The Alpine Path-4

So ran the current of my life in childhood, very quiet and simple, you perceive. Nothing at all exciting about it, nothing that savours of a "career." Some might think it dull. But life never held for me a dull moment. I had, in my vivid imagination, a passport to the geography of Fairyland. In a twinkling I could ‑ and did ‑ whisk myself into regions of wonderful adventures, unhampered by any restrictions of time or place.

Everything was invested with a kind of fairy grace and charm, emanating from my own fancy, the trees that whispered nightly around the old house where I slept, the woodsy nooks I explored, the homestead fields, each individualized by some oddity of fence or shape, the sea whose murmur was never out of my ears ‑ all were radiant with "the glory and the dream."

I had always a deep love of nature. A little fern growing in the woods, a shallow sheet of June‑bells under the firs, moonlight falling on the ivory column of a tall birch, an evening star over the old tamarack on the dyke, shadow‑waves rolling over a field of ripe wheat ‑ all gave me "thoughts that lay too deep for tears" and feelings which I had then no vocabulary to express.

It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, that, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty. Between it and me hung only a thin veil. I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond ‑ only a glimpse ‑ but those glimpses have always made life worth while.

 

 

It goes without saying that I was passionately fond of reading. We did not have a great many books in the house, but there were generally plenty of papers and a magazine or two. Grandmother took Godey's Lady's Book. I do not know if I would think much of that magazine now, but then I thought it wonderful, and its monthly advents were epochs to me. The opening pages were full of fashion plates and were a perpetual joy; I hung over them with delight, and whiled away many an hour choosing what frocks I would have if I could. Those were the days of bangs, bristles, and high‑crowned hats, all of which I considered extremely beautiful and meant to have as soon as I was old enough. Beyond the fashion pages came the literary pabulum, short stories and serials, which I devoured ravenously, crying my eyes out in delicious woe over the agonies of the heroines who were all superlatively beautiful and good. Every one in fiction was either black or white in those days. There were no grays. The villains and villainesses were all neatly labelled and you were sure of your ground. The old method had its merits. Nowadays it is quite hard to tell which is the villain and which the hero. But there was never any doubt in Godey's Lady's Book. What books we had were well and often read. I had my especial favourites. There were two red‑covered volumes of A History of the World, with crudely‑coloured pictures, which were a never‑failing delight. I fear that, as history, they were rather poor stuff, but as story books they were very interesting. They began with Adam and Eve in Eden, went through "the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome," down to Victoria's reign.

Then there was a missionary book dealing with the Pacific Islands, in which I revelled because it was full of pictures of cannibal chiefs with the most extraordinary hair arrangements. Hans Andersen's Tales were a perennial joy. I always loved fairy tales and delighted in ghost stories. Indeed, to this day I like nothing better than a well‑told ghost story, warranted to send a cold creep down your spine. But it must be a real ghost story, mark you. The spook must not turn out a delusion and a snare.

I did not have access to many novels. Those were the days when novels were frowned on as reading for children. The only novels in the house were Rob Roy, Pickwick Papers, and Bulwer Lytton's Zanoni; and I pored over them until I knew whole chapters by heart.

Fortunately poetry did not share the ban of novels. I could revel at will in Longfellow, Tennyson, Whittier, Scott, Byron, Milton, Burns. Poetry pored over in childhood becomes part of one's nature more thoroughly than that which if first read in mature years can ever do. Its music was woven into my growing soul and has echoed through it, consciously and subconsciously, ever since: "the music of the immortals, of those great, beautiful souls whose passing tread has made of earth holy ground."

But even poetry was barred on Sundays. Then our faithful standbys were Pilgrim's Progress and Talmage's Sermons. Pilgrim's Progress was read and re‑read with never‑failing delight. I am proud of this; but I am not quite so proud of the fact that I found just as much delight in reading Talmage's Sermons. That was Talmage's palmy day. All the travelling colporteurs carried his books, and a new volume of Talmage's meant then to us pretty much what a "bestseller" does now. I cannot claim that it was the religion that attracted me, though at that age I liked the Talmage brand much; it was the anecdotes and the vivid, dramatic word‑pictures. His sermons were as interesting as fiction. I am sure I couldn't read them with any patience now; but I owe Talmage a very real debt of thanks for pleasure given to a child craving the vividness of life.

My favourite Sunday book, however, was a thin little volume entitled The Memoir of Anzonetta Peters. I shall never forget that book. It belonged to a type now vanished from the earth ‑ fortunately ‑ but much in vogue at that time. It was the biography of a child who at five years became converted, grew very ill soon afterward, lived a marvellously patient and saintly life for several years, and died, after great sufferings, at the age of ten.

I must have read that book a hundred times if I did once. I don't think it had a good effect on me. For one thing it discouraged me horribly. Anzonetta was so hopelessly perfect that I felt it was no use to try to imitate her. Yet I did try. She never seemed by any chance to use the ordinary language of childhood at all. She invariably responded to any remark, if it were only "How are you to‑day, Anzonetta?" by quoting a verse of scripture or a hymn stanza. Anzonetta was a perfect hymnal. She died to a hymn, her last, faintly‑whispered utterance being

 

"Hark, they whisper, angels say,

Sister spirit, come away."

 

I dared not attempt to use verses and hymns in current conversation. I had a wholesome conviction that I should be laughed at, and moreover, I doubted being understood. But I did my best; I wrote hymn after hymn in my little diary, and patterned the style of my entries after Anzonetta's remarks. For example, I remember writing gravely "I wish I were in Heaven now, with Mother and George Whitefield and Anzonetta B. Peters."

But I didn't really wish it. I only thought I ought to. I was, in reality, very well contented with my own world, and my own little life full of cabbages and kings.

I have written at length about the incidents and environment of my childhood because they had a marked influence on the development of my literary gift. A different environment would have given it a different bias. Were it not for those Cavendish years, I do not think Anne of Green Gables would ever have been written.

When I am asked "When did you begin to write?" I say, "I wish I could remember." I cannot remember the time when I was not writing, or when I did not mean to be an author. To write has always been my central purpose around which every effort and hope and ambition of my life has grouped itself. I was an indefatigable little scribbler, and stacks of manuscripts, long ago reduced to ashes, alas, bore testimony to the same. I wrote about all the little incidents of my existence. I wrote descriptions of my favourite haunts, biographies of my many cats, histories of visits, and school affairs, and even critical reviews of the books I had read.

One wonderful day, when I was nine years old, I discovered that I could write poetry. I had been reading Thomson's Seasons, of which a little black, curly‑covered atrociously printed copy had fallen into my hands. So I composed a "poem" called "Autumn" in blank verse in imitation thereof. I wrote it, I remember, on the back of one of the long red "letter bills" then used in the postal service. It was seldom easy for me to get all the paper I wanted, and those blessed old letter bills were positive boons. Grandfather kept the post office, and three times a week a discarded "letter bill" came my grateful way. The Government was not so economical then as now, at least in the matter of letter bills; they were then half a yard long.

As for "Autumn," I remember only the opening lines:

 

"Now autumn comes, laden with peach and pear;

The sportsman's horn is heard throughout the land,

And the poor partridge, fluttering, falls dead."

 

True, peaches and pears were not abundant in Prince Edward Island at any season, and I am sure nobody ever heard a "sportsman's horn" in that Province, though there really was some partridge shooting. But in those glorious days my imagination refused to be hampered by facts. Thomson had sportsman's horns and so forth; therefore I must have them too.

Father came to see me the very day I wrote it, and I proudly read it to him. He remarked unenthusiastically that "it didn't sound much like poetry." This squelched me for a time; but if the love of writing is bred in your bones, you will be practically non‑squelchable. Once I had found out that I could write poetry I overflowed into verse over everything. I wrote in rhyme after that, though, having concluded that it was because "Autumn" did not rhyme that Father thought it wasn't poetry. I wrote yards of verses about flowers and months and trees and stars and sunsets. and I addressed "Lives" to my friends.

A school chum of mine, Alma MÑ, had also a knack of writing rhyme. She and I had a habit, no doubt, a reprehensible one, of getting out together on the old side bench at school, and writing "po'try" on our slates, when the master fondly supposed we were sharpening our intellects on fractions.

We began by first writing acrostics on our names; then we wrote poems addressed to each other in which we praised each other fulsomely; finally, one day, we agreed to write up in stirring rhyme all our teachers, including the master himself. We filled our slates; two verses were devoted to each teacher, and the two concerning the reigning pedagogue were very sarcastic effusions dealing with some of his flirtations with the Cavendish belles. Alma and I were gleefully comparing our productions when the master himself, who had been standing before us but with his back toward us, hearing a class, suddenly wheeled about and took my slate out of my paralyzed hand. Horrors! I stood up, firmly believing that the end of all things was at hand. Why he did not read it I do not know, it may be he had a dim suspicion what it was and wanted to save his dignity. Whatever his reason, he handed the slate back to me in silence, and I sat down with a gasp, sweeping off the accusing words as I did so lest he might change his mind. Alma and I were so badly scared that we gave up at once and forever the stolen delight of writing poetry in company on the side bench!

 

 

I remember ‑ who could ever forget it? ‑ the first commendation my writing received. I was about twelve and I had a stack of poems written out and hidden jealously from all eyes, for I was very sensitive in regard to my scribblings and could not bear the thought of having them seen and laughed at. Nevertheless, I wanted to know what others would think of them, not from vanity, but from a strong desire to find out if an impartial judge would see any merit in them. So I employed a little ruse to find out. It all seems very funny to me now, and a little pitiful; but then it seemed to me that I was at the bar of judgment for all time. It would be too much to say that, had the verdict been unfavourable, I would have forever surrendered my dreams, but they would certainly have been frosted for a time.

A lady was visiting us who was something of a singer. One evening I timidly asked her if she had ever heard a song called "Evening Dreams."

She certainly had not, for the said "Evening Dreams" was a poem of my own composition, which I then considered my masterpiece. It is not now extant, and I can remember the first two verses only. I suppose that they were indelibly impressed on my memory by the fact that the visitor asked me if I knew any of the words of the "song." Whereupon I, in a trembling voice, recited the two opening verses:

 

"When the evening sun is setting

Quietly in the west,

In a halo of rainbow glory,

I sit me down to rest.

 

I forget the present and future,

I live over the past once more,

As I see before me crowding

The beautiful days of yore."

 

Strikingly original! Also, a child of twelve would have a long "past" to live over!

I finished up with a positive gasp, but the visitor was busy with her fancy work, and did not notice my pallor and general shakiness. For I was pale, it was a moment of awful import to me. She placidly said that she had never heard the song, but "the words were very pretty."

The fact that she was sincere must certainly detract from her reputation for literary discrimination. But to me it was the sweetest morsel of commendation that had ever fallen to my lot, or that ever has fallen since, for that matter. Nothing has ever surpassed that delicious moment. I ran out of the house ‑ it wasn't big enough to contain my joy, I must have all outdoors for that ‑ and danced down the lane under the birches in a frenzy of delight, hugging to my heart the remembrance of those words.

 

 

Perhaps it was this that encouraged me sometime during the following winter to write out my "Evening Dreams" very painstakingly ‑ on both sides of the paper, alas! ‑ and to send them to the editor of The Household, an American magazine we took. The idea of being paid for them never entered my head. Indeed, I am not at all sure that I knew at that time that people were ever paid for writing. At least, my early dreams of literary fame were untainted by any mercenary speculations.

Alack! the editor of The Household was less complimentary than our visitor. He sent the verses back, although I had not "enclosed a stamp" for the purpose, being in blissful ignorance of any such requirement.

My aspirations were nipped in the bud for a time. It was a year before I recovered from the blow. Then I essayed a more modest flight. I copied out my "Evening Dreams" again and sent them to the Charlottetown Examiner. I felt quite sure it would print them, for it often printed verses which I thought, and, for that matter, still think, were no better than mine.

For a week I dreamed delicious dreams of seeing my verses in the Poet's Corner, with my name appended thereto. When the Examiner came, I opened it with tremulous eagerness. There was not a sign of an evening dream about it!

I drained the cup of failure to the very dregs. It seems very amusing to me now, but it was horribly real and tragic to me then. I was crushed in the very dust of humiliation and I had no hope of rising again. I burned my "Evening Dreams," and, although I continued to write because I couldn't help it, I sent no more poems to the editors.

 

 

Poems, however, were not all I wrote. Very soon after I began to write verses I also began to write stories. The "Story Club" in Anne of Green Gables was suggested by a little incident of schooldays when Janie SÑ, Amanda MÑ and I all wrote a story with the same plot. I remember only that it was a very tragic plot, and the heroines were all drowned while bathing on Cavendish sandshore! Oh, it was very sad! It was the first, and probably the last, time that Janie and Amanda attempted fiction, but I had already quite a library of stories in which almost everyone died. A certain lugubrious yarn, "My Graves," was my masterpiece. It was a long tale of the peregrinations of a Methodist minister's wife, who buried a child in every circuit to which she went. The oldest was buried in Newfoundland, the last in Vancouver, and all Canada between was dotted with those graves. I wrote the story in the first person, described the children, pictured out their death beds, and detailed their tombstones and epitaphs.

Then there was "This History of Flossy Brighteyes," the biography of a doll. I couldn't kill a doll, but I dragged her through every other tribulation. However, I allowed her to have a happy old age with a good little girl who loved her for the dangers she had passed and overlooked her consequent lack of beauty.

Nowadays, my reviewers say that my forte is humour. Well, there was not much humour in those early tales, at least, it was not intended there should be. Perhaps I worked all the tragedy out of my system in them, and left an unimpeded current of humour. I think it was my love of the dramatic that urged me to so much infanticide. In real life I couldn't have hurt a fly, and the thought that superfluous kittens had to be drowned was torture to me. But in my stories battle, murder and sudden death were the order of the day.

 


                                       

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