Chapter II

In a Solicitor’s Office


In 1861, at the age of nineteen, Payne was permitted to settle down in a London solicitor’s office, the atmosphere of which he describes as “rather less uncongenial” than that of his previous callings. Up to this time he had written but little original verse, and “curiously enough,” to use Payne’s phrase, the effectual awakening in him of the poetical faculty was due to a man whom he valued only as a prose writer, R. W. Emerson. “In 1862,” says Payne, “when in my twentieth year I came across a tiny English edition of his first twelve Essays12 and became at once possessed by them.” He learnt them well-nigh by heart, and carried them about amulet fashion; and in after years he used to insist that nothing of Emerson’s beyond these twelve essays would live. Keats and Shelley, both of whom he loved, had at that time little influence over him; Spenser he worshipped, and he drank deep of Landor13 and Wordsworth. Of contemporaries he was familiar only with Browning14 as represented by Men and Women, Paracelsus, Christmas Eve, Easter Day and the Plays. Late in life he said to me, “Browning was the delight of my boyhood, and I still treasure and love the two little volumes of the original edition (1855) of Men and Women,15 which, to my taste, contains all his worthiness.”

By this time the elder Payne had returned from Bristol to London, his new home being Ardwick House, Boundary Road, St. John’s Wood. John resided at 37 Upper Marylebone Street, where he shared rooms with Mr. (afterwards Dr.) E. J. Nix, who was locum tenens to Dr. Brown, a West End practitioner. Mr. Nix was all brightness and hope, but of imagination he possessed not one atom. In Payne an uncontrollable imagination and a fondness for fun not infrequently went hand in hand with gloom and foreboding. Had the two young men been French, we could have said, and meant it literally, “Optimism and Pessimism have kissed each other.” The room occupied by the young men was provided with green Venetian blinds. On the opposite side of the road was a butcher’s shop, and the two friends as they worked could hear the butcher pacing up and down in front of his shop, and crying “Buy! Buy! Buy!” The pleasant thought then occurred to them to purchase tin pea-shooters, and they often amused themselves by firing parched peas at the passers-by on the opposite side of the road. The people who were struck, imagining that it was the butcher, assailed him with loud and angry speech while the young men behind the blinds watched the proceedings with roars of laughter.

We said that Payne was imaginative. Some would call him superstitious.16 He believed in table turning and declared (whether in fun or earnest) that he once saw a table dance downstairs.

He was very shortsighted, and as the result of this defect many amusing incidents occurred. Once when he and Mr. Nix were at tea with Mrs. Brown, he set the silver teapot on the footman, but too near the fire, with the result that the solder between the spout and the pot became melted. To his dismay when he picked up the teapot there was no spout. “Oh, lor! Nix,” he said, “where’s the spout!” Nix, after looking into the pot and finding it almost empty said, “Oh, lor! Payne, where’s the tea!” Payne’s love for chemical experiments, fruit of his experiences at Bristol, was also attended with inconveniences. He often burnt himself, his friends, and the furniture, and once he set the house on fire. Altogether he was a most entertaining person to live with.

While at 37 Upper Marylebone Street Payne renewed his acquaintance with his old schoolfellow and friend, Charles Leigh Lewes. The young men on comparing notes discovered that each was a music enthusiast. Payne, indeed, had inherited from his mother the gift of playing by sight, and the friends had other tastes in common. As a guest at the Priory, North Row, St. John’s Wood, Payne was often in the company of George Henry Lewes and George Eliot. He used to describe Lewes (called by Carlyle “Ape Lewes”) as “a pock-pitted mannikin with little greasy corkscrew curls,” and George Elliot as “the ugliest and most untidy woman he ever knew,” her stockings for one thing, to quote Mrs. Byam, “being always down at heel.”17 He once said to me, “She had a face like the bowl of a spoon,” adding that “the most attractive inmate of the house was a bull-dog, which by the side of Lewes and George Eliot appeared quite handsome.” But if Lewes was not an Apollo he possessed, in addition to intellect, both brightness and versatility. A hedonist, a sensualist, yet wherever he went he carried intellectual sunshine. His brightness and expansiveness found or made pleasure everywhere. Through Charles Leigh Lewes, Payne became acquainted with Buxton Forman, the Keats and Shelley enthusiast, and other students of musical tastes.

The elder Payne had by this time (but through what agency is not clear)18 become prosperous again, and he once more lived in good style.

John often visited the nursery where he amused the little ones​—​to say nothing of “Mrs. Broad”19 the nurse​—​by playing his violin.20 His mother would sometimes accompany him with the piano or the harp, and Annie used to sing. He was also fond of making toys, at which he was an adept, melting lead, and lighting the room with magnesian wire. The children always sat on his knee to take their medicine. From boyhood he had been a lover of cats,21 and he could never hear anything against them. The family cat, Sambo, at Ardwick House, a most ugly and disreputable black manx, fought every other cat and every dog in the neighbourhood, and used to return after a night’s devilry with torn fur and bleeding ears. John invariably took its part, and, being unable to praise its outward appearance, called it “a beautiful inside cat.”

Cats, indeed, took to him instinctively. Once when he and his sister Frances were walking together at Ilfracombe they happened to come to some steps on which a cat was seated licking its paws, and Payne stooped to stroke it. When they passed on they were followed, to their very great surprise, not only by this cat, but also by all the other cats within sight. It was the Pied Piper of Hamelin, with a difference in the animal. Payne was also very fond of young donkeys,22 admiring particularly those which he saw on the Devonshire moors, near Tavistock. He could not sufficiently praise their chinchilla-like fur and their “little innocent sweet faces,” and he said they resembled Persian kittens. But donkeys anywhere seemed to know instinctively that he was their friend, and when he came in sight they would put their muzzles over gates and fences to be stroked. Many of his poems are in praise of the cat and the donkey.

Life through he was an ardent Londoner, and he was never happier than when wandering about the old parts of the city.

It seems to have been in 1866 that the Payne family became acquainted with Miss Rose Fisher, a Devonshire young lady, daughter of Dr. Thomas Fisher, friend of Charles Dickens. Miss Fisher had been sent to a boarding-school in London and the Paynes, as friends of the family, were asked to allow her to visit them and to take her out. Payne, his mother and sisters and Miss Rose Fisher, once went to a Handel festival at the Crystal Palace, where one of the attractions was a reproduction of Shakespeare’s house. For some reason Payne was just then incensed against Shakespeare, and the demon of mischief having taken possession of him, he set himself the task of turning all the pictures in the house to the wall, and Miss Fisher wickedly got on chairs and helped him. Poor Mrs. Payne told them they ought to know better, worked herself into a fever, and implored them to desist, but in vain; and the good soul all but fainted when an official entered and, after gazing in blank amazement at the sight, endeavoured to find out who were the culprits.

Rose was so often in and out of Ardwick House that she and Annie Payne were taken for sisters, and Mrs. Payne used to speak of her as “my outside daughter.”

To Miss Fisher,23 who at the time was spending her holiday in Devonshire, Payne, on 20 December, 1866, wrote: “I wish you were coming up at Christmas. I would take you to hear midnight mass at the great Catholic cathedral in Moorfields, and we would have such fun. You have no idea what an exquisite sight the church is with its oceans of flowers and thousands of great wax candles, and then Mozart’s glorious Twelfth Mass as well. It is the most satisfactory way of spending Christmas Eve that I know of. I took Annie once, and she was specially delighted with the priests’ superb lace dresses and at being up till three o’clock in the morning. The yearly coming of Christmas always possesses me with a curiously mingled feeling of gladness and melancholy. I never had much of the social pleasures usually connected with the season, and therefore they have little or nothing to do with it in my mind. The delight I experience in it is entirely from within. As it comes near I always feel wrapped in a state of enchantment in which all the business of the world seems unreal and useless. It is connected to me with so many exquisite thoughts and legends that I am sure no Christian (in the conventional sense of the term, absurd as it is, as if every lover of beauty and goodness were not a follower of Christ, be his religion what it may) can regard the season with more love and veneration than I do, and I am still more certain that very few have exactly the same exquisite unreal delight in its association as I have. As ‘the time draws near the birth of Christ’ I find myself lying awake at night in a state of dreamy ecstatic peacefulness, and the most lovely and fantastic dream-pictures flash across my brain. Every thought and idea seems transmuted into some golden wonder, and my fancy wanders effortless over the hills and dales, the glades and meadows of an ethereal fairyland. Only one poet (but I am happy to say that one is the greatest God has blessed us with) seems to me to share exactly my love of Christmas. Shakespeare, in his Hamlet and one or two other plays, throws out little suggestive bits of priceless verse that embody to me the very essence and ideal of Christmas. I know of nothing so delicately pure and suggestive in relation to my beloved season as those fragmentary touches of his. That little bit in the beginning of Hamlet: ‘Some say that ever gainst that season comes … So hallowed and so gracious is the time’ seems to me unsurpassedly lovely. I wonder whether it strikes you in the same way. Whenever I think of it or read it I feel a thrill of strange pleasure as if no mortal man spoke (but then you know I am a strange fantastic animal, and you must not take all I say as gospel). I think, however, Shakespeare must have meant to refer only to the evil spirits as being condemned to quiescence during the Christmas Eve, for to me it appears as if the world would be more full of good spirits and fairies now than at any other time in the long year. I don’t suppose many people think as I do about Christmas, but as I said before, you are the only one who I think would ever understand the peculiar sanctity and beauty it has for me, much less join in it.

“Old Aunty Payne is going to the Pantomime. Fancy the dear old girl​—​age seventy-nine​—​with Harry beside her, beaming upon clown and pantaloon. I shall go, if merely to see the delight of these two children.”

In 1867, after serving his “five years’ articles,” Payne was “admitted a solicitor.”24

[12] Published 1841.

[13] He revelled in Landor’s Hellenics. For Payne’s poem on Landor “The Dead Master,” see Collected Poems, ii. 243.

[14] Browning was born in 1812.

[15] Everyman’s Library, vol. ii. pp. 276–509.

[16] See also his sonnet “Superstition,” Vigil and Vision, p. 102.

[17] That is they had dropped to her heels.

[18] Probably owing to a legacy from Mr. Rogers, who died as already stated in 1859.

[19] Ann Broadway, “Mrs. Broad” as they called her, who is still living at Weston-super-Mare.

[20] “He played beautifully,” said his sister Frances (Mrs. Byam). Later we used to sit up half the night to hear him.

[21] In Flower o’ the Thorn, p. 6, the cat is praised at the expense of “the duller dog.”

[22] See also his poem “The Ass,” Carol and Cadence, p. 70.

[23] The Letters to Miss Fisher (Mrs. Heriot) cover from 1866 to 1876. During that period Payne gave her six books of his poems in manuscript.

[24] Autobiography, p. 23.