Letters to his future wife - Lili
d'Abbadie - during their engagement.
He was living and working in Hong Kong and she was still living with her family in Tonkin,near Haiphong (VietNam).
1 Feb 1888
My going to school was not very dreadful after all. I was too young for a boys school so I was sent to Miss Forster's where little boys were taken as day scholars and girls as boarders.
My only recollection of that school was being tied to a chair, my legs to the legs of the chair and my hands to the back, and I remember feeling very unhappy and foolish as all the school made fun of my uncomfortable position. I don't know what my crime was but I do know that I was sent to a boys' school and that that change was my first trouble in life.
I have never been so miserable since as I was as a new boy among those twenty nine boarders and about twenty day scholars. I was nine years old, or nearly so, and the youngest in the school.
My first experience was being beaten by the eldest boya fellow with a moustache and whiskers because I used his soap. He used to take a special delight in tormenting the little boys. He used to set me on the floor in front of him with my head between his knees and box my ears, first one side and then the other, till I did not know what was going on around me.
When I was liberated I would fling a slate at him and run but I was paid out at the first opportunity till one day I managed to turn my head in his grip and bit his leg and so hard that he did not like to run the risk of a second bite and never beat me again and I said chick-a-ra-boo-chick-chick-chick-chick to him whenever I saw him with impunity.
Where and how this remarkable phrase originated I do not know but it used to have an electric effect on Matheson and a most disagreeable reaction on the unfortunate child who was caught in the act of using it.
There was another big boy about six feet high, also bearded, who would deal us a swinging box in the ear at the sound of some queer word uttered in connection with his name, but he was too lazy to run after us and was fairly good natured and altho we thought him a little mad we, after a fashion, liked him. He certainly never began tormenting us.
[Continues in another letter]
Where did I drop the narrative of my youth? I was about nine years old and the youngest and smallest boy in the school so I was beaten by everyone who liked to beat.
My most pitiless persecutor was a boy named "West" who was a little my senior and of course a relatively highly experienced hand in school life. I knew nothing of fighting and this ignorance suited him admirably and he daily mercilessly drubbed me.
My bed was a miserable thing compared to the house one and the long dormitory very cold and wretched after my cozy bed room. Then the boys stole my bedclothes and boots and everybody cuffed me when I came in search of them. This state of things did not last long however. I was transferred to another dormitory where five boys slept and "West" was my bedfellow.
For a night or two I slept under such bedclothes as West chose to spare me and that was very cold work so I began to fight and was beaten and had to go without clothes altogether and I went on fighting and the battles were drawn and we shared the clothes and I still fought and won and took all the clothes myself and West cried and begged and I relented and shared with him.
Then he wanted more than his share and we fought again and adjusted claims and still we continued to fight sitting up in bed in the dark, sound sleep following. Then we also fought in the daytime but, at last, West had to give it up altogether as I beat him badly in every combat till I got "whooping cough".
The exertion and excitement brought on a paroxysm of coughing and while I was choking and convulsed, he pounded me with his fists. When I got well I wiped out all old scores and thrashed him till I was tired and at every provocation.
Long before this time I got no gratuitous beatings from the big boys because I could hold my own well against any boy about my own size and could make myself very offensively unpleasant to the boys I could not fight so, except such punishments as I might get from them for some school crimes, I was left to get hard knocks from the boys I fought with and as I grew older my circle of foes grew smaller and smaller and my thrashings from Mr. Evans were more numerous and severe, and the tutors too, and while he laid on the cane soundly I knew it was merited, as I had surely been up to some tricks, so I took it all unflinchingly and laughed at him as soon as his back was turned.
I used to jeer and taunt any boy who shrank from the blows or exhibited any signs of distress or pain and a boy that cried was beneath contempt. Mr. Evans was a reputed Tartar and altho a little man, to me he always looked big. I see him now in my mind's eye with his flowing gown and a cane as long as a crusader's sword.
I had an enquiring mind in those days for I remember attaching myself to Mr. Evans occasionally during our school walks and rambles and getting plenty of conversational information on surrounding objects and scenes.
Mr. Evans himself had a most marked and expressive dislike for any mamby pamby boys, and boys that could not stand plenty of hard knocks and give them too, but I no doubt was considered hard and mischievous enough to pass and the old man was undoubtedly pleased at my wanting a little knowledge.
He hated any savouring of unmanliness and when a boy tried to sneak out of his legitimate punishments he used (in my immagination) to swell with righteous indignation and then the sleeves were rolled up from the capacious gown and the cane dexterously swung and well laid on.
On the Queen's Birthday Mr. Evansbeing a stout Tory and high churchman and devout admirer of Royalty-the good old man gave a picnic to all the school. Large vans were hired, sufficient to accommodate about 760 boys, and with himself and the tutors in charge we set out to "Cromwell's Castle".
This is not a "castle" at all but the remains of a square entrenchment supposed to have been made by Cromwell's men and is situated on the brow of one of the northwest limbs of the Roundaway Down or Hill.
Referring to the Gazetteer I find "Roundaway Hill" or "Roundway Down" one and a half miles north of Devizes with: "Here Waller was routed by the Royalists in 1644". The Downs are several miles in extent so the distance given obviously refers to the nearest point as the "Castle" is fully four miles distant from the outside of the town and the "Downs" is an undulating plateau covered by short turfy grass and with a few fir copses on its slopes.
From the Castle it is said to be possible, on a clear day, to see into Dorsetshire, and at all times the view is very beautiful and wide. Within the trenches and embankments the ground is beautifully level and the grass quite short and smooth and in the centre of this natural cricket ground was the annual cricket match played.
There was always an abundance of all the good things eatable that boys love and we stuffed and played all day and returned to be in time for the usual hour for retiring. The old man himself entered into all the fun and played the host right well and if he was a rigid disciplinarian in the schoolroom his kind heart was prominent enough on these occasions.
He always calls up a regret and a feeling of sorrow. He is dead. For I have often thought of returning to tell the dear old man that the kindly feelings of my youth are not dead and that I have never forgotten him.
My holidays were spent with Joseph Holloway as far as possible and cannons and boats and bows and arrows and pistols were resumed. During one of these vacations I narrowly escaped drowning. It was winter and freezing hard.
Joseph and another boy named Whittaker and myself set out to walk along the side of the canal and find good places for sliding and skating and after exploring the "ponds" (reservoirs of water between the locks) we wandered on further till we were about four miles from home.
At this part the canal was unobstructed by locks for half a mile and the ice was dangerously thin and in many places absent. At one point a small stream ran into the canal and in the part affected by its current there was no ice but it had left a large sheet of lovely ice in this shape which looked very tempting.
I wanted to go on at once but Joseph was very cautious and Whittaker was afraid. In spite of all warning, I tried it and found it firm and went further on while Joseph continued to object. I was quite sure that all was safe and jumped on it and persuaded Whittaker to venture. He did just leave the bank a few feet and I was in the centre of the canal.
Joseph continued to warn and I, wishing to give further illustration of the strength of the ice, jumped again and smashed the whole sheet. Whittaker scrambled ashore before the cracks fairly reached him and Joseph pulled him out.
The ice let me in gently and I being new to the position and immagining myself in thin mud walked out "treading water" most naturally. I was very heavily clad and had on a thick fur great coat and this buoyed me up.
The moment my feet touched the ground in reality I felt frightened but not enough to prevent my rating my two companions for laughing at me all the time instead of responding to my entreaties to be pulled out.
I had my hat and stick safe and some other thing I valued and that I don't remember and was only wet, so for the moment I did not care, but there was a strong cold wind blowing and my clothes began to freeze. The wind seemed to blow to my very bones and I was almost paralyzed with cold and in addition there was a sound beating with a heavy stick to welcome my return, four weary miles to walk and two of them up a toilsome hill.
My clothes were so stiff and hard with ice and I was so numbed by the cold that I should not have got home at all if my two chums had not literally dragged me all the way. I walked straight in and said simply "I have fallen into the canal, I am very cold" and my appearance so frightened them that I was promptly put to bed and circulation was not established by the aid of a stick but by kind treatment and I must say I felt very thankful.
Still I never quite understood why I was not beaten. I do not recollect that I even caught cold from this ducking and it certainly did not keep me off the ice altho it made me more careful.
Now, darling, I will close, and continue the account in future letters. When will next month be? When? How long it seems, how the time creeps and yet flies so fast. But silence to murmurs while I have your letters and the representation of your sweet face beside me. Patience it must be, so adieu dear sweetheart till next week.
With my love and kisses
Page last amended January 2004