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The Sun in the Morning
My Early Years in India and England
By M. M. Kaye
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1990 M.M. Kaye
All rights reserved.
'O, call back yesterday, bid time return'
Shakespeare, Richard II
A nightjar called harshly from somewhere in the fields beyond the ugly brick-and-stucco house that Mother had rented for our school holidays; and hearing it she paused by an open window to look out into the lilac-coloured twilight of an English summer evening, and said in the abstracted voice of one who is speaking a thought aloud: 'I remember standing in the dusk by a window at Fairlawn, holding Bill in my arms and listening to the nightjars crying in the valley below ...'
The house that she had gone back to in memory lies on the other side of the world among the foothills of the Himalayas; a few miles beyond Simla (which in the days of the Raj was the summer capital of the Government of India) on a steep hillside below the road that leads to Kulu and Tibet — the same road that Kipling's fictional Sir Puran Dass, 'Prime Minister of no small State', took when he put on the orange-coloured robes of a bairagi and went into the mountains in search of peace and enlightenment. I do not know whom the house belonged to then; though my memory is that he was an Indian. But whoever he was, he must have been a close friend of my parents, because I remember spending many weekends there when I was a child. And if my brother Bill, who is older than I am, was still an infant-in-arms, Mother must have been speaking of something that happened well before I was born and when she herself was not yet twenty-one. Yet inexplicably, that memory had stayed clear-cut in her mind for all those years.
Everyone must possess a store of similar trivial incidents in their minds: unimportant moments that for no particular reason seem to be charged with a special significance. But though the memory of that long-ago Indian twilight is not mine but my mother's, it has become mine; because I never hear a nightjar cry without seeing clearly, in my mind's eye, the girl who will be my mother standing by an open window with her first-born in her arms, looking down at the dusk gathering in a Himalayan valley and listening to the voices of the nightjars crying and calling among the shadows below. It is one of many reasons that make me believe that genes are not the only things that our forebears hand down to us —
The manner in which our parents and grandparents thought and behaved, as well as much of what they told us about themselves, must surely exert a sufficiently strong influence on us to make it seem as though we share some of their more vivid memories and have actually witnessed sights and events that happened well before we were born. I never saw anyone ride a 'penny-farthing' bicycle. But Mother did, and from hearing her describe it to me when I was small, I feel that I have seen it too. Just as I have seen Queen Victoria — a little, dumpy, frumpy old woman in black — riding in an open landau through cheering, adoring crowds to St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London to give thanks for sixty glorious years on the throne; because my father stood and cheered among the crowd on Constitution Hill on the day that she celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, and he described it to me graphically many years later.
A part of me, too, has stood beside my mother's father, Thomas Bryson, known to his children and many grandchildren as 'the Grand-Dadski' ('the Dadski' for short), on a bridge in Edinburgh far back in the nineteenth century when, as a young and up-and-coming architect, he was astounded to hear God telling him that he must become a missionary and go out to preach the Gospel to the heathen.
The Dadski is the only person I ever met who literally received the Word and His orders; he told me about it when I was around twelve years old and I demanded to know if God had spoken to him out loud and in English (or rather Scottish, since the Dadski himself was a dyed-in-the-wool Scot). If so, why hadn't the passers-by heard it too? The Voice, explained the Dadski, was inside his head; and painfully clear. Painfully, because he had no desire at all to be a missionary or preach the Gospel to anyone; he was doing fine in his chosen career as an architect. He therefore ignored the Voice and went home. The Voice, however, refused to be silent and continued to issue orders until finally the badgered young man took the problem to the experts and consulted the minister of his local kirk (he was Church of Scotland).
The minister was of the opinion that the Voice, if genuine, was not to be disobeyed; but that it might be advisable for the young architect to take a dose of Gregory's Powder and a course of iron tonic, followed by a short holiday involving plenty of fresh air and exercise. If, after that, the Voice still persisted in issuing instructions, then there was plainly nothing for it but to obey, and he suggested a visit to one or other of the many missionary societies.
To cut a long story short, the Dadski eventually presented himself at the headquarters of the London Missionary Society and offered his services. He seems to have had no preference as to which lot of 'heathens' he would prefer to try his hand at converting, and the Society apparently ran a careless finger down the list of countries in need of Enlightenment, found most of them fairly well provided with Spreaders-of-the-Word, and decided that there was a vacancy in China. Whereupon the Dadski bought several Chinese-English dictionaries and booked a passage on the sailing-ship, 'Silver Eagle', bound for Shanghai; a voyage that took just under five months, which in those days was well under par for the course: particularly when one takes into account that they rounded the Cape of Good Hope, battled through storms in which a number of sails were shredded by gale-force winds, and for ninety consecutive days did not catch so much as a glimpse of land. However, after all that they reached their destination in safety towards the end of January 1867.
Posted to Wuchang as its first resident missionary and only 'foreign devil', the Dadski wore Chinese dress and learned to speak the local dialect with such fluency that he was soon preaching on street corners and in markets and fields. I don't know how many converts he made there, but it was not until some considerable time later, when he was transferred up north to the raw new Treaty Port of Tientsin, that it became abundantly clear that God had known exactly what He was about when He told my grandfather to become a missionary. Tientsin was not in any particular need of another saver of souls, but it did need, urgently, a competent architect. The Dadski rolled up his sleeves and dealt with that problem: on the lay front as well as the secular. The old church that he built in the Mission Compound on the Taku Road vanished long ago, giving place to a wing of the MacKenzie Memorial Hospital. But the Tientsin Anglo-Chinese College and various other public buildings, which may or may not have survived into the 1980s, were still standing when he died in 1936 aged ninety-three. And I suspect that the Union Church, which eventually contained a charming chapel dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Thomas Bryson and his wife Mary Isabella, is by now plastered with Communist posters and slogans and calls itself a 'Hall of Youth and Culture' or something of the sort.
The Rev. Thomas married my grandmother in 1875 during his first home leave from China. I never saw her, but if the daguerreotypes taken of her at the time of her marriage are anything to go by, she was a very pretty creature indeed. Moreover, like Jo March in Little Women, she cherished dreams of becoming a writer. Like Jo, she wrote a story under a pen-name — in her case 'Isa Carr' in place of Isabella Carruthers — and her story was accepted for publication by one of the few women's weekly magazines of her day. When it appeared as a serial, Isabella, again like Jo, read it aloud to her family without disclosing that she was the author until she had finished reading them the final instalment. Triumph! Apparently they had all enjoyed it immensely. Though it is hard to know why, as I have to admit that it bored me rigid when in the 1920s I read, in a cherished bound volume, the relevant chapters removed from that forgotten mid-Victorian magazine. Its meek, virtuous and much persecuted heroine (Jane Eyre's 'Helen' diluted with pints of buttermilk) was so determinedly long-suffering that one felt she deserved everything she got.
As 'Isa Carr' my grandmother also wrote poetry; equally dire and only comparable to the poetical effusions of dear Wally Hamilton, a real-life character out of one of my historical novels, The Far Pavilions. But after her marriage to my grandfather, Isabella took to writing books for the China Inland Mission under her own name: beautifully bound volumes profusely illustrated with steel engravings, of which only one, Child Life in Chinese Homes, is worth reading. The rest are almost impossible to plough through because their themes are overloaded with pious and sugary Victorian platitudes. She was undoubtedly a good and truly Christian woman who was dearly loved by her husband and her eight children (nine, if one counts 'Little Lily, born at Wuchang on the Yang-tse-Kiang, died at Chepoo on the Yellow Sea', to whose memory her mother dedicated that book about Chinese children). I would like to have met her, but I never did. She died in 1913 in North China; the land in which she spent the greater part of her life and where most of her children were born and one was buried.
Two of those children, my mother — who was christened Margaret Sarah but never called anything but 'Daisy' — and her twin brother Kenneth, were born on 26 August 1886, in the Mission House in Tientsin that had been built by their father the Dadski. Isabella's eight surviving children, Tom, Alec, Arnold, Alice, the twins Daisy and Ken, Dorothy and finally Lillian, were eventually taken back to England and to school by their mother, who brought her Chinese house-servant, Jen-Nan, with her and installed the family in a large rented house in Blackheath — in those days a green and rural spot on the outskirts of London where the London Missionary Society had a school for the children of missionaries; this was later attended by the young Eric Liddell, the 'Flying Scotsman' of Olympic fame, whose story was told in an award-winning film called Chariots of Fire.
Jen-Nan, who like Voltaire's Habakkuk appears to have been capable de tout, ran the house with the utmost efficiency, acting as cook and general factotum and, despite the fact that his English was limited to a few words of 'Pidgin', sallying out to do the household shopping pigtailed and wearing his customary grey or blue Chinese dress complete with black silk slippers and black skull-cap with a button on top; invariably accompanied by an interested crowd of local citizens which included almost every child in Blackheath, enthralled by their first sight of a slant-eyed, yellow-skinned son of the Celestial Kingdom. Mother says he thoroughly enjoyed the sensation he created among the 'Outer Barbarians'.
Jen-Nan went back to China with Isabella when she returned there to rejoin her husband, leaving her children with a distant kinswoman who lived in Bedford and was known as 'Aunt Lizzie': a childless little woman with a face like a frog's and a heart of gold and marshmallow, who was dearly loved by three generations: Isabella and her children and her children's children — for we in our turn would often spend the school holidays with Aunt Lizzie when our parents had to return to the East without us.
My mother and her brothers and sisters went to school first in Blackheath and then in Bedford, and when Isabella returned again (this time without Jen-Nan) they went back to Blackheath, where Mother acquired her first beau; a dashing young man called Owen Kentish. Apparently Alice, the eldest of the four Bryson sisters, had a tendre for the handsome Owen and was sadly cast down at overhearing him confide to a friend that 'the one I'd like to marry is Daisy — if she wasn't still much too young'! A remark which, repeated to her by some little pitcher with long ears, did wonders for Mother's morale, however much it may have lowered poor Alice's.
Mother is a very old lady now, and there are times when she thinks I am her sister Alice and that the two of us, wearing, I presume, high buttoned boots and frilly cotton petticoats under ankle-length summer frocks with eighteen-inch waistbands and leg-of-mutton sleeves, plus large flat hats, are walking up the steep road into Folkestone during a long-vanished seaside summer holiday to meet the Kentish boys. I am interested, and more than a little amused, to discover that she is not above twitting Alice (who has been dead for many years) on the subject of Owen's known preference for herself, and find it fascinating to discover myself cast in the role of a love-lorn seventeen-year-old back in early Edwardian England, being needled by a pretty chit of a younger sister who will grow up to be my mother.
Not long after this particular holiday Isabella, who had come home again for a furlough in England, returned once more to China taking some if not all of her children with her. Their ship put in at a great many ports during that long, exciting voyage; among them Bombay, where the family went ashore to see the sights and visit the Zoological Gardens. Almost a third of a century later — in the year, in fact, that the Second World War broke out — Mother and I spent an afternoon at the same zoo, and she paused before the entrance and looking up at the wide iron arch that spans the top of the gate proclaiming the Zoological Gardens, said thoughtfully that the last time she walked under that arch she had been fifteen years old and on her way out to China. I observed lightly that that must seem a very long time ago, and she sighed and shook her head and said, 'No; that's what is so frightening. It seems as though it was only yesterday.'
Perhaps because she had used the word 'frightening', it was then that I realized how paltry, in the face of the swift centuries, is the 'three score years and ten' that the Bible reckons as man's allotted span. For by then Mother had been a widow for several years, my brother and sister were both married and had children of their own, and our family circle had broken up. Yet that first visit to the Bombay Zoo in the dawn of the twentieth century, when she was still a schoolgirl who had not even put her hair up or met her future husband, still seemed to her as though it had happened 'only yesterday'.
I learned in that moment what all of us learn in the end: that on the inside most of us stay the same even though our outsides change so greatly, wrinkling, withering or growing stout and unwieldy; our hair turning grey and unattractive things happening to our chins. Yet within that ageing outer shell we remain very much the same as we did in our late teens and early twenties. Mother, for instance, became infuriated on being told that she could not accompany my sister Bets and myself to India when we flew there to watch part of my Far Pavilions being filmed in Jaipur. She wanted so much to come with us, and insisted that she was perfectly capable of doing so and that any number of her Indian friends would be only too delighted to see her again and put her up. Which, alas, was no longer true, since those friends are either dead or far too advanced in years to cope with a very frail old lady. Eheu fugaces indeed! But since I am writing about my parents, let us go back to the daybreak years of this century —
Victoria has died at long last and her eldest son, stout, jolly, bearded Edward VII (who once complained that he had got used to the idea of an everlasting father but considered it a bit hard to be saddled with an everlasting mother as well), has ushered in the rollicking and often scandalous Edwardian era. And young Daisy Bryson — having taken her first look at Imperial India and spent an enjoyable afternoon at the Bombay Zoo before travelling on to catch a glimpse of Colombo, Madras, Calcutta, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai — has crossed the Taku Bar and sailed up the Wang Po River, to disembark at her birthplace, the North China treaty port of Tientsin.
In that part of the world, in those days, young unmarried European women were as rare as butterflies in December. This meant that when the steamer carrying Isabella Bryson and her brood drew into the dock, every male 'foreign devil' in that thriving port who could find an excuse to do so was there to watch it berth and to take a good look at Isabella's daughters. Among that watching crowd was a young businessman, Howard Payne, who, smitten to the heart by his first sight of Alice walking down the gangway in the wake of her mother, announced loudly and firmly: 'That's the girl I'm going to marry!' And marry her he did, though in the event it was Daisy who married first, with Alice as her chief bridesmaid. Which brings me to Father — who was seldom if ever called by that name, but for some forgotten reason, long lost sight of in the mists of childhood, I used to call 'Tacklow'. So Tacklow he will remain for the rest of this book.
Excerpted from The Sun in the Morning by M. M. Kaye. Copyright © 1990 M.M. Kaye. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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