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I.K. Pored Bequest (e ploa) 11-16-39
THE BIOGRAPHICAL EDITION
A CHILD'S GARDEN OF VERSES
URING all the early part of her married life, Margaret Stevenson was more
or less an invalid, with persistent and alarming symptoms of consumption; her only child, Robert Louis, inherited from her a predisposition to affections of the lungs. He was unfortunate, besides, in having to endure in infancy the climate of Edinburgh, which with its cold mists and penetrating east winds was far from a desirable home for a delicate child. Unable, through her own ill-health, to take proper charge of her little son, his mother was forced to give him over almost entirely into the hands of hired nurses. The reign of the first nurse was very short, she being accidentally discovered in a public house much the worse for drink, while her tender charge, done up in a parcel, lay tucked out of sight on a shelf behind the bar. The second nurse proved no better; but the third, Alison Cunningham, familiarly called Cummy, proved an esti
Copyright, 1905, by Charles Scribner's Sons
mable woman, who soon won the confidence of the family.
Cummy's piety was her strongest recommendation, but her convictions and consequent teachings, believing as she did in a literal hell along with the other tenets of her church, were rather strong meat for the mental digestion of an imaginative, nervous child. My husband has told me of the terrors of the night, when he dared not go to sleep lest he should wake amid the flames of eternal torment, and how he would be taken from his bed in the morning unrefreshed, feverish, and ill, but rejoicing that he had gained at least a respite from what he believed to be his just doom; Cummy, kindly soul, never dreaming of the dire effect of her religious training. The nursery, in the custom of the time, was kept almost hermetically closed, so that not a breath of air could penetrate from the outside; if little Smoutie, as he was called, waked from his dreams with cries of fright, the watchful Cummy was ready to make him a fresh drink of coffee, which she considered a particularly soothing. beverage. According to her lights she was faithful and conscientious, and the child regarded her with the deepest affection.
The terrifying aspects of religion were generally confined to the night hours. In the daytime Cummy, with her contagious gayety and unceasing inventions for the amusement of her nursling, made the time fly on wings. Her imagination was almost as vivid as the child's, and her tact in his management was unfailing. She had a great feeling for poetry and the music of words, and can still tell a story with much dramatic effect. When the sick child turned from his food and would not eat, Cummy could usually persuade him to another effort by saying, “It is made from the finest of the wheat." The biblical words shew bread might also be used when everything else failed, but I fancy Cummy was chary of quoting from the sacred book unless the occasion were very serious indeed.
Had my husband's infancy been passed in the fresh air and sunshine of a milder climate, his whole life might have been different. His choice of the profession of literature was an acknowledgment that his health would not admit of his becoming what he wished to be most, - a soldier. To be sure, the child often visited Colinton Manse, where the grandchildren of Dr. Balfour were more than welcome. To question the healthfulness of Colinton would be like a heresy in the family, but it lies on low, damp ground, and in any other part of the world would suggest malaria. No doubt, too, the minister's little grandson would be carefully dressed to befit his position, and not allowed the freedom that would have been so wholesome for him.
Judged by the standards of to-day, the methods of the medical profession were inconceivably harsh and ignorant, and it seems a miracle that my husband should have survived their treatment and grown to manhood. When the little Louis was stricken with gastric fever he was dosed with powerful drugs; no one thought of looking into the sanitary condition of the premises, which were afterwards found to have been for years in a most dangerous state. And when the child, weakened by an attack of pneumonia, took cold after cold, antimonial wine was administered continuously for a period extending into months;
enough,” said Dr. George Balfour, "to ruin his constitution for life." No wonder that after a little time at play he became so feverishly excited that his toys must be removed and his playmates
My husband drew upon his memory for “ The Sick Child ” who lay awake hoping for the dawn, and listening for the sound of the morning carts that proved the weary night was almost over.
Indeed, every poem in The Child's Garden was a bit out of his own childhood. He had little understanding of children in general; I remember his watching with puzzled amazement the games of a little brother and sister who were visiting us at Bournemouth. Their poverty of resource, and the spiritless way they went about their sport, were most distressing to him. When he found that they were not exceptional, but represented a pretty fair average, he exclaimed: “I see the approaching decline of England! There is something radically wrong in a generation that does not know how to play.” I imagine, however, that it requires something almost like genius to play as he played, and that it was hardly fair to judge our little guests from the plane of his own childhood.
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