What made me very uncomfortable on these occasions was my consciousness that confinement to bed was hardly an affliction at all. It kept me from the boredom of school, in a fire-lit bedroom at home, with my pretty, smiling stepmother lavishing luxurious attendance upon me, and it gave me long, unbroken days for reading. I was awkwardly aware that I simply had not the effrontery to 'approach the Throne of Grace' with a request to know for what sin I was condemned to such a very pleasant disposition of my hours.
The current of my life ran, during my schooldays, most merrily and fully in the holidays, when I resumed my outdoor exercises with those friends in the village of whom I have spoken earlier.
I think they were more refined and better bred than any of my schoolfellows, at all events it was among these homely companions alone that I continued to form congenial and sympathetic relations. In one of these boys,--one of whom I have heard or seen nothing now for nearly a generation,--I found tastes singularly parallel to my own, and we scoured the horizon in search of books in prose and verse, but particularly in verse.
As I grew stronger in muscle, I was capable of adding considerably to my income by an exercise of my legs. I was allowed money for the railway ticket between the town where the school lay and the station nearest to my home. But, if I chose to walk six or seven miles along the coast, thus more than halving the distance by rail from school house to home, I might spend as pocket money the railway fare I thus saved. Such considerable sums I fostered in order to buy with them editions of the poets.
These were not in those days, as they are now, at the beck and call of every purse, and the attainment of each little masterpiece was a separate triumph. In particular I shall never forget the excitement of reaching at length the exorbitant price the bookseller asked for the only, although imperfect, edition of the poems of S. T. Coleridge. At last I could meet his demand, and my friend and I went down to consummate the solemn purchase.
Coming away with our treasure, we read aloud from the orange coloured volume, in turns, as we strolled along, until at last we sat down on the bulging root of an elm tree in a secluded lane.
Here we stayed, in a sort of poetical nirvana, reading, reading, forgetting the passage of time, until the hour of our neglected mid-day meal was a long while past, and we had to hurry home to bread and cheese and a scolding.
There was occasionally some trouble about my reading, but now not much nor often. I was rather adroit, and careful not to bring prominently into sight anything of a literary kind which could become a stone of stumbling. But, when I was nearly sixteen, Imade a purchase which brought me into sad trouble, and was the cause of a permanent wound to my self-respect. I had long coveted in the bookshop window a volume in which the poetical works of Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were said to be combined. This I bought at length, and I carried it with me to devour as I trod the desolate road that brought me along the edge of the cliff on Saturday afternoons. Of Ben Jonson I could make nothing, but when I turned to 'Hero and Leander', I was lifted to a heaven of passion and music. It was a marvellous revelation of romantic beauty to me, and as I paced along that lonely and exquisite highway, with its immense command of the sea, and its peeps every now and then, through slanting thickets, far down to the snow-white shingle, I lifted up my voice, singing the verses, as Istrolled along:
Buskins of shells, all silver'd, used she, And branch'd with blushing coral to the knee, Where sparrows perched, of hollow pearl and gold, Such as the world would wonder to behold,--so it went on, and I thought I had never read anything so lovely,--Amorous Leander, beautiful and young, Whose tragedy divine Musaeus sung,--it all seemed to my fancy intoxicating beyond anything I had ever even dreamed of, since I had not yet become acquainted with any of the modern romanticists.
When I reached home, tired out with enthusiasm and exercise, Imust needs, so soon as I had eaten, search out my stepmother that she might be a partner in my joys. It is remarkable to me now, and a disconcerting proof of my still almost infantile innocence, that, having induced her to settle to her knitting, I began, without hesitation, to read Marlowe's voluptuous poem aloud to that blameless Christian gentlewoman. We got on very well in the opening, but at the episode of Cupid's pining, my stepmother's needles began nervously to clash, and when we launched on the description of Leander's person, she interrupted me by saying, rather sharply, 'Give me that book, please, I should like to read the rest to myself.' I resigned the reading in amazement, and was stupefied to see her take the volume, shut it with a snap and hide it under her needlework. Nor could I extract from her another word on the subject.
The matter passed from my mind, and I was therefore extremely alarmed when, soon after my going to bed that night, my Father came into my room with a pale face and burning eyes, the prey of violent perturbation. He set down the candle and stood by the bed, and it was some time before he could resolve on a form of speech. Then he denounced me, in unmeasured terms, for bringing into the house, for possessing at all or reading, so abominable a book. He explained that my stepmother had shown it to him, and that he had looked through it, and had burned it.
The sentence in his tirade which principally affected me was this. He said, 'You will soon be leaving us, and going up to lodgings in London, and if your landlady should come into your room, and find such a book lying about, she would immediately set you down as a profligate.' I did not understand this at all, and it seems to me now that the fact that I had so very simply and childishly volunteered to read the verses to my stepmother should have proved to my Father that I connected it with no ideas of an immoral nature.