who was undertakiing the defence of the rights of man, preached a sermon by way of reply to my Socialism on the text, " Am I my brother's keeper ? "
Meantime my uncle died, and in some informal way I took up his place as schoolmaster, with all the extraneous duties that pertained to it, such as the making of wills for farmers round about, the drafting of agreements and leases, the writing of messages to banks protesting against crushing interest, and occasionally the inditing of love letters for young farm hands to their girls in service on farms that were far away. It was all grist that came to my mill, and it never troubled me a ha'po'th that I got "nothing out of anything," not even my schoolmastering, which was not all cakes and ale.
The schoolhouse was a quaint-looking structure, that stood alone like a lighthouse on the bleakest of the Manx headlands, Kirk Maughold Head, and the wind in winter swirled round it and lashed it as with a knout ; and once a seagull, driven helpless before the fury of a storm, came crashing through a window-pane. Sometimes we had to tie a rope from the door of the dwelling-house to the door of the school, that I might shoulder my way round by the walls without being swept off my feet, and sometimes we saw the children, who came from the farms in the valleys on either side, with laughter and shrill cries, creeping up to our aerie on hands and knees. It was a stern sort of schooling for all of us, but I think we came through it to our mutual content, though the children taught me more than I was able to teach them, and I have since put some of them into my books.
I must have been there for the better part of a year, and during that time the little schoolhouse was in its way a sort of centre of intellectual life. For the dark nights we got up penny readings and debates, and perhaps if it were quite worth while I could tell of wondrous speeches by my friend Billy Corkill and others on such perilous subjects as " Early or late marriage-which is best ? " It was not all of our Manx folk who could shine in debate, but it was astonishing how many attempted to practise it, and I recall with a pang some of the efforts of my neighbours at public speaking on delicate questions, for they were tragically out-spoken as orators.
But this, too, was all grist to my mill, being a sort of public confessional to which I had beguiled my unsuspecting countrymen, though there was a side of my own life which they could not share.
That was the side that concerned books, other books than they kept on the " lath " (the ceiling-shelf in the kitchen), the Bible and " Pilgrim's Progress," and "Clarke's Commentary," and "The Land and the Book "-books that might have shocked that Puritan sense which they did not yet know as "the Nonconformist conscience," books of poetry and even fiction or perhaps drama, whose authors (as an unforgiving Manx Methodist afterwards said of me) " made their living by telling lies."
One such book whereof rumour came to me in those days was the first of Rossetti's volumes of poems, just then published and being greatly reviewed, but I recall no more of the impression it made upon me than the effect of the tragic story of how the original manuscript had been buried with the coffin of the poet's wife and then exhumed after lying seven years in the grave. I remember that a thrill came first with that story, and then, close behind it, a certain sense of outrage, as if the grace of great renunciation had been finally thrown away.
Such was my first point of touch with a man whose friendship was in later years to play so large a part in my life ; such, too, were my scene and my interests when one day a letter came to me on my bleak headland that sent me back to Liverpool within a week. It was from my master, the architect, and it said
" Why on earth are you wasting your life over there? Come back to your proper work at once."
I had certainly run away without completing my apprenticeship, but I really believe he was one of those who cherished the delusion that I might become a great architect.