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An autobiography, p.37
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       An Autobiography, p.37

           Agatha Christie
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  ‘The question is,’ said Archie, ‘whether old Yellowface will look kindly on the scheme.’

  I said hopefully that Archie must be very valuable to him. Archie thought he could probably be replaced with somebody just as good–heaps of people were milling about wanting jobs still. Anyway, ‘old Yellowface’ did not play. He said that he might re-employ Archie on his return–it would depend–but he certainly could not guarantee to keep the job open. That would be too much for Archie to ask. He would have to take the risk of finding his place filled. So we debated it.

  ‘It’s a risk,’ I said. ‘A terrible risk.’

  ‘Yes, it’s a risk. I realise we shall probably land up back in England without a penny, with a little over a hundred a year between us, and nothing else; that jobs will be hard to get–probably even harder than now. On the other hand, well–if you don’t take a risk you never get anywhere, do you?’

  ‘It’s rather up to you,’ Archie said. ‘What shall we do about Teddy?’ Teddy was our name for Rosalind at that time–I think because we had once called her in fun The Tadpole.

  ‘Punkie’–the name we all used for Madge now–would take Teddy. Or mother–they would be delighted. And she’s got Nurse. Yes–yes–that part of it is all right. It’s the only chance we shall ever have, I said wistfully.

  We thought about it, and thought about it.

  ‘Of course -you could go,’ I said, bracing myself to be unselfish, ‘and I stay behind.’

  I looked at him. He looked at me.

  ‘I’m not going to leave you behind,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t enjoy it if I did that. No, either you risk it and come too, or not–but it’s up to you, because you risk more than I do, really.’

  So again we sat and thought, and I adopted Archie’s point of view.

  ‘I think you’re right,’ I said. ‘It’s our chance. If we don’t do it we shall always be mad with ourselves. No, as you say, if you can’t take the risk of doing something you want, when the chance comes, life isn’t worth living.’

  We had never been people who played safe. We had persisted in marrying against all opposition, and now we were determined to see the world and risk what would happen on our return.

  Our home arrangements were not difficult. The Addison Mansions flat could be let advantageously, and that would pay Jessie’s wages. My mother and my sister were delighted to have Rosalind and Nurse. The only opposition of any kind came at the last moment, when we learnt that my brother Monty was coming home on leave from Africa, My sister was outraged that I was not going to stay in England for his visit.

  ‘Your only brother, coming back after being wounded in the war, and having been away for years, and you choose to go off round the world at that moment. I think it’s disgraceful. You ought to put your brother first.’

  ‘Well, I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘I ought to put my husband first. He is going on this trip and I’m going with him. Wives should go with their husbands.’

  ‘Monty’s your only brother, and it’s your only chance of seeing him, perhaps for years more.’

  She quite upset me in the end; but my mother was strongly on my side. ‘A wife’s duty is to go with her husband,’ she said. ‘A husband must come first, even before your children–and a brother is further away still. Remember, if you’re not with your husband, if you leave him too much, you’ll lose him. That’s specially true of a man like Archie.’

  ‘I’m sure that’s not so,’ I said indignantly. ‘Archie is the most faithful person in the world.’

  ‘You never know with any man,’ said my mother, speaking in a true Victorian spirit. ‘A wife ought to be with her husband–and if she isn’t, then he feels he has a right to forget her.’




  Going round the world was one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me. It was so exciting that I could not believe it was true. I kept repeating to myself, ‘I am going round the world.’ The highlight, of course, was the thought of our holiday in Honolulu. That I should go to a South Sea island was beyond my wildest dream. It is hard for anyone to realise how one felt then, only knowing what happens nowadays. Cruises, and tours abroad, are a matter of course. They are arranged reasonably cheaply, and almost anyone appears to be able to manage one in the end.

  When Archie and I had gone to stay in the Pyrenees, we had travelled second-class, sitting up all night. (Third class on foreign railways was considered to be much the same as steerage on a boat. Indeed, even in England, ladies travelling alone would never have travelled third class. Bugs, lice, and drunken men were the least to be expected if you did so, according to Grannie. Even ladies’ maids always travelled second.) We had walked from place to place in the Pyrenees and stayed at cheap hotels. We doubted afterwards whether we would be able to afford it the following year.

  Now there loomed before us a luxury tour indeed. Belcher, naturally, had arranged to do everything in first-class style. Nothing but the best was good enough for the British Empire Exhibition Mission. We were what would be termed nowadays V.I.P.s, one and all.

  Mr Bates, Belcher’s secretary, was a serious and credulous young man. He was an excellent secretary, but had the appearance of a villain in a melodrama, with black hair, flashing eyes and an altogether sinister aspect.

  ‘Looks the complete thug, doesn’t he?’ said Belcher. ‘You’d say he was going to cut your throat any moment. Actually he is the most respectable fellow you have ever known.’

  Before we reached Cape Town we wondered how on earth Bates could stand being Belcher’s secretary. He was unceasingly bullied, made to work at any hour of the day or night Belcher felt like it, and developed films, took dictation, wrote and re-wrote the letters that Belcher altered the whole time. I presume he got a good salary–nothing else would have made it worth while, I am sure, especially since he had no particular love of travel. Indeed he was highly nervous in foreign parts–mainly about snakes, which he was convinced we would encounter in large quantities in every country we went to. They would be waiting particularly to attack him.

  Although we started out in such high spirits, my enjoyment at least was immediately cut short. The weather was atrocious. On board the Kildonan Castle everything seemed perfect until the sea took charge. The Bay of Biscay was at its worst. I lay in my cabin groaning with sea-sickness. For four days I was prostrate, unable to keep a thing down. In the end Archie got the ship’s doctor to have a look at me. I don’t think the doctor had ever taken sea-sickness seriously. He gave me something which ‘might quieten things down,’ he said, but as it came up as soon as it got inside my stomach it was unable to do me much good. I continued to groan and feel like death, and indeed look like death; for a woman in a cabin not far from mine, having caught a few glimpses of me through the open door, asked the stewardess with great interest: ‘Is the lady in the cabin opposite dead yet?’ I spoke seriously to Archie one evening. ‘When we get to Madeira,’ I said, ‘if I am still alive, I am going to get off this boat.’

  ‘Oh I expect you’ll feel better soon.’

  ‘No, I shall never feel better. I must get off this boat. I must get on dry land.’

  ‘You’ll still have to get back to England,’ he pointed out, ‘even if you did get off in Madeira.’

  ‘I needn’t,’ I said, ‘I could stay there. I could do some work there.’ ‘What work?’ asked Archie, disbelievingly.

  It was true that in those days employment for women was in short supply. Women were daughters to be supported, or wives to be supported, or widows to exist on what their husbands had left or their relations could provide. They could be companions to old ladies, or they could go as nursery governesses to children. However, I had an answer to that objection. ‘I could be a parlour-maid,’ I said. ‘I would quite like to be a parlour-maid.’

  Parlour-maids were always needed, especially if they were tall. A tall parlour-maid never had any difficulty in finding a job–read that delightful
book of Margery Sharp’s, Cluny Brown–and I was quite sure that I was well enough qualified. I knew what wine glasses to put on the table. I could open and shut the front door. I could clean the silver–we always cleaned our own silver photograph frames and bric-a-brac at home–and I could wait at table reasonably well. ‘Yes,’ I said faintly, ‘I could be a parlour-maid.’

  ‘Well, we’ll see,’ said Archie, ‘when we get to Madeira.’

  However, by the time we arrived I was so weak that I couldn’t even contemplate getting off the bed. In fact I now felt that the only solution was to remain on the boat and die within the next day or two. After the boat had been in Madeira about five or six hours, however, I suddenly felt a good deal better. The next morning out from Madeira dawned bright and sunny, and the sea was calm. I wondered, as one does with sea-sickness, what on earth I had been making such a fuss about. After all, there was nothing the matter with me really; I had just been sea-sick.

  There is no gap in the world as complete as that between one who is sea-sick and one who is not. Neither can understand the state of the other. I was never really to get my sea-legs. Everyone always assured me that after you got through the first few days you were all right. It was not true. Whenever it was rough again I felt ill, particularly if the boat pitched–but since on our cruise it was mostly fair weather, I had a happy time.

  My memories of Cape Town are more vivid than of other places; I suppose because it was the first real port we came to, and it was all so new and strange. The Kaffirs, Table Mountain with its queer flat shape, the sunshine, the delicious peaches, the bathing–it was all wonderful. I have never been back there–really I cannot think why. I loved it so much. We stayed at one of the best hotels, where Belcher made himself felt from the beginning. He was infuriated with the fruit served for breakfast, which was hard and unripe. ‘What do you call these?’ he roared. ‘Peaches? You could bounce them and they wouldn’t come to any harm.’ He suited his action to the word, and bounced about five unripe peaches. ‘You see?’ he said. ‘They don’t squash. They ought to squash if they were ripe.’

  It was then that I got my inkling that travelling with Belcher might not be as pleasant as it had seemed in prospect at our dinner-table in the flat a month before.

  This is no travel book–only a dwelling back on those memories that stand out in my mind; times that have mattered to me, places and incidents that have enchanted me. South Africa meant a lot to me. From Cape Town the party divided. Archie, Mrs Hyam, and Sylvia went to Port Elizabeth, and were to rejoin us in Rhodesia. Belcher, Mr Hyam and I went to the diamond mines at Kimberley, on through the Matopos, to rejoin the others at Salisbury. My memory brings back to me hot dusty days in the train going north through the Karroo, being ceaselessly thirsty, and having iced lemonades. I remember a long straight line of railway in Bechuanaland. Vague thoughts come back of Belcher bullying Bates and arguing with Hyam. The Matopos I found exciting, with their great boulders piled up as though a giant had thrown them there.

  At Salisbury we had a pleasant time among happy English people, and from there Archie and I went on a quick trip to the Victoria Falls. I am glad I have never been back, so that my first memory of them remains unaffected. Great trees, soft mists of rain, its rainbow colouring, wandering through the forest with Archie, and every now and then the rainbow mist parting to show you for one tantalising second the Falls in all their glory pouring down. Yes, I put that as one of my seven wonders of the world.

  We went to Livingstone and saw the crocodiles swimming about, and the hippopotami. From the train journey I brought back carved wooden animals, held up at various stations by little native boys, asking three-pence or sixpence for them. They were delightful. I still have several of them, carved in soft wood and marked, I suppose, with a hot poker: elands, giraffes, hippopotami, zebras–simple, crude, and with a great charm and grace of their own.

  We went to Johannesburg, of which I have no memory at all; to Pretoria, of which I remember the golden stone of the Union Buildings; then on to Durban, which was a disappointment because one had to bathe in an enclosure, netted off from the open sea. The thing I enjoyed most, I suppose, in Cape Province, was the bathing. Whenever we could steal time off–or rather when Archie could–we took the train and went to Muizenberg, got our surf boards, and went out surfing together.

  The surf boards in South Africa were made of light, thin wood, easy to carry, and one soon got the knack of coming in on the waves. It was occasionally painful as you took a nose dive down into the sand, but on the whole it was easy sport and great fun. We had picnics there, sitting in the sand dunes. I remember the beautiful flowers, especially, I think, at the Bishop’s house or Palace, where we must have been to a party. There was a red garden, and also a blue garden with tall blue flowers. The blue garden was particularly lovely with its background of plumbago.

  Finances went well in South Africa, which cheered us up. We were the guests of the Government in practically every hotel, and we had free travel on the railways–so only our personal trip to the Victoria Falls involved us in serious expenses.

  From South Africa we set sail for Australia. It was a long, rather grey voyage. It was a mystery to me why, as the Captain explained, the shortest way to Australia was to go down towards the Pole and up again. He drew diagrams which eventually convinced me, but it is difficult to remember that the earth is round and has flat poles. It is a geographical fact, but not one that you appreciate the point of in real life. There was not much sunshine, but it was a fairly calm and pleasant voyage.

  It always seems to me odd that countries are never described to you in terms which you recognise when you get there. My own sketchy ideas of Australia comprised kangaroos in large quantities, and a great deal of waste desert. What startled me principally, as we came into Melbourne, was the extraordinary aspect of the trees, and the difference Australian gum trees make to a landscape. Trees are always the first things I seem to notice about places, or else the shape of hills. In England one becomes used to trees having dark trunks and light leafy branches; the reverse in Australia was quite astonishing. Silvery white-barks everywhere, and the darker leaves, made it like seeing the negative of a photograph. It reversed the whole look of the landscape. The other thing that was exciting was the macaws: blue and red and green, flying through the air in great clustering swarms. Their colouring was wonderful: like flying jewels.

  We were at Melbourne for a short time, and took various trips from there. I remember one trip particularly because of the gigantic tree ferns. This sort of tropical jungle foliage was the last thing I expected in Australia. It was lovely, and most exciting. The food was not as pleasing. Except for the hotel in Melbourne, where it was very good, we seemed always to be eating incredibly tough beef or turkey. The sanitary arrangements, too, were slightly embarrassing to one of Victorian upbringing. The ladies of the party were politely ushered into a room where two chamber pots sat in isolation in the middle of the floor, ready for use as desired. There was no privacy, and it was quite difficult…

  A social gaffe that I committed in Australia, and once again in New Zealand, arose in taking my place at table. The Mission was usually entertained by the Mayor or the Chamber of Commerce in the various places we visited, and the first time this happened, I went, in all innocence, to sit by the Mayor or some other dignitary. An acid-looking elderly female then said to me: ‘I think, Mrs Christie, you will prefer to sit by your husband.’ Rather shame-faced, I hurried round to take my place by Archie’s side. The proper arrangements at these luncheons was that every wife sat by her husband. I forgot this once again in New Zealand, but after that I knew my place and went to it.

  We stayed in New South Wales at a station called, I think, Yanga, where I remember a great lake with black swans sailing on it. It was a lovely picture. Here, while Belcher and Archie were busy putting forth the claims of the British Empire, migration within the Empire, the importance of trade within the Empire, and so on and so forth, I was allowe
d to spend a happy day sitting in the orange groves. I had a nice long deck-chair, there was delicious sunshine, and as far as I remember I ate twenty-three oranges–carefully selecting the very best from the trees round me. Ripe oranges plucked straight from the trees, are the most delicious things you can imagine. I made a lot of discoveries about fruit. Pineapples, for instance, I had always thought of as hanging down gracefully from a tree. I was so astonished to find that an enormous field I had taken to be full of cabbages was in fact of pineapples. It was in a way rather a disappointment. It seemed such a prosaic way of growing such a luscious fruit.

  Part of our journey was by train, but a good deal of it by car. Driving through those enormous stretches of flat pasture land, with nothing to break the horizon except periodic windmills, I realised how frightening it could be: how easy to get lost–‘bushed’, as the saying was. The sun was so high over your head that you had no idea of north, south, east or west. There were no landmarks to guide you. I had never imagined a green grassy desert–I had always thought of deserts as a sandy waste–but there seem to be far more landmarks and protuberances by which you can find your way in desert country than there are in the flat grass-lands of Australia.

  We went to Sydney, where we had a gay time, but having heard of Sydney and Rio de Janeiro as having the two most beautiful harbours in the world, I found it disappointing. I had expected too much of it, I suppose. Luckily I have never been to Rio, so I can still make a fancy picture of that in my mind’s eye.

  It was in Sydney that we first came in contact with the Bell family. Whenever I think of Australia I think of the Bells. A young woman, somewhat older than I was, approached me one evening in the hotel in Sydney, introduced herself as Una Bell, and said that we were all coming to stay at their station in Queensland at the end of the following week. As Archie and Belcher had a round of rather dull townships to go to first, it was arranged I should accompany her back to the Bell station at Couchin Couchin and await their arrival there.

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