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John Masefield

My First Journey

I WAS born in the year 1800, in the town of Newnham-on-Severn, in Gloucestershire. I am sure of the year, because my father always told me that I was born at the end of the century, in the year that they began to build the great house. The house has been finished now these many years. The red-brick wall, which shuts its garden from the road (and the Severn), is all covered with valerian and creeping plants. One of my earliest memories is of the masons at work, shaping the two great bows. I remember how my nurse used to stop to watch them, at the corner of the road, on the green strip by the river-bank, where the gipsies camped on the way to Gloucester horse-fair. One of the masons was her sweetheart (Tom Farrell his name was), but he got into bad ways, I remember, and was hanged or transported, though that was years afterwards, when I had left that countryside.

My father and mother died when I was still a boy—my mother on the day of Trafalgar battle, in 1805, my father four years later. It was very sad at home after mother died; my father shut himself up in his study, never seeing anybody. When my father died, my uncle came to Newnham from his home in Devonshire; my old home was sold then, and I was taken away. I remember the day so very clearly. It was one sunny morning in early April. My uncle and I caught the coach at the top of the hill, at the door of the old inn opposite the church. The coachman had a hot drink handed up to him, and the ostlers hitched up the new team. Then the guard (he had a red coat, like a soldier) blew his horn, and the coach started off down the hill, going so very fast that I was afraid, for I had never ridden on a coach before, though I had seen them every day. The last that I saw of Newnham was the great house at the corner. It was finished by that time, of course, and as we drove past I saw the beautiful woman who lived there walking up and down the lawn with her husband, Captain Rylands, a very tall, handsome man, who used to give me apples. I was always afraid to eat the apples, because my nurse said that the Captain had killed a man. That was in the wars in Spain, fighting against the French.

I remember a great deal about my first coach-ride. We slept that night at Bristol in one of the famous coaching inns, where, as a great treat, I had bacon and eggs for supper, instead of bread-and-milk. In the morning, my uncle took me with him to the docks, where he had some business to do. That was the first time I ever really saw big ships, and that was the first time I spoke with the sailors. There was a capstan on one of the wharves, and men were at work, heaving round it, hoisting casks out of a West Indiaman. One of the men said, "Come on, young master; give us a hand on the bar here." So I put my hands on to the bar and pushed my best, walking beside him till my uncle called me away. There were many ships there at the time, all a West Indian convoy, and it was fine to see their great figure-heads, and the brass cannon at the ports, and to hear the men singing out aloft as they shifted spars and bent and unbent sails. They were all very lofty ships, built for speed; all were beautifully kept, like men-of-war, and all of them had their house-flags and red ensigns flying, so that in the sun they looked splendid. I shall never forget them.

After that, we went back to the inn, and climbed into another coach, and drove for a long, long time, often very slowly, till we reached a place near Newton Abbot, where there was a kind woman who put me to bed (I was too tired to notice more). Then, the next morning, I remember a strange man who was very cross at breakfast, so that the kind woman cried till my uncle sent me out of the room. It is funny how these things came back to me; it might have been only yesterday.

Late that afternoon we reached the south coast of Devon, so that we had the sea close beside us until the sun set. I heard the sea, as I thought, when we reached my uncle's house, at the end of the twilight; but they told me that it was a trout-stream, brawling over its boulders, and that the sea was a full mile away. My aunt helped to put me to bed, but I was too much excited to sleep well. I lay awake for a long, long time, listening to the noise of the brook, and to the wind among the trees outside, and to the cuckoo clock on the landing calling out the hours and half-hours. When I fell asleep I seemed to hear the sea and the crying out of the sailors. Voices seemed to be talking close beside me in the room; I seemed to hear all sorts of things, strange things, which afterwards really happened. There was a night-light burning on the wash-handstand. Whenever I woke up in the night the light would show me the shadow of the water jug upon the ceiling, It looked like an old, old man, with a humped back, walking the road, bowed over his cudgel.

I am not going to say very much about my life during the next few years. My aunt and uncle had no children of their own, and no great fondness for the children of others. Sometimes I was very lonely there; but after my tenth birthday I was at school most of my time, at Newton Abbot. I used to spend my Easter holidays (never more than a week) with the kind woman who put me to bed that night of my journey. My summer and winter holidays I spent with my uncle and aunt in their little house above the trout-stream.

The trout-stream rose about three miles from my uncle's house, in a boggy wood full of springs. It was a very rapid brook, nowhere more than three or four feet deep, and never more than twenty feet across, even near its mouth. Below my uncle's house it was full of little falls, with great mossy boulders which checked its flow, and pools where the bubbles spun. Further down, its course was gentler, for the last mile to the sea was a flat valley, with combes on each side covered with gorse and bramble. The sea had once come right up that valley to just below my uncle's house but that was many years before—long before anybody could remember. Just after I went to live there, one of the farmers dug a drain, or "rhine," in the valley, to clear a boggy patch. He dug up the wreck of a large fishing-boat, with her anchor and a few rusty hoops lying beside her under the ooze about a foot below the surface. She must have sailed right up from the sea hundreds of years ago, before the brook's mouth got blocked with shingle (as I suppose it was) during some summer gale when the stream was nearly dry. Often, when I was a boy, I used to imagine the ships coming up from the sea, along that valley, firing their cannon. In the winter, when the snow melted, the valley would be flooded, till it looked just like a sea, and then I would imagine sea-fights there, with pirates in red caps boarding Spanish treasure galleons.

The sea-coast is mostly very bold in that part of Devon. Even where there are no cliffs, the land rises steeply from the sea, in grassy hills, with boulders and broken rock, instead of a beach, below them. There are small sandy beaches wherever the brooks run into the sea. Everywhere else the shore is "steep-to"—so much so that in many places it is very difficult to reach the sea. I mention this because, later on, that steep coast gave me some queer adventures.